In December 1938, Hollywood producer David Selznick set up cameras and set fire to nearly every leftover set on the back lot of his studio, arranging the facades to make the whole scene look like an antebellum city. The sequence he shot on Dec. 10 would become one of the most dramatic in cinema history: the Burning of Atlanta in his Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind.
Fast forward two months and the producer’s epic was in peril. He’d fired his director, George Cukor. The script was a disaster. The entire venture was hemorrhaging money. The gossip rags began referring to the $4 million venture—unheard of in its time—as “Selznick’s Folly.”
So Selznick shut it all down.
This is where we meet the characters in Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias, opening Feb. 14 at the Evelyn R. Rubenstein Jewish Community Center.
Fighting for the survival of the movie, his studio and his very reputation, David Selznick holed himself up in his office with director Victor Fleming and script doctor Ben Hecht. Selznick stole Fleming from the set of The Wizard of Oz, and grabbed Hecht because he was known to be one of the best in the business. The ERJCC play, based on Hecht’s memoirs, is the story of the week the trio spent rewriting the script to a movie that would go on to win eight Oscars—including Best Adapted Screenplay, credited to Sidney Howard—and be hailed for generations as a classic.
“This play leapt out at us,” says Steve Garfinkel, who heads up the J’s theater program. “It’s just a madcap comedy about someone who’d never read the source material for the screenplay he’s asked to write, and having these other two guys act out the story for him as he types. It’s hilarious and fun.”
It’s also about much more, says Garfinkel. Moonlight and Magnolias explores the working of the old Hollywood studio system, as well as being about one of the most beloved—and lately, controversial—films of all time, which should appeal to movie buffs. But it’s also about the creative process and how art gets made.
“And then, it’s about how different people in the Jewish community see their Judaism in different ways,” Garfinkel continues. “Ben Hecht embraces his. In fact, throughout the play, one of the side plots is that he’s constantly trying to get Selznick to contribute to the Jewish relief efforts that would help Jews escape from the Nazi war machine in Europe.”
Garfinkel says it’s a coincidence that the J is doing the play in the year that marks Gone With the Wind’s 80th anniversary. But the play marks another milestone, too—this one in the J’s theater program. People of a certain age will recall that three decades ago, the J had a vibrant theater season. But 20 years ago, that program went on hiatus.
In 2015, the J called in Garfinkel, who worked with a committee to revive the theater offerings. They did so mostly by partnering with other arts organizations (Bad Jews with Stages Repertory Theatre and The Chosen with TheatreLab) and by bringing in productions from elsewhere (a reading of Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Uncle Phillip’s Coat, both of which came in from New York). Moonlight and Magnolias is the first homegrown production in the J’s theater season in nearly two decades.
“We’re doing it in our black box, which will offer a really intimate feel,” says Garfinkel, thinks the staging will make the audience feel like they’re in Selznick’s office with the three men, who are occasionally joined by Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul, the only character in the cast who wasn’t a real person (she’s an amalgamation of several Selznick secretaries throughout the years).
Garfinkel is proud of how far the theater program has come in the three years since its reboot, and thinks Moonlight and Magnolias has several themes audiences will relate to. And he likes that it is lighter fare compared to the two previous offerings this season (The Actual Dance and God of Vengence). He also likes that it’s based on true events.
“Selznick was really convinced that movies were on their way out,” he explains. “He thought the whole venture was going to fall apart, and he wanted to make one picture that would show how great movies could be. Fleming thought the movie business was healthier than ever. And we see so clearly now that Selznick was wrong—movies are still capable of brilliance. This is such a great love letter to movies and old Hollywood.”
Moonlight and Magnolias, Feb. 14–24. Tickets $30. Joe Frank Theatre, 5601 S Braeswood Blvd. 713-595-8197. More info and tickets at erjcchouston.org.