Moonlight and Magnolias
Nazis and the movies have proven a popular combination on local stages recently. The Blue Light dealt with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda documentaries. Charlie Chaplin Goes to War concerned the Little Tramp’s anti-Nazi comedy, The Great Dictator. And this week brought us Mel Brooks’ The Producers, based on his movie about a Broadway musical called Springtime for Hitler.
Joining the throng is Moonlight & Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson’s farcical comedy about how the movie Gone with the Wind got written. Four of Vancouver’s best comic actors do their best with Moonlight & Magnolias’ moribund script. But even when they generate big laughs it feels more like a good night at TheatreSports than a real play.
It’s 1939. Hollywood producer David O. Selznick (Jay Brazeau) has halted filming on the epic Gone with the Wind and fired his writer and director. Desperate for a hit, he leaves Vivien Leigh steaming on the set, avoids phone calls from his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer, and brings in script doctor Ben Hecht (Richard Newman) to write a new screenplay—in a week.
But Hecht hasn’t read the novel. So Selznick and Victor Fleming (Stephen E. Miller), pulled off The Wizard of Oz to direct, will act it out for him scene by scene while Hecht types. Locked into Selznick’s office and fed only peanuts and bananas by his secretary (Dawn Petten), the three men become increasingly irritable and exhausted as things degenerate into what is supposed to be comic chaos.
The pleasures of John Cooper’s production come mainly from the play-acting: Brazeau’s hefty Selznick tip-toeing daintily around the stage as Scarlett O’Hara; Miller’s manly Fleming as Southern belle Melanie in labour. Newman’s blasé Hecht gets off some witty barbs at overwrought Selznick. And a few comic sparks fly between Fleming and Hecht, who hate each other.
But mostly, writer and director kvetch about why they don’t want to do it, the producer goes on about why they have to, and all go over the same ground again in act two. Increasingly, the characters seem like cartoons. At one point they throw peanuts at each other.
And the Nazis? Among other reasons, Hecht objects to the project because it glorifies anti-Black sentiment, slave-owning, and the Klan at a time when the Nazis are ascendant. He challenges Selznick, a Jew like himself: “Don’t you have a responsibility to deal with the race question?”
Hecht’s attempts to raise the stakes fail and so do Hutchinson’s. Selznick wants only to make a successful movie, and he did, ignoring the race question. Hutchison wants to write a witty comedy with a serious political subtext but he bungled both. And it’s too late to bring in the script doctor.