Moonlight and Magnolias

Ron Hutchinson
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Production photo

Fiddle-de-de. So who’s the ultimate boss in the movie business? The producer? The director? The Writer?

And the answer is none of them.

The public, who pays the money to see films, they are the final arbitrators. They are the boss.

Moonlight and Magnolias is an excellent example of a Hollywood screwball comedy of the 1930s. The extraordinary thing is that it has been written in the 2000s and by Ron Hutchinson, best known to British theatregoers at least as the author of Rat in the Skull (1984), one of the best plays about the IRA.

Actually, it’s not so extraordinary. Hutchinson knows what he is talking about. For the last 25 year he has been working as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.

His amusing satire is based on fact.

Producer David O Selznick had bought the film rights of Margaret Mitchell’s much-loved, best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind, convinced the film version could be as significant as Birth of a Nation.

Clark Gable was always going to play Rhett Butler, but it took two years international search to find the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara.

Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer were among those who were considered.

There was great resentment in America when Selznick chose an English actress – Vivien Leigh

Hutchinson’s play opens when Selznick had just sacked director George Cukor three weeks into the shoot and taken director Victor Fleming off The Wizard of Oz to replace him.

Selznick, who had already been through seventeen screenwriters, including Scott Fitzgerald, approached Ben Hecht, author of The Front Page. The only trouble was that Hecht hasn’t read the book and he had only five days to spare.

Since there was no time to read 1,037 pages Selznick locked himself, Fleming and Hecht in his office and fed them all on a diet of peanuts and bananas, believing that normal everyday food would dull their creativity.

Selznick and Fleming acted out the whole story - including Melanie giving birth! – for the benefit of Hecht who bashed away at the typewriter.

Such was the stress, Fleming burst a blood vessel in his eye and Selznick went into a trance.

Hecht had a political agenda and cared about the black community in the South and wanted to tone down the racism. He also worried about the coming war in Europe and the attitude of Hollywood to the Jewish community.

There are good comic performances all round in Sean Holmes’ production.

Nicholas Woodeson is cast as Hecht. Steven Pacey, tall and lanky, is cast as Fleming, who accepted a flat fee and not the usual percentage, convinced the film was going to be a flop.

No film about the American Civil War had ever made money.

Gone with the Wind was a huge blockbuster on its release in 1939 and went on to win nine Oscars. It was a huge blockbuster all over again on its re-releases in 1948 and 1968.

There is a wonderfully energetic and hilarious performance by Andy Newman who plays Selznick and delivers the snappy dialogue at a terrific lick. Newman is equally convincing with the serious moments.

Moonlight and Magnolias deserves a longer life after its run at the Tricycle and, if there is any justice, it will transfer to the West End.

But what are the chances of justice for plays these days in this musical-driven, London-theatre world?

PS. Hecht wanted to change the last line, “Tomorrow is another day” but Selznick wouldn’t let him.
PPS. The censors in the Hays Code office wanted to cut the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” but they were persuaded to keep it in and merely fined Selznick $5000 dollars for the profanity.

Philip Fisher reviewed the original production at the Tricycle, with a different cast, in 2007.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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