Was Gone With the Wind the biggest flop ever? No, I’m not talking about Trevor Nunn’s musical, but rather the epic 1939 Hollywood screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. It seems an incredible question to pose about the highest-grossing film in Hollywood history, an eight-time Oscar winner, but when producer David O Selznick shut down production three weeks into filming, epic failure seemed all but guaranteed.
Ron Hutchinson’s comedy is set over five days in Selznick’s office where the desperate producer has locked himself in with director Victor Fleming and journalist-turned-screenwriter Ben Hecht (who also wrote the stage play The Front Page) to churn out a new, workable script. Close quarters, sleep deprivation, food rations (banana and peanut “brain food” excepted) and fragile egos – not to mention studio boss (and Selznick’s father-in-law) Louis B Mayer on constant phone hold - add to the pressure for the men and Selznick’s super-efficient secretary.
Hutchinson, who has himself served time in various film studios, paints an authentic behind-the-scenes picture of the Hollywood Golden Age here and, more particularly, the driving force behind it. In a programme note, he explains that with Moonlight and Magnolias he “wanted to write a tribute to the person who’s most often vilified, the producer”. He certainly achieves that with his engaging portrait of David O Selznick, thanks in no small part to Andy Nyman, reprising his sublimely feverish performance.
Also happily returning to the cast for this return season at the Tricycle is Steven Pacey, who, as Victor Fleming, has great fun play-acting the novel’s key scenes with Nyman (his Prissy is priceless). Pacey and Nyman are newly joined by Rebecca Calder as the put-upon Miss Poppenghul and, adding gravitas during more serious debates concerning artistic and social responsibility, Nicholas Woodeson as Hecht. All four seem to be having a ball – and you can’t help but have a ball with them.
”Every ticket is a vote,” declares Selznick when explaining who holds the real power in Hollywood: the audience. The same, of course, applies to theatre. I’d encourage you all to cast your votes at the Tricycle box office soon, just in case the hoped-for – and well-deserved – West End transfer fails to materialise.
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from October 2007 and this production’s original run at the Tricycle Theatre.
As the play opens, producer David O Selznick has taken director George Cukor off the movie after three weeks’ filming and needs a new script. While Vivien Leigh’s calls are held at bay, he imprisons journalist Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming (summarily removed from The Wizard of Oz) in his office for five days on a diet of peanuts and bananas.
Andy Nyman, playing Selznick, son-in-law of Louis B Mayer, has the figure of Pooh Bear and the frenetic energy of Tigger. Fleming and Selznick act out familiar scenes (including the birth of Melanie’s baby), while Hecht, who hasn’t read the book, types up their dialogue. A script emerges, pronounced an obvious turkey by both writer and director.
All this is very funny indeed under Sean Holmes’ speedy direction, played out in Frances O\'Connor’s glamorous Thirties office, with the studio lot just visible through the window. Elegant secretary Miss Poppenghul (Josephine Butler) loses her gloss under the pressure of staying on duty as peanut-provider. Lanky Steven Pacey makes the most of Fleming’s female role-playing and Duncan Bell introduces Hutchinson’s serious themes without skewing the comedy.
For serious themes there are. Gone with the Wind was released in December 1939, a few months after the outbreak of the Second World War when Hollywood was run by Jewish emigres, some of whom had recently escaped European Fascism. Hecht (historically a Zionist campaigner) is outraged that Selznick is happy to put commercial considerations above concern for an oppressed minority in the treatment of the slave characters. And this in turn raises questions about the nature of creativity, about whether democracy of taste is at odds with quality. But these ideas seem too heavy for the fabric that contains them, while the characters seem to be there to give pleasure rather than either as detailed portraits or purveyors of points of view.
Enjoy the fun: it’s there in generous helpings. If you go home thinking philosophical thoughts as you chuckle, that will be a bonus.