No other film can have made such an impact as Gone with the Wind. The first feature film to come out wholly in glorious Technicolor with a star-studded cast headed by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind seemed to have everything, with its compelling love story played out against the epic struggle of the American Civil War. It has deservedly become a legend in the history of cinema and even today, there can be few of us who don't respond to its lush theme music or aren't familiar with the famous riposte: Frankly, my dear I don't give a damn!
Clearly a play exploring the creative process behind such an achievement could come up with some fascinating insights but would the material really hold our attention for a whole evening? Would those of us who had never seen the original film find disputes over the minutiae of the film's plotting and dialogue that enthralling? In short, would there really be more to it than the overly romantic if ironic title Moonlight and Magnolias suggested?
Such concerns were quickly dissipated by the hilarious opening as we witnessed the producer David O'Selznick's growing incredulity that Ben Hecht, the scriptwriter, hadn't been one of the million and a half Americans to have read Margaret Mitchell's best seller. Not only was our interest to be engaged by the cut and thrust of three larger-than-life characters with enormously inflated egos, but throughout the evening the pace of the action would carry us breathlessly forward as one absurdity succeeded another.
At the centre of the action, Ian Houghton brilliantly captured the panache and self-assurance of the Hollywood mogul at the zenith of his career, brooking no opposition to his wildest schemes, whose sheer effrontery won over his colleagues despite their better judgment. Ray Newton as the hapless put-upon scriptwriter was not only a foil to the mercurial Selznick but was convincing as a powerful exponent of the moral values he felt the others were ignoring at their peril.
A saturnine Chris Janes as a successful Hollywood producer eager to escape hordes of unruly Munchkins on the set of The Wizard of Oz was cynical and at times vitriolic, yet basically committed to giving his all to wrest success out of the jaws of threatening failure.
We also had a delightful cameo performance by Jackie Lawn as Miss Poppenguhl, Selznick's personal assistant, whose primly obsequious appearances were not only amusing of themselves but served to remind us of a world outside the confines of Selznick's studio and thus emphasize the bizarre nature of the goings on we were witnessing when Selznick forced the team to go into purdah for five days.
As the play developed Selznick's flamboyant reliving of the story in a variety of roles led us seamlessly into the device of Selznick and Fleming acting out critical scenes from the book and providing Hecht with the basis for a script. The combination of their ham acting and personal tensions ratcheted up by sleep deprivation and their severely limited diet of bananas and peanuts gave the play an increasingly surreal quality with some unforgettable moments such as the beautifully choreographed slapping sequence and the birth scene with Fleming as Melanie being told to push harder by Selznick as Scarlett O'Hara.
Yet beneath the slapstick there was always a more serious undertow and Paul Morton as director is to be congratulated on the firm control of the production which enabled a deeper exploration of character and attitude to emerge, particularly towards the latter stages.
This pacy production of a witty and well-crafted play certainly gave us a bundle of laughs but also something to think about as we made our way home secure in the knowledge that tomorrow is another day.
Cliff Greely directed a number of plays for COPs in the 1970s. He taught English and drama and public speaking at Richard Hale and Cheshunt School where he served as Deputy Head. Photographs by Steve Beeston.