Nearly three years after its publication, Gone With the Wind continued to grip the nation in a book craze exponentially larger than Harry Potter.
The year was 1939. Novelist Margaret Mitchell's Tara, Rhett, Ashley and Scarlett O'Hara already were part of American mythology. Not only had Mitchell's epic best-seller won the 1937 Pulitzer, but the Civil War romance was on the verge of becoming a blockbuster movie that would dwarf everything before it.
Everybody was talking about Gone with the Wind, from cab drivers in New York to actress-cum-Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and the shooting had begun. The spectacular burning of Atlanta had been preserved on celluloid. There was just one little problem: Three weeks into shooting, not a usable scrap of dialogue had been written.
Producer David O. Selznick, obsessed with his own vision of what the film should be, despised the script. He sprung decisively into action, stopped shooting and shut down his studio, sparking a firestorm of speculation while the production hemorrhaged money every day that screen heartthrob Clark Gable and the cameras sat idle. Selznick canned director George Cukor and yanked Victor Fleming off the MGM lot where he'd been filming another late-'30s blockbuster, The Wizard of Oz.
For the princely sum of $15,000, Selznick hired the so-called Shakespeare of '30s Hollywood, Ben Hecht, to rewrite Gone With the Wind's script — in one week. During that time, Selznick sequestered himself, Fleming and Hecht in a studio office, decreeing that they would all subsist on nothing but brain food: peanuts and bananas.
When the door closed on the three men, Selznick and Fleming discovered that they faced another obstacle they had never dreamed of: Hecht, it seemed, was the only literate person in America who had not read Gone With the Wind. He didn't know the story or the characters. So while the writer tapped away at his typewriter, Selznick and Fleming were forced to act out the entire saga for him. How do we know all of this? Because Hecht hilariously chronicled it in his 1954 autobiography, A Child of the Century. But his account didn't go into great detail.
Enter Charlotte playwrights Duke Ernsberger and Virginia Cate. A full seven decades after the fateful collaboration that brought Gone With the Wind to the screen and laid the foundation for Southern stereotypes to this day, Ernsberger and Cate have filled the gaps in Hecht's story, re-imagining what may have happened in Selznick's Hollywood office. The duo's Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell opens April 4 at Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square, put on by Nathan Rouse's Starving Artists Productions. The long-delayed Charlotte premiere of this comedy climaxes when the three Hollywood giants — stressed, sleep-deprived, and faced with a merciless deadline — literally go bananas.
THE STORY OF Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell is similarly convoluted. The four key men now working on the production are experiencing a fascinating set of comebacks, departures and eerie parallels to the action that took place behind those closed doors 73 years ago at Selznick International Pictures.
Let's start with Rouse and his Starving Artist Productions. The company was built on faith-based efforts, its most recent being a production of Brian Friel's The Faith Healer after five annual holiday presentations of The Birth: A Reflective Celebration of the Coming of Christ. Rouse is not just producing Margaret Mitchell — he's also playing the role of producer Selznick. The wildly driven Tinseltown mogul is a radical departure for Rouse, whose previous roles have been calmer and more centered.
Comedy is almost as much of a departure for James K. Flynn, who plays Gone With the Wind director Fleming. Flynn is best known for his stints on radio — he's the announcer for the Charlotte Hornets — and as an op-ed writer for the Charlotte Observer, although Flynn also has acted in The Faith Healer and The Birth, and took the lead role in Central Piedmont Community College's The Lion in Winter.
The current version of Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell represents something of a comeback for Flynn, who auditioned for a local production five years ago that didn't quite happen. What's more, it was Flynn who ardently urged Rouse to read the script and produce it.
More startling than Rouse or Flynn appearing in a lighthearted comedy featuring flying bananas is Matt Cosper directing one. Cosper hasn't been in Charlotte since he left in 2010, even as he was winning Creative Loafing's Theaterperson of the Year award for his exploits in acting, directing and playwriting.
Cosper's work with his own Machine Theatre, whether producing Ionesco or his own scripts, was resolutely absurdist, and the touring productions he directed for Children's Theatre — two of which featured Rouse — were in the highbrow stratosphere of Shakespearean tragedy. Coming back to the Queen City to rebuild his Machine, Cosper wanted to eat, so he sees directing Margaret Mitchell as a pathway to being seen by other local theater producers — in mainstream fare, for once — and becoming more marketable.
"I grew up with Mel Brooks and the Warner Bros. cartoons and some of those early Coen Brothers films," Cosper says. "That brand of wacky screwball comedy is actually a very important piece of my creative DNA, and I don't get to play in that mode very often."
Perhaps most amazing of all is Duke Ernsberger playing Hecht. Ernsberger has been gone from the local scene for more than four years, last appearing at ImaginOn in The Big Friendly Giant after hooking up, a season earlier, with both Rouse and Cosper for Children's Theatre's The Magician's Nephew. Years before that, Ernsberger and his wife Mary Lucy Bivins were fixtures at Charlotte Repertory Theatre, winning three Actor of the Year awards between them. Tuna Christmas, The Foreigner and Benedictions were among Ernsberger's signal triumphs at Rep.
Ah, but this is more than a comeback. For while Bivins was coping with the demise of Charlotte Rep by becoming a year-round actress and director at the state theater company of Virginia, Barter Theatre, Ernsberger was reinventing himself as a playwright with his 97-year-old mom, Cate. After Ernsberger and Cate wrote Margaret Mitchell, Bivins starred in the play's world premiere at Barter, as Selznick's private secretary Miss Peabody.
Ernsberger has never acted in any of his own plays before, but he can credibly claim to be channeling Hecht. Like Hecht when he was kidnapped from his gig at MGM to rewrite Gone With the Wind, Ernsberger had never read the book when he sat down with his mother to write Margaret Mitchell. To craft his comedy, Ernsberger had his mom read the novel to him just as Selznick and Fleming had done for Hecht. After all, not only had Cate read Gone with the Wind, she has vivid memories of the original Scarlett fever and of attending the Kansas City movie premiere — a white-tie-and-tails event with cocktails served at intermission.
As a cultural phenomenon, Gone with the Wind's elegant romance has lingered on as the "new way" to view the Civil War. In Don't Cry for Me, we brush up against Mitchell's vision as we watch Selznick and Hecht wrangling over how to portray the South (in general) and blacks (in particular) during their hectic collaboration. Slavery was not to be mentioned or shown, and the eradication of slavery was banished from the whole equation. The new "Lost Cause" concept held that the gentility and graciousness of the South were overrun by Yankee greed and capitalism. In Tennessee Williams' hands — or at least through Blanche DuBois' lips — the tragic defeat would become the heart of modernity.
While Cate and Ernsberger didn't finish their script in the same legendary seven days as Hecht and his crew did with Gone with the Wind, the mother-and-son team's writing of Margaret Mitchell did go more quickly than any of their previous scripts: about three months. Cate read new chapters of Gone With the Wind to her son every day to build the momentum. While catching the fever of Hecht's pace, Ernsberger and Cate occasionally stalled in their collaboration. It was during one such lull that the inspiration for the signature banana melee scene of Margaret Mitchell came to them — with a couple of nudges from Turner Classic Movies.
After reaching a dead end, the two agreed to take a break. Ernsberger cued a movie while Cate rustled up their supper. As fate would have it, TCM host Robert Osborne was introducing Gone With the Wind at the moment Ernsberger sat down in the den, so the writers watched the first half of the Selznick extravaganza over dinner, and then turned it off.
"We were sitting there," Ernsberger recalls, "and I was still burned out. And Mom said, 'You know what we need? We need a scene without dialogue. So far, this has just been dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It's all dialogue-driven. We need a scene that's just a scene, so that the audience can just sit there and watch it.'"
Ernsberger saw the sense in offering the audience a respite, but until he did something truly silly, he had no idea what Hecht, Selznick and Fleming could possibly do without dialogue. Mother and son were watching TCM again when Ernsberger, finding some dance he saw in a sound clip amusing, imitated it while clearing the dinner dishes.
"Mom started laughing!" Ernsberger exclaims, reliving their Eureka moment. "She said, 'You gotta do that funny little dance.' Imagine, these guys have been up for like four or five days without any sleep, eating bananas and peanuts. They lose it! They just lose it, all three of them just start to lose it. And that's where that scene evolved from."
IT'S THE SCENE that theater directors can't wait to get their hands on. By now, Cate and Ernsberger have seen about 25 different companies perform Margaret Mitchell with wildly different actors portraying the Hollywood titans — including a teen in nearby Albemarle and a trio of septuagenarians in a Florida senior company. Ernsberger comes into the current Starving Artist version with an encyclopedia of different ways to cast the show and to stage the key scenes. Yet the playwright is submitting dutifully to being directed in his own play, restraining himself enough to let the Charlotte version grow its own identity. Cosper praises Ernsberger's collegiality and professionalism, but he has also seen the mad hambone side of the actor — in a cast of hambones — coming out in rehearsals.
"All of them," Cosper observes, "they do feed on each other. It's like working with a gang of misfit children. They get in a room and they start egging each other on, and it's great. But at times, it does seem like the inmates are running the asylum with me and my stage manager cowering in the corner."
What everyone may be discovering — actors, audiences, directors, and the playwrights — is that breaking into a funny dance, pretending a pair of bananas are six-shooters or donkey ears, or becoming oblivious to rules and authority aren't merely offshoots of the creative process. They are the essence of that process.
Like Ernsberger, Cosper is seeing the wisdom of sometimes just getting out of the way and allowing Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell to naturally become what it's meant to be. Entering the final two weeks of rehearsal, Cosper seemed content to let the audience get the idea that a certain amount of insanity is essential to the creative process — without hitting viewers over the head with it.
"A lot of the work that I've done in the past has been more poetic or more stylized," Cosper says. "So it's actually fun to work on a piece where meaning emerges slowly through behavior and in a more subtle mode.
"It's strange to think of such a zany comedy as subtle, but I think it really is," he adds. "There's no one moment where we go, 'Ah, that's what it is! Oh, I get it!' Cumulatively, over the course of the evening, the experience does point toward what the creative process is."
That's a bunch to think about — and laugh about.