I’d like to write a bit about my father, Philip G. Epstein, and my uncle, Julius J., and the feud that developed between them and their boss, Jack L. Warner—a feud that shines a certain light on larger conflicts in American culture. Julie got to Warner Bros. first. After giving up a career as a professional prizefighter (two wins and a draw: “I wanted to retire undefeated”), the bantamweight arrived in Hollywood in 1933 and set to work ghostwriting for Jerry Wald. Here’s how the arrangement worked. Wald would take a lunch break from a story conference and dash over to the bungalow in the Valley, where Julie sat churning out stories and scripts; then he would reappear at Warners, shouting, “I’ve got it!” This arrangement went on for 18 months but has in a sense lasted forever, because the relationship became the basis for Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run, with Wald as the title character and the former NCAA champ as the altogether-too-nerdish Julian. In the fall of 1934, when Julie was just 25, he sold one of his ideas, Living on Velvet, to Warners and began a series of collaborations at the studio that ended with an Academy Award nomination for his rewrite of Lenore Coffee’s Four Daughters.
Meanwhile, his identical-twin brother, Phil, had been writing comedies for RKO, Paramount, and Columbia. After collaborating on a successful Theater Guild play (And Stars Remain), “the boys,” as they soon became known throughout the industry, settled in together at Warners, where over the next decade they together wrote some 16 screenplays, including The Strawberry Blonde, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Arsenic and Old Lace, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and, of course, Casablanca.
Julie and Phil were not Jack Warner’s type: wise-cracking, fun-loving, late-sleeping—and Jews, to boot. It is no secret that from the 1930s on, and especially during World War II, the moguls who ran the studios practiced their own form of ethnic cleansing. Indeed, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day, the words “Jewish” or “Jew” appeared in only one domestic film, the twins’ own Mr. Skeffington, which they wrote and produced. (Claude Rains tells his daughter that it would be best for her to live with his estranged wife, “because I am Jewish.”) Even that single instance caused Jews of a certain stripe—for example, those who governed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League—to have fits, and Roosevelt’s own Office of War Information sent in an official complaint: “This portrayal on the screen of prejudice against the representative of an American minority group is extremely ill-advised.”
What Jack Warner and the other moguls knew was that the American Dream they were in the process of creating was not going to be a Jewish one. He had already confronted John Garfield before he got his big break in Four Daughters. “People are gonna find out you’re a Jew sooner or later,” he told the young actor, “but better later.” Now he approached Phil and Julie with the same suggestion. The boys, whose own father had changed his last name, Shablian, to that of the man standing in front of him at Ellis Island, politely demurred. Then they snuck into Jack’s office, stole a piece of stationery, and over the Warner Bros. logo wrote the following message to one of their pals from Penn State, the handsome Don Taylor, who had just arrived at the studio:
Dear Mr. Taylor,
All of us at Warner Bros. are looking forward to your great career as an actor and to a long and fruitful relationship with you under your new name of Hyman Rabinowitz.
Jack L. Warner
Their next prank involved another old pal, whom they dressed up in tweeds and pipe and presented to Jack as the famous British playwright “Sherwood Forest.” He drew a paycheck for six months before anyone realized he was just another fraternity brother from Penn State. Both Julie and Phil played important parts in helping to found the Screenwriters Guild and supported the union movement in general. After studio goons had attacked and wounded several strikers picketing the lot, it was Julie who announced that the Warners’ motto was being changed from COMBINING GOOD PICTURE-MAKING WITH GOOD CITIZENSHIP to COMBINING GOOD PICTURE-MAKING WITH GOOD MARKSMANSHIP.
What disturbed Jack most about these two writers was not so much that he and his studio became the victim of their pranks (for picture after picture, for instance, they gave poor Phil Regan such lines as, “Quick, get a doctor” or “Thank God you’re here, Doctor,” or “How is she, Doctor?”) but their work habits. Both twins would rise around a quarter to 12, and then Julie would drive over from his house in Bel Air to our place in the Palisades. Around 1:30 they’d retire behind the library door and settle down for maybe two hours’ work.
Periodically Warner would pull them into his office and start to shout: “Read your contract. It says you have to be on the lot by 9 in the morning. What makes you two different from everybody else? Butchers have to be in the butcher shop at 9. Clerks have to be behind their desks then, too. Even presidents of banks have to show up at 9.”
“You’re right, Jack,” answered one of the boys—it’s hard to know which, since these twins were as much alike as two eggs in a carton or peas in a pod. Then the other threw that day’s pages onto their employer’s desk. “Why don’t you tell a bank president to finish the script?”
Now and then Warner would persist, demanding that the writers show up at their offices by the stipulated hour and making sure that the studio cop noted their arrival. On one such occasion, they worked through the day cutting and pasting old pages of dialogue together and sent the resulting typescript over to Jack’s office. The next morning the mogul called them in and began to rant about how this was the worse scene he’d ever read in his life. “How is this possible?” asked the first twin, quite sweetly. Said the second, “It was written at 9.”
That was the last straw. “You boys are off the picture!” Warner roared. “I want back every cent I paid you.”
Julie said, “I’m sorry you feel that way, Jack, especially because I know that Phil has already spent his share on a new pool.”
“But if you’re in the Palisades,” Phil himself put in, “I hope you’ll feel free to drop in for a swim.”
The battle between the mogul and his minions was far from over. After the war, in those years during which anyone with a liberal cast of mind found himself in trouble, Julie and Phil discovered that Jack Warner had turned in their names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. “Those boys are always on the side of the underdog,” was the executive’s explanation, ignoring the fact that almost every person on his list was someone with whom he had had a contract dispute. In due course, the committee sent Julie and Phil an official questionnaire. It contained just two items. The first: Have you ever been a member of a subversive organization? The second: Name that organization.
To the former, the Epsteins answered: Yes. To the latter the reply was: Warner Bros.
They never heard from the committee again.
The boys left the Burbank studio at the end of the 1940s, though Julie would return from time to time. Phil died in 1952, and Jack Warner in 1978. (Julie took one look at the memorial portrait and said, “That’s just how he looked when he fired you.”) But the feud was far from over. It seemed to me, looking back on the career of the Epsteins in Hollywood, and on the more than 50 films they wrote, that they were to this great industry what the chorus is in a Greek tragedy, or what Shakespeare’s inspired fools are to the plainer ones who wield power from atop a throne. And so, in a novel about Hollywood, I cast them as the puncturers of pretensions, full of comic clear-sightedness, surrounded by ringing laughter.
Now and then, while doing research for Pandaemonium, I would consult my uncle about the Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s. One of my characters was based in part upon Max Reinhardt, who had made one picture, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for Warners. I’d read that after the shooting was completed, the studio gave a banquet that featured an elaborate printed brochure. I described to Julie how on the left cover there was an embossed golden medallion of William Shakespeare and on the right a similar medallion of Jack Warner.
“And neither one of them,” said Julie in a flash, “ever heard of the other.”
One last example, if I may, of how the past is never past. Everybody knows how the boys were having a hard time coming up with the ending to Casablanca. Should Rick get on that plane with Ilsa? Should she stay behind with him? Or could Victor Lazlo be eliminated by a bullet from Strasser’s gun? The true story is that while driving down Sunset Boulevard, the twins came to the red light at Beverly Glen (the City of Beverly Hills has yet to put a plaque on the spot); while they were waiting they turned to each other and with one voice cried out, “Round up the usual suspects!” I told Julie how, in re-creating that scene for the novel, I had placed it on the soundstage of Warners, with Warner himself standing nearby. “Fine,” said Julie. “Only, when everyone runs off to shoot the scene, have Jack stand there by himself saying, Huh? For what? Round them up for what?”
Julie had a stroke one year while flying back East to be the marshal of the Penn State homecoming parade. He then entered a long sleep, though occasionally he’d rouse himself, look around at the denizens of the Beverly Hills Rehabilitation Center, and mutter, “What a lively bunch!” He died in 2000. The feud, I suppose, was over, and while it underlined larger conflicts in our culture—from the union movement, McCarthyism, and the stance taken by the American worker toward his boss—what I remember is more personal: the voices coming through that closed library door. First there might be Julie’s, with rising inflection: yattita-yattita-yattita; next, the second voice, let’s make it Phil’s, would respond, yattita-yattita-YATTita! Then both would break out together, indistinguishably, in a crystal-shattering laugh. To a young boy, it seemed, this writing, to be an attractive way to live one’s life.
Read David Mikics’s Tablet magazine review of the new history of Casablanca here.
Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. His three Leib Goldkorn books were recently published as The Goldkorn Variations: A Trilorgy (no typo). His play King of the Jews runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 18 at the HERE Theater.