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The Brothers Who Co-Wrote ‘Casablanca’

Writers Julius and Philip Epstein are also forebears of baseball’s Theo Epstein

Adam Chandler
August 22, 2013
Julius and Philip Epstein.(LA Screenwriter)
Julius and Philip Epstein.(LA Screenwriter)

The Epstein Brothers, Julius and Philip, embody the rare instance in which the impact of the work of artists dominantly persists in cultural memory far beyond the end of their lives. That’s a fancy way of saying, the twins are widely credited, along with Howard Koch, with writing one of the best films of all time, Casablanca. Over 70 years later, the film still ranks at the top of countless lists, is taught in film schools, and the like. The Epsteins would have been 104 yesterday, Philip died young in 1953, but Julius kept working in the 1980s, garnering four Oscar nominations, and died in late 2000.

Julius Epstein once said that the ability to write dialogue is something a person is born with “like a good football player is born.” Evidence of the Epstein genetic prowess for the written word extends beyond the brothers to Philip’s son Leslie, who as Boris Fishman explained on Tablet in 2007, is a novelist and playwright of note (and controversy).

After all, Epstein’s first novel, King of the Jews, published in 1979, may have done more than any other to demonstrate that imaginative literature was equal to the task of Holocaust commemoration. The novel reinvents Chaim Rumkowski, controversial Judenrat chairman of the Lodz ghetto, as I.C. Trumpelman, a prosperous doctor with dubious ethics, who connives his way into the chairmanship after the Germans invade. As Jews freeze, starve, or disappear, Trumpelman gets around on a white stallion or in a limousine and issues currency emblazoned with his own image.

Looking back on Casablanca, a film seemingly slapped together in 1942, about World War II and Nazi malevolence, and released during World War II, the subtext of the project never fails to inspire a quiet awe. Also, as Marc Tracy pointed out, there were a stunning number of Jews involved in the production of the film.

Casablanca’s director, Michael Curtiz, was a Hungarian Jew who came to America from Vienna in the mid-twenties. Its three credited screenwriters are Julius and Philip Epstein (they were twins) and Howard Koch, who would later be blacklisted. Cinema historians hold Casablanca up as the ultimate realization of the studio system, in which films were cobbled together without (with few exceptions) an overwhelming artistic vision. (Casablanca’s famed script, for example, was a Frankenstein’s monster, based on a play [co-written by a Jew, Murray Bennett] and then rewritten and rewritten again, with scenes added even after filming had begun.) The studio system was, of course, almost entirely invented by Jews, among them Casablanca’s executive producer, Jack L. Warner, who founded one of the main studios with three of his brothers (guess what it’s called?).

Jewish actors are prominent in Casablanca. The catalyst of the story is the petty thief who steals the two letters of transit and hides them in Sam’s piano at Rick’s; he is played by the great Peter Lorre, born László Löwenstein in Hungary. Carl, Rick’s trusted head waiter, was played by S.Z. Sakall, also a Hungarian Jew who got out of Europe before the storm. Curt Bois, a source of comic relief as a pickpocket, was a German Jew who left in 1934. The croupier in Rick’s casino—yes, you may be shocked, shocked!, to find that gambling is going on in here—is played by Marcel Dalio, born Israel Moshe Blauschild. Even the German guy who plays Strasser, the chief Nazi, was married to a Jew!

If handiness with smart dialogue is a genetic trait, so may be athleticism:

In 1929, Julius was intercollegiate bantamweight boxing champion and captain of the Penn State boxing team, which won the national championship. Philip, always a few pounds heavier, was Penn State’s intramural lightweight champion.

Like writing, sports became a salient part of the family legacy. Theo Epstein, who amazingly enough also has a twin brother, is the grandson of Philip, the great-nephew of Julius, and currently the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs. His previous feat was serving as a general manager and an executive for the Boston Red Sox during their storied run in which they broke a World Series drought dating back to 1918, when Julius and Philip were nine.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.