”Casablanca”’s cowriter leaves a great film legacy
Entertainment Weekly’s current issue is a special memorial edition, dedicated to the greats who passed away in the year 2000. Unfortunately (and as is to be expected for a project that closes the day after Christmas), we missed a few folks. One movie great who died during the last moments of last year was Julius Epstein. ”Julius who?” some of you may be saying. Well, if you don’t know his name, you certainly know his words. How about ”Here’s looking at you, kid” or ”Round up the usual suspects” or ”You played it for her, you can play it for me — I said, play it!”
Yep, Epstein’s the guy who wrote ”Casablanca.” Cowrote it, actually, with his identical twin brother Philip (who died in 1952). Now, what’s worth noting and celebrating here isn’t that the Epsteins wrote one of the few consummately perfect Hollywood films ever made — a movie in which acting, dialogue, score, pacing, EVERYTHING, jells to create an instantly archetypal experience — but that no one involved really knew what the hell they were doing until the film was in the can (and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar, incidentally). As such, the movie’s the single best argument for the studio system of the golden age.
The ”Casablanca” shoot was a notoriously on the fly, filmed in sequence because the Epsteins were cranking out pages of the script literally minutes before director Michael Curtiz filmed them. For instance, in the shot where Humphrey Bogart appears on the balcony at Rick’s and nods at the band to play ”La Marseillaise,” the actor had no idea what he was supposed to be nodding AT. The finale, in which Bogart sacrifices love for the greater good by putting Ingrid Bergman on that plane with boring old Nazi fighter Paul Henreid, was cooked up at the last minute, up to and including the ”beautiful friendship” fade out line.
So why does the film work? In addition to Bogart’s and Bergman’s sheer charisma, Curtiz’s unshowy direction, Max Steiner’s music, and a Bosch- like array of supporting characters, it’s because the Epsteins were pros, ace screenwriters who both knew the conventions and how to make them seem comfortably new. They usually were working on two or three or even four pictures in a row, and this one wasn’t any different than the rest. It’s just that the pieces fell together this time, and perfectly so.
That mastery of screenwriting — the easy, unforced rhythms of dialogue, the sturdy bones of story construction, the shorthand of characterization — is pretty much lost on modern Hollywood. Admittedly, the Epsteins were working in a purely commercial medium: They turned out such great work as ”Mr. Skeffington” (a subtle diatribe against anti- Semitism AND a great Bette Davis weepie) and the rosily nostalgic ”The Strawberry Blonde,” but could stumble when it came to more artful fare. Julius, for instance, took the J.D. Salinger story ”Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” and turned it into a 1949 Susan Hayward soaper called ”My Foolish Heart.” (It isn’t bad as movie melodramas go, but it sure ain’t Salinger — which may be why the author never again had anything to do with Hollywood.) On the other hand, Epstein had a late in the day Oscar nomination for his script for 1983’s delightful, and very smart, ”Reuben, Reuben.”
Since its release in 1942, ”Casablanca” has been remade time and time again, always under different titles. The magic is never there — and how could it be, when it was unplanned in the first place, the alchemical product of luck and skill? The latest retread is the Russell Crowe/ Meg Ryan film ”Proof of Life,” which proves only two things: Ryan is no Ingrid Bergman (not yet, anyway), and if the hero’s going to send his true love back to her husband, it helps if he’s trying to win World War II instead of working for an oil company. Can someone phone upstairs and see if Julius Epstein is still available for a rewrite?