Noted author and longtime director of the creative writing program at Boston University, Leslie Epstein, has written a new novel, “Hill of Beans,” inspired by the creation of the film “Casablanca.” The title of the novel, movie buffs may recall, is taken from one of Humphrey Bogart’s famous lines in the 1942 classic.
Produced by Warner Brothers, “Casablanca” was coauthored by Epstein’s father, Philip Epstein, and Philip’s identical twin brother, Julius Epstein, along with Howard Koch – all three of whom received Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Epstein brothers became a remarkably successful screenwriting duo, authoring scripts for “The Man Who Came To Dinner” the same year, and for “Arsenic and Old Lace” two years later.
The brothers were close, personally as well as professionally. Tragically, Philip died in his early 40s of cancer in 1952 when Leslie was 13. But his Uncle Julius went on to live into his 90s, becoming a surrogate father for Leslie.
Leslie Epstein graduated from Yale in the 1950s, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar afterward, and returned to the States to study theatrical writing, but eventually turned to fiction. His celebrated “King of the Jews” (1979), a Holocaust novel, is a treatment of the historic figure Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat (Jewish councils responsible for selecting Jews to go to concentration camps) in the Łódź ghetto in Poland during the Second World War.
An autobiographical novel about being reared in Hollywood in the ‘40s, “San Remo Drive” (2003), took its inspiration from Epstein’s colorful early years with his successful and, in many ways, hilariously incorrigible father and uncle. Apparently, Jack Warner, the notoriously dictatorial head of Warner Brothers, could not stand the Epsteins’ idiosyncratic habits but they were so good at what they did he grudgingly accommodated them.
“They were the only people on earth who could mock Jack Warner and get away with it,” Leslie Epstein said during an interview with the Journal.
Readily acknowledging Warner’s despicable qualities, Epstein, nonetheless said “he fell in love” with Warner’s “outrageous” character as a dramatic vehicle for his novel. In a brief prefix, Epstein identifies “one man who responded” to the desperation of “an imprisoned Europe with hope turned towards America,” and confirmed in conversation that the man he had in mind was Jack Warner. The crusty producer wanted to make audiences pay attention to what was going on in Europe by showcasing the tale of refugees stranded in Morocco.
This sense of the utterly serious and the humorously ironic, so present in the writing of Leslie Epstein’s father and uncle, carry through into his own writing as well. Subtitled “A Novel of War and Celluloid,” “Hill of Beans” is filled not only with imaginatively rich accounts of the political history of the era, but it overflows with fascinating film sagas. At once it takes on the major players of World War II and the machinations in Hollywood around the creation of “Casablanca.”
Written almost completely as a series of first-person accounts, the many characters in “Hill of Beans” range from Warner and his picturesque masseur – and, as Epstein notes, “Warner’s only real friend” – to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and Russian autocrat Joseph Stalin.
The book is filled with Jewish characters in Hollywood, including, among many, Warner, the Epstein brothers, and even Hedy Lamarr.
Jumping from character to character and voice to voice, in different time frames, the book is a bit of a collage, but comes together convincingly as an ironic treatment of a world at war and of the emergence of a great Hollywood film of the era.
It is well known that though “Casablanca” was produced and written by Jews and is about Europe during World War II, the word “Jew” never comes up in the film. A refugee couple, without any mention of their ethnicity other than as Bulgarians, is featured as the only indirect reference. Epstein notes that, during the 1940s until the end of the war, no Hollywood film mentioned the word “Jew” except for one, “Mr. Skeffington” (1944), written and produced by Philip and Julius Epstein.
Leslie Epstein will discuss “Hill of Beans” on March 1 at 7 p.m. in a live interview online. For free tickets, visit brooklinebooksmith.com.