August 22, 1909, is the birthdate of Julius and Philip Epstein, identical twins who became a highly successful screenwriting team, winning an Oscar (shared with Howard Koch) for their script for “Casablanca” (1943), and writing the groundbreaking “Mr. Skeffington” (1944), which, though now long forgotten, may have been the first Hollywood movie to deal directly with anti-Semitism – in its case, as expressed by a wife, Bette Davis, toward her husband, played by Claude Rains.
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When Philip died of cancer at age 42, Julius was left not only without a writing partner but also had lost his best friend and alter ego. Nonetheless, he continued writing movies, with considerable success, until age 75. He also helped raise his brother’s two teenage children, one of whom is Leslie Epstein, the novelist and writing professor (and father of baseball executive Theo Epstein).
Summons to Hollywood
Julius and Philip Epstein were born in New York, and grew up on the Lower East Side, where their Russian-born father, Henry, owned a livery stable, and their mother, Sarah, was a homemaker. The family lived comfortably, although the boys were expected to shovel horse manure in the stable on a daily basis.
The twins both attended Erasmus Hall High School, in Brooklyn, where Julius served as editor in chief of the school paper. That was followed by Pennsylvania State College (later University), where both of them were champion boxers, Julius as a bantamweight champion and Philip a lightweight.
After graduation, in 1931, Julius actually fought three professional matches, and then began looking for work as a newspaper sportswriter. It was the height of the Depression, and he soon settled for advertising and publicity work.
In 1933, Julius was summoned urgently to Hollywood by two college friends. They had been hired to write a movie script, though it’s unclear why, since neither of them could write, and they asked Epstein to serve as their ghostwriter. The result was the 1934 film “Twenty Million Sweethearts,” and it was followed by several other ghostwriting assignments from one of the friends, Jerry Wald, until Warner Brothers hired Julius to write under his own name.
At that point, Wald hired Philip as his new ghostwriter. (Later, Julius would say that Budd Schulberg modeled the character Julian Blumberg, in “What Makes Sammy Run?” on him. It’s Blumberg whose screenplay is stolen by his friend the super-ambitious Sammy Glick, who was supposedly based on Jerry Wald.)
Everybody Comes to Rick's
The brothers began writing together regularly in 1939, and over the next 13 years, they turned out 18 screenplays. These included adaptations of the stage plays “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and, in 1943, a screenplay based on an unproduced drama called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”
That movie, “Casablanca” http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/this-day-in-jewish-history/.premium-1.628498, became one of the best-loved movies of all time, although Julius famously downplayed its merit, saying, “We weren't making art. We were making a living.”
Nonetheless, “Casablanca” was the source of some of cinema’s most-quoted lines, including the one uttered by the French police captain Claude Rains just after Humphrey Bogart’s character shoots the Nazi Major Strasser.
According to Julius Epstein, he and Philip, who were writing scenes just before they were shot, were stumped with how to end the film. As the end of production approached, they were driving down Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood, and came to a red light. "We looked at each other and shouted at the same time - I swear that to you, at the very same time - 'Round up the usual suspects!'" Once they thought of the line, they needed only to build the final scene around it.
In its obituary for Julius, who died on December 30, 2000, The Guardian noted that some of the Epstein family believed that Philip’s cancer was caused by overuse of liquid cortisone, which he was prescribed for a bad case of poison oak, contracted while he and Julius were in a forest scouting locations for the 1953 film “Forever Female.” He died on February 7, 1952.
Julius continued writing for another three decades, most notably the scripts for the 1961 “Fanny” and for “Pete and Tillie” (1972) and “Reuben, Reuben,” the latter two of which were based on novels by Peter de Vries, and both of which earned him Oscar nominations.