Casablanca, Hill of Beans

28 Feb

Books: Here’s looking at ‘Casablanca,’ with author Leslie Epstein

By Tom MeekFor The Patriot

This Monday, Leslie Epstein the longtime Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, debuts his latest work of fiction, “Hill of Beans: A Novel of War and Celluloid,” which like several of Epstein’s books weaves history and real life characters seamlessly into the fabric of fiction with a typical tight focus on the evils of the Holocaust and its repercussions across time. 

Epstein’s release party will be a free and virtual affair put on by the Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. Monday. The conversation will be hosted by writer/film critic A.S. Hamrah.

At the epicenter of “Hill of Beans” is Jack Warner — yes, one of THE Warner Brothers — and his epic struggle to get the film “Casablanca” made and exhibited to the world in a strategically timely and specific fashion. As the teaser tags it, “He has an impossible goal: to make the 1942 invasion of North Africa by British and American forces coincide with the film’s release.” That 1942 Warners classic about WWII refugees stranded in Morocco starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and peppered with massively quotable lines — and an eternal Valentine’s Day offering at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square — was written by Epstein’s father, Phillip and his uncle Julius (along with Howard Koch, adapting Murray Burnett’s stage play). The brothers Epstein (twins mind you and an important plot point later in the book) factor into Epstein’s novel that both celebrates and digs into the not so pretty underbelly of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Told from multiple points of views, the book has a bit of Rothian swagger to it, as well as devious wit, deft humor and hard truths; Hitler, Stalin and Goebbels all get to express themselves in their own voices.

That’s a pretty unholy trio of historically reviled icons.  Churchill and Patton join the mix as does the infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and many of Hollywood’s top personalities — Bugs Bunny included. No matter, Epstein hangs it all on his protagonist who he sees as a complicated man and potential stumbling block for readers,  “He was a  swaggering  male misogynist  and a racist, an all too typical figure of Hollywood and America of the 1930s and 40s, which may be a problem for the book, but he has so much exuberance and confidence and so much skill, I just fell in love with him.”

Some of Warner’s infamous “bad jokes” that also make it in the book include casually remarking “I forgot to  pick up my laundry,” when introduced to Madame Chiang Kai Shek and telling Einstein, “I have my own theory of relativity. Never hire them [relatives].” Epstein chuckles a bit and adds, “Jack would rather make a bad joke than a good movie,” but also points out that it was also the culture of the time and that Warner was a man of conviction and vision, “He pulled his people out of Berlin in 1934 and he made “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”.”  That 1939 film staring Edward G. Robinson that was a direct poke at Germany, which at the time was being diligent to not involve the U.S. in its global conquest. Goebbels wouldn’t let the film be shown in Germany and allegedly spies tried to plant bombs in Warner’s yard.

Robinson, who was Jewish, had changed his name, as did John Garfield (Jacob Julius Garfinkle) to whom Warner once said, “They’re going to find out your Jewish, better late than never,” and also told the Epstein brothers that it might be beneficial if they changed their names too.

In one of the more comical chapters aptly subtitled “Sucker Punch,” where a war bond fund-raising effort takes place on a backlot, the Epstein brothers, who were both on the Penn State boxing team, fight a (much bigger) former boxing champ known as the Terrible Turk (Abdul Maljan) and every time one twin goes down the other jumps in just as the Turk thinks he’s won. Boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom referees the fight, Harpo Marx does what he does with a horse shoe, Bugs Bunny is there while Jack Benny plays violin.

The Epstein twins are minor players in the book, the Turk, who is also Warner’s assistant,  is one of the six or so major voices that Epstein infects. Epstein who understandably looks fondly upon his elders, had included them before in his 1997 book “Pandemonium” about a big Hollywood production in a small town. He calls that book “a warm up.” Epstein’s father died when he was 14 (Phillip was 42, cancer) and Julius stepped in as a father figure during those impressionable treen years. “Hill of Beans” is dedicated to Phillip.

One of the challenges in penning the book was voice, as it’s ever shifting characters and points of view. “I tell my students, voice is everything,” Epstein says. Of his influences are Phillip Roth (“admire the ease and acerbity of his voice”), J. D. Salinger (“a voice at ease with a big heart”) and the Russian greats. Of Salinger Epstein wryly points out, “He only allowed one movie to be made from his books and that was “My Foolish Heart” [an adaptation of “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”] that my father and uncle did and he [Salinger] thought it was so horrible he didn’t want anyone do anything after that. So that was the Epstein contribution to film and literature to prevent anyone from making “The Cather in the Rye” into a movie. Also,” Epstein add, “Jayce Maynard was a student of mine and she wrote a book about her time with Salinger, called “At Home in the World” and my daughter Anya acquired the rights to it and has been working on a script. So you see Salinger and my family continue to circle each other.” (Maynard was a paramour of Salinger and is best know for her fictionalization of the Pam Smart murder that was turned into the 1995 film “To Die For” directed by Gus Van Sant and staring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillion and Joaquin Phoenix).Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

The other challenge in penning “Hill of Beans” was keeping the language clean and 2021 consumable. Patton especially. “I think is absurd,” Epstein said of the far reaches of cancel culture.

“In San Francisco, they’re taking down the names of all the high schools with Lincoln and Washington and Feinstein. It’s insane because even the best people did some bad. Cancel culture is the result of a lack of a historical imagination. Kafka once said that WWI was caused by a failure of imagination.That’s what I’m trying to do in my book is to give people a sense of historical imagination. What people and things were really like in that time, Yes it’s a comedy and it’s a tragedy. That’s the mixed nature of people and history,” he said.

When asked if Trump’s presidency had an impact on the book, Epstein replies, jokingly: “How dare you say Trump is like Hitler,” and then more soberly “but I can say that as I’ve spent a long time studying fascism. It’s too easy to see how decent human beings —because we’re no different than the Germans — can  slide into autocracy and dictatorship. You begin with a demagogue and you end with a dictator. They’re not going to convict Trump [they didn’t]. Had he been reelected, he would have never left, he would have had all the tools in another four years, the courts would be his, congress would be his, the press is just animated people. So you ask about the book and the relationship to that. The book deals with the struggle for democracy against autocracy and fascism and what role art, in this case film, plays in that.”

Beside his famous father and uncle, Epstein’s son Theo has a bit of notoriety here, namely as the general manager of the Red Sox who broke the Curse of the Bambino back in 2004 and did the same for the Chicago Cubs 12 years later. Of his sons and family overall Epstein says with jovial self deprecation, “Theo has entertained countless lives, Paul [a social worker] has saved numerous lives, my daughter Anya is a TV writer, my father and uncle wrote “Casablanca,” so who am I? I am the only sandwich in the world where the meat is on the outside.”

Epstein, who is still sharp and quick in his early 80s, has not lost anything off his fastball, either. He has an evolving collection of short stories titled, “Mr. Barbershop,” about a child prodigy pianist who escaped the Holocaust and gives piano lessons in Cambridge and teaches in the Boston Public School system that he’d like to turn into a book. The protagonist as one can imagine is of a certain age and Epstein sharing a developmental detail,  says becomes unemployed due to cancel culture. He’s also embarking on a new novel, but he won’t reveal much about it other than it’s set in Europe and that the Holocaust is part of it.

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