Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: University Park, Centre County
Penn State Alum, Epstein was a legendary Hollywood screenwriter. Of his many works, his screenplay for Casablanca (1943) won him an Academy Award.
Awards: Academy Award
Born in 1909, Julius Epstein worked as a drama, musical, and romance film screenwriter beginning at the height of the rigorous Hollywood contract system in the 1930s and 1940s. Along with three other Academy Award nominations, Epstein won an Oscar for Casablanca (1943), his most notable work. He wrote over 50 screenplays in as many years, though never achieving the same success again. A graduate of Penn State, Epstein was best known for witty dialogue in his scripts, and he is sometimes credited for championing greater writers’ independence from studio control. He passed away in 2000.
Born August 22, 1909, the son of a stable proprietor and housewife, Julius Epstein grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan along with his twin brother Philip. Julius attended Penn State College (now Penn State University), serving as captain of the boxing team and winning the intercollegiate bantamweight championship in 1929. Graduating in 1931 and holding various odd jobs after college, including one as a professional boxer, Epstein initially had aspirations to become a sports writer.
In 1933, Julius moved to Hollywood with his brother Philip, both working as screenwriters. He first composed B-movie musical pictures, soon entering into a contract with Warner Brothers in 1935. Frances Sage, his first wife, married him in 1936. Julius Epstein’s first Academy Award nomination, along with co-writer Lenore Coffee, came with Four Daughters in 1938, a romance film about four young women in a music household. The film was so successful that it sparked three sequels, including his first writing collaboration with his brother in 1939 on Daughters Courageous. No Time for Comedy in 1940, the first of Julius’s several Broadway adaptations to the big screen, firmly established the Epstein brothers in Hollywood as talented writers of snappy dialogue and memorable one-liners. Julius even contributed for the screenplay of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), his participation finally convincing actor James Cagney to sign on to the project.
Epstein’s greatest success came with Casablanca (1943), adapted from the Broadway flop Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Julius Epstein initially entered the project after agreeing to work with Frank Capra on his propaganda series Why We Fight, though Epstein would ultimately drop out of that endeavor. Casablanca concerns a politically-indifferent night club owner, Rick Blaine, who falls for his former lover escaping with her resistance leader husband escaping from the Nazis, only to surrender his emotions and protect the couple in their flight. According to Julius Epstein, the extremely tight and rapid schedule for developing the screenplay caused lead actress Ingrid Bergman to confront him about the ending of the film, an as yet ambiguous element of the script. Epstein informed her that production team would eventually let her know. The Epstein brothers would finally determine the finale, “round up the usual suspects,” as they were driving around Hollywood. For this screenwriting effort, despite mediocre reviews of the film and dozens of rewrites for the ending, Julius won an Oscar along with his brother and Howard Koch. Victor David of Comment declared on Casablanca’s 50-year anniversary that the film was, “The best bad movie ever made. The plot is ludicrous. It is corny. It is sentimental. It is wonderful.”
Studio head Jack Warner was so pleased with Casablanca’s success that he granted Julius and his brother permission to co-write and co-produce Mrs. Skeffington (1944), a Bette Davis film touching on the issue of anti-Semitism which received mostly negative reviews. Epstein’s studio contract ended with Romance on the High Seas (1948), a popular but critically-panned musical comedy featuring Doris Day in her film debut. Julius returned to more sentimental drama in the adaptation of My Foolish Heart (1949) from the J.D. Salinger play Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut. Salinger was so upset with the results that he refused to sell movie rights for his works ever again. Julius wed his second wife, Ann Lazlo, in 1949. Julius’s brother Philip died of cancer in 1952, their final writing collaboration being The Last Time I Saw Paris in 1954, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.
He continued writing a series of romantic dramas and romantic comedies, winning a Laurel Award from the Screen Writers Guild 1955. Epstein scored his third Oscar nomination for Pete ’n Tilly (1972), from Peter De Vries’s book Witch’s Milk about a couple whose son dies of leukemia. House Calls (1978), a Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson film set in a hospital that would spawn a three-year television series, was his biggest box office success alongside three other screenwriters, though reviews remained mixed. Reuben, Reuben (1984) was Epstein’s final Oscar nomination, a film about a self-destructive poet, also taken from a Peter De Vries novel. Said Epstein concerning the project, it was the “finest piece of screenwriting, the most adult film I’ve ever written, and with no concession to any so-called box-office value.” In 1988, Epstein won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s career achievement award.
Julius Epstein was a product of a once-omnipresent studio system dominating its entire work force, though Julius himself remained a notably talented figure throughout and even defied the studio quotas of the time. Fay Kanin, screenwriter and former Motion Picture Academy president, commented in a New York Times interview that, “Julie’s more than a writer of good dialogue. He’s a good constructionist. His stories have good bones.” Epstein himself explained his style by exclaiming, “I write only when I absolutely have to. If I wanted to work every day I’d have gone into the dress business.” Later in his career, he was known to work only two hours a day, with the rest of his time devoted to leisure; he is credited with helping to break the tight working hours of screenwriters.
“My brother and I freed the writer from having to work at the studio,” he once remarked in 1984 to the New York Times after completing Reuben, Reuben. “Now, the movies are just like the theater and a screenwriter like a playwright,” he also told the Boston Globe, continuing, “A screenwriter has more freedom - the freedom to write a script the way he wants it written and the freedom to starve because no one is paying him a salary.” One primary incident he noted involved studio executive Jack Warner confronting the Epstein brothers coming in late, scolding them to be on time just as a bank president would. Before leaving that day, Julius and Philip handed Warner an incomplete script, telling Warner to find a bank president to finish it. “We weren’t making art,” recalled Epstein of the old Hollywood bureaucracy, “We were making a living. Movies in those days were prevented from reality.” Good dialogue, he said and for which he is best remembered, is something instinctive, “like a good football player is born,” and he even remarked that, “Many writers don’t listen…You must pay strict attention to language, cadence, and tone. Be sensitive to those things.”
Julius Epstein passed away at a rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles on December 30, 2000.
Living on Velvet. Warner Bros., 1935.
Four Daughters (with Lenore Coffee). Warner Bros., 1938.
Daughters Courageous (with Philip Epstein). Warner Bros., 1939.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (with Philip Epstein). Warner Bros., 1941.
The Male Animal (with Philip Epstein and Avery Stephen Morehouse). Warner Bros., 1942.
Casablanca (with Philip Epstein and Howard Koch). Warner Bros., 1943.
Arsenic and Old Lace. Warner Bros., 1944.
Pete 'n' Tillie. Universal, 1972.
House Calls (with Alan Mandel, Max Shulman, and Charles Shyer). Universal, 1978.
Reuben, Reuben. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1983.
Blowen, Michael. “Julius Epstein, 90; Penned ‘Casablanca’ – Writer Was Nominee for Academy Award.” Boston Globe. 31 Dec. 2001: B16.
Epstein, Julius. Remembering Casablanca. Los Angeles: Imprentia Glorias: 1994.
Harmetz, Aljean. “Hollywood Survival: 50 years of Success and Oblivion.” New York Times. 5 Feb. 1984: H1.
Harmetz, Aljean. “Julius Epstein, Prolific Screenwriter Who Helped Give ‘Casablanca’ its Zest, Dies at 91.” New York Times. 1 Jan. 2001: B7.
“Juilus J. Epstein.” The Gale Literary Databases: Contemporary Authors Online. 2 July 2002. 27 Nov. 2011.
Kilbourne, Don. “Julius Epstein.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 26: American Screenwriters. Ed. Robert E. Morsberger, et al. Detroit: Gale, 1984. 95-101.
Written by Matthew Lavelle, Spring 2007; updated 2018