Friday, November 10, 2017

A Course in CASABLANCA

This is a classic film that, I believe, became as beloved as it is today because of us baby boomers when we were young.  We were the ones who watched IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE on television a lot in youth and rescued it from its public domain life after critics and moviegoers kicked the Frank Capra classic to the curb in its original theatrical release.  CASABLANCA was very popular as a rental on college campuses.  That was surely the case when I was an undergraduate at Marquette University in Milwaukee.  Whenever that film was booked to screen in a campus auditorium, the room was packed.  The first time I saw it on campus, I sat next to a guy from my dorm floor -- Charles P. Pierce who now write for ESQUIRE Magazine.  When Claude Rains said "Round up the usual suspects," the audience broke out into cheers and applause.  This was around the time that young adult moviegoers were enjoying a comedy film from new comedy talent, Woody Allen.  The movie was a romantic comedy valentine to CASABLANCA called PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM (1972).  Yes, we baby boomers loved Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson in CASABLANCA.
The love for it has grown over the years.  Did you see ADAPTATION, the 2002 drama starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep?  Cage played a meek, insecure screenwriter in L.A.  Brian Cox played screenwriting teacher & guru Robert McKee, a real-life character.  Back in the 1990s, McKee was renowned for his weekend screenwriting seminars for aspiring screenwriters.  He was like a rock star to them and this adoration is accurately reflected in ADAPTATION.  If I recall correctly, the weekend seminars were about $500.  McKee pretty much talked solely about the brilliance of CASABLANCA, overly analyzing and explaining the construction of the script for that 1942 Warner Brothers Oscar winner for Best Picture of the Year.  Oscars also went to the scriptwriters -- Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein (brothers) and Howard Koch.
Back in the 1990s, a good and talented friend of mine in New York City worshipped at the altar of Robert McKee.  He saved up enough money to take the weekend seminar.  A few years later, thanks to a columnist for New York's THE DAILY NEWS, he got invited to be the "plus one" at special brunch in Manhattan.  One of the other guests at the brunch was -- veteran screenwriter Julius J. Epstein.
Of course, my friend was awestruck.  He told me the story.  He politely approached the cigar-smoking senior gentleman and gushed that he'd studied his CASABLANCA screenplay in the Robert McKee course.  Epstein immediately asked, "How much did you pay for that class?"  When the screenwriter heard the amount, he let out a long sigh of "Oy."  Then he explained that, back in the Hollywood studio days, they didn't have time to make scripts symbolic and theo-philosophical like modern movies.  They had to crank out scripts for studio talent like Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney and Ann Sheridan.

He then gave me friend the secret to a good script.  He condensed the Robert McKee weekend seminar to one short lesson.  Here it is:
"Act One:  Get your guy up a tree.  Act Two:  Throw rocks at him.  Act Three:  Get him outta the tree."

Julius J. Epstein died in 2000 at the age of 91.

Between just 1938 and 1948, the list of his screenplays included FOUR DAUGHTERS starring John Garfield, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D. starring James Cagney and Bette Davis, THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, THE MALE ANIMAL starring Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda, CASABLANCA, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS introducing Doris Day.

He also did THE TENDER TRAP starring Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds (!955), the Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedy hit SEND ME NO FLOWERS (1964), PETE 'N' TILLIE starring Carol Burnett, Walter Matthau and Geraldine Page (1972) and HOUSE CALLS starring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson (1978).



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