Sucker Punch

by Leslie Epstein

A family member imagines the Epstein brothers’ screenwriting process for Casablanca. 3,673 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


July 1942
Hedda Hopper

I went over to the Warner’s lot yesterday morning and right away ran into Ingrid Bergman, my favorite sexy Swede, on the set of Seas Of Sand. I should say Casablanca, since that is the new name of her picture. There she was. on Stage 1, clad in a stodgy suit with pockets that a kangaroo would have felt at home in and a schoolmarm’s white collar. "Oh, Hedda," she declared. "I am so angry!"

"I don’t blame you, Ingrid, having to wear an outfit like that."

"Oh, it’s not my clothes, though of course they are not glamorous," she replied. "It’s because no one will tell me my lines. How can I act when I do not know who I am supposed to be in love with — Rick or Victor?" She meant Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid, who were playing the men in her life. "I am supposed to be flying off in that plane, but I don’t know whether it’s with my husband or with my lover!"

That’s when I noticed for the first time how the set had been transformed into an airport. The plane Ingrid mentioned was a cardboard cut-out, complete with the Air France flying horse on its tail and a bunch of white-clothed mechanics gathered around it. Why, they were midgets, cute as munchkins. That’s the magic of our business! In the pea soup that the fog machines were pumping out, it all looked so real. Whoa, Nelly! Fog in Morocco? That’s a pretty tall order!

"Look, Hedda. Just look at this!" The actress reached into one of her outsized pockets and pulled out a handful of papers, all of them in different colors: brown and blue and salmon and pink and a bright magenta. "See? Each color has a different ending. As soon as I memorize one line, they come up with another. It’s driving me crazy! Until they make up their minds, there’s nothing for us to do but sit on our hands."

I took another look around the set. Those dwarfs were indeed dawdling under the fake wings of their DC-3. Over to one side, Bogie was playing chess with Conrad Veidt, who is the heavy in this rather run-of-the-mill drama. Art Edelson, who runs the cameras, was circling horse after horse on the Santa Anita form, while Hal Wallis paced back and forth with the steam coming out of his ears — and can you blame him at twelve thousand dollars an hour?

Just then, the pretty Madeline LeBeau who plays Bogie’s jilted mistress in the movie came out from behind the front end of a fancy German car and director Mike Curtiz came out from around the back, adjusting his trousers and shouting, "Where is the poodle? I asked for a poodle!" Ernie Glickman, the plump P.A., said that there was no such thing in the script. Then Mike practically turned purple. "You dumdum. Big bas**** dumdum. I go nuts! Where is the poodle?"

Hal Wallis said, "For C*****’s sake, Glickman, don’t stand there: go get him the dog."

"Dog? What dog? Idiot! Fool idiot! I want a poodle! On the runway! A poodle of water! Mr. Rick! Mr. Renault! They must go splash-splash-splash when they take the walk."

Everyone laughed.

At that moment Jack Warner in his handsome Lt. Colonel’s uniform came striding through the Stage 1 door. Right away everybody pretended to be busy.

"You can’t con me," Jack said. "I heard all of you laughing. What’s the big joke? And why aren’t you shooting? I heard you let that old bag of a gossip columnist for the Los Angeles Times on the set. You know the rules. No one except — Oh, there you are! Hedda, darling! Maybe you can let me know what’s so d***** funny?"

But Ingrid spoke before I could. "It’s the writers. We don’t know the ending. How can I act if I don’t know who I am in love with?"

"I knew it! Glickman! Go get the Epsteins!"

At last your faithful correspondent was able to get a word in. "You don’t need the writers, Jack. I can tell you right now that Joe Breen will never allow Ingrid to leave her husband to fly off with another man. And even if he did, I’d set up a howl. There’s enough for young people to worry about without our industry corrupting their morals. There! You’ve got your ending. And I’m not even on your payroll!"

"Hmmm," said the Executive Producer. "I do believe you are right."

"And while this old bag of a gossip columnist is at it," I continued, "I want a word with you about these costumes–"

That’s when Hal Wallis elbowed his way in. "Don’t worry, J.L.," he said. "Everything’s under control. The boys promised to give us the lines any minute, and we’re going to shoot around them until then. We’re just setting up the last scene now. Look –"

He pointed to where one of the grips had run up with a bucket of water and was spreading its contents onto the make-believe macadam of the runway. "Okay," he shouted. "Let’s have some more fog! Plenty of it!"

He got what he asked for. Then out of the mist came Julius J. and Philip G., the bald-domed Epstein identical twins, as much like each other as the proverbial peas in a pod. The moment I saw them I had to look away, because they were dressed in nothing but their bathrobes. Jack saw them, too.

"What’s going on here? Did we wake you from your nap? No wonder you can’t come up with an ending. I’m supposed to fly to Moscow next month and next month you still won’t have your lines. It’s intolerable! It’s, it’s — disloyal!"

"Then why don’t you ask Joe Stalin?" said Julie. Or maybe it was Phil.

Jack stood glaring, his hands on his hips. "G*********! This time you sons-of-B****** have gone too far."

"What is it, Jack?"

"Did we forget to salute?"

"Salute? I don’t want you to salute. I want you to come up with the lines you’ve been paid for. It’s not too late to take you off this picture. If you don’t have them in two minutes, two minutes, that’s just what I’ll do."

Wallis stepped between his boss and his writers. "Come on, Jack. You know you don’t mean it. We can’t do a thing without the boys."

"Oh, yeah? That’s what you think. And don’t call me Jack. There’s a war on, in case you didn’t notice. I’m a lieutenant-colonel."

"Excuse me, Colonel. I only wanted to say this is no time for a court-martial. The boys will have an ending in just a minute."

"And one minute is all they have left. I’m looking at my watch. Well? I thought so. These bums don’t have a clue about how to end the picture."

"Not a clue?" echoed Julie. "What a terrible thing to say."

"Scandalous," said his brother.

"Perhaps libelous."

"You’ll be lucky if we don’t sue you for a statement like that."

"Yeah?" said the lieutenant-colonel. He slapped his olive-colored trousers as if there were an invisible swagger stick in his hand. "Go ahead. Tell me. Tell everybody. I’m counting. Forty-seven. Forty-six. Er, Forty-five!

Julie looked up, Philip looked down. Then Philip looked up and Julie looked down. Both bit their lips.

"Four. Three–"

Off to one side Mike Curtiz had been busily rehearsing Major von Strasser for a gunshot scene. He was showing him how to fall after he’d been hit. "Lunge!" he shouted. "Like this. Lunge!"

"Okay," said Julius Epstein.

"If you insist," said his brother Phil.

And, before you knew it, the entire company broke for lunch.

Abdul the Terrible Turk Maljan

At noon we all poured out of Sound Stage 1 for lunch — except we didn’t head for the commissary; instead, everyone started walking down Third Street, toward the far side of the studio. As we moved forward, people came pouring out of Stage 5 and Stage 10. An old fire truck, with firemen clinging to the sides, drove from the fire station and rolled along with the crowd, ringing its bell. Pretty soon the street was filled, mostly with actors and actresses: you could see them in their evening gowns and tiaras and Indian headdresses; miners tramped along with lamps on their heads and the pilots had helmets and goggles on theirs.

After ten minutes or so, and from up ahead, past the London and the New York Streets, we could hear music and shouting and singing. We came round the corner and could clearly see, standing at the back of the open Lot H, the chorus of grips and gaffers and construction crews.

“My goodness,” said Hedda, who had hold of my arm. “It’s a war bond rally!”

And so it was, though it seemed more like a carnival to me. Over on one side, Rita Hayworth was selling kisses and on the other Harpo was playing his harp. Jimmy Cagney and Francis Langford were doing the "Over There" number from Yankee Doodle Dandy, and mobs of people were shouting out bids for Betty Grable’s stockings and Jack Benny’s violin.

In the middle of everything was the raised platform with ropes all around it. Just then, a bell sounded, and a man in a white shirt and little black bow tie, climbed through the elasticized ropes into what I knew was a boxing ring. I looked closer. Broken nose, cauliflower ears. Ridge of bone above the eyes.

"Why, said Hedda, "that’s Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. Look at him. You can see the animal side."

The bell rang three more times. "Ladeeeeze and gentlemen! Ladeeeeze and gentlemen! Welcome to our championship bout!"

Slapsie, who was under contract at another studio, motioned to little Peter Lorre, who struck the bell three more times. "Your attention, Ladeeeze and gentlemen! In this corner, wearing green trunks, a former contender and local favorite, Abdul the Terrible Turk Maljan!"

I find it difficult to describe my emotions at that moment. It had been almost thirty years since I was last introduced in that manner, with the clang of the bell and the roar of the crowd. And it was a roar, louder by far than when I had stepped into the ring against Dummy Jordan, a fight I should have won but lost on points. I have a lot of friends in the Warner Bros. community.

I started to push my way through the crowd toward the ring, touched because the musicians were playing the "Istiklâl Marsi," our national anthem.

Where do you think you’re going?" said the Chief, Jack L. Warner, as I started to climb onto the platform. "Go put your clothes on and get back to the office."

"But Chief–"

"No buts — or you’ll be out on yours. Get moving."

Then J.L. got up onto the edge of the ring and put his hands to his mouth. “And that goes for all the rest of you. Lunch hour is over and so is this rally. We’re not running a charity. We’ve got pictures to make.”

Before anyone could move, Slapsie Maxie once more made a megaphone out of his hands. "And in this corner, wearing blue-and-white trunks, the NCAA Intercollegiate Champion of 1929, the Battling Bantamweight, Julius Julius Epstein!"

"You’re the boss, Chief," I said, while I started to climb back to the ground. "I guess I’ll just lose by default."

"Like hell you will!" he shouted. "Look at that bum! I pay him a fortune and he can’t come up with a line. You’re going to beat his brains out — and not only that, I’m going to be your second."

Julius J. climbed into the ring, slipped off his robe, and began to dance around on his matchstick legs. He was indeed wearing blue and white trunks. Philip G., his twin, slipped between the ropes as well. But he kept his robe on and went to sit down on the opposite stool. I guess he was Julie’s corner, which is what the Chief meant by a second.

The referee beckoned to Julius J. and to the Terrible Turk.

"Take his head off," growled the Chief. "Chew up his liver. That’ll teach the two of them to come in at noon."

We walked up to Slapsie in the center of the ring. "I want a good clean match between you two. No shlogn in the kichkes or the beytsim. Or in back of the kop. When I say tsebrekn, don’t give me any tsuris: break. In case of a untergeyn–"

"Untergeyn?" I inquired.

"Knockdown, shmegege: go to a neutral corner. Most important, oyshitn zikh at all times. Okay. Farsheteyn? Did I make myself clear? Any questions?"

We shook our heads.

"Okay, touch gloves and come out at the bell."

We went back to our corners. Then at the same moment we both turned around and said, "What gloves?"

A thousand people broke into laughter. Instead of the Clang of the ringside bell came a loud Honk!, as if a goose were flying over our heads. Meanwhile, in my corner, instead of the Terrible Turk giving a massage to the Executive Producer of Warner Bros., the Executive Producer of Warner Bros. was giving a massage to me. He was chopping away at my legs with the edge of his hands like a butcher tenderizing a rump roast. Kill him, murder him, slaughter him, crucify him: that was what he was saying with each whack of his hand.

"Ow! Ow! Chief! You are killing me!"

Just then who should come flying out of all those men and women but the mop-headed Harpo Marx — and I do mean flying, since with one bound he jumped onto the platform and with another he hurdled the top rope by what looked like five feet and landed honk-honking with excitement in the center of the ring. More laughter, which only grew louder when he came over to shake hands with me and a pair of boxing gloves fell out of his sleeve.

Right away he picked them up and put them on himself. Gookie! Then he gave himself a slap on the jaw and staggered punch-drunk in circles. Then he picked up the bucket to pour on his head — and instead emptied it onto the Chief’s! All laughter stopped. A gasp. The earth seemed to suspend its rotation. Count of one. Count of two. Count of–

"Ha, ha, ha!" went the Chief, wiping his eyes and squeezing the water out of his hair. "He’s going to annihilate him! He’s going to exterminate him! He’s going to wipe him off the face of the earth!"

A big sigh of relief. Harpo marched across the ring to shake hands with my opponent, and this time not only did four gloves fall out of his sleeve, but a fifth one came after, and it was followed by nuts and bolts and springs and sprockets that dropped like a waterfall of metal with a clang and a clunk to the ground. Harpo plucked it up and with a big wink to the audience picked up a horseshoe made out of steel and dropped it inside.

"Hey!," cried the Chief, from the opposite side of the ring. "We haven’t got all day. Let’s get this show on the road."

With that, Julius J. laced up his gloves Then Lorre, grinning like the murderer in M, struck the bell with his hammer.

Clang!

This is what happened next. The Battling Bantamweight, though he looked more like a flyweight to me, came buzzing out of his corner and rotating his gloves in the air. I stood there awhile and let him flick at my abdomen and my arms and the old iron chin. But I knew the Chief was in a hurry so I wound up to deliver the haymaker, at which J.J.E. began to back-peddle and hide behind Slapsie Maxie, who I have a lot of respect for as a former world champ of my own division. This was a frustrating moment. No matter which way the referee turned, Epstein stayed right behind him. Left. Right. Forward. Back. He stuck to Maxie just like a shadow — or, and suddenly it came to me, like the little tramp in City Lights. I’ll put it a different way: the whole thing had been scripted, like by a choreographer, but no one had given my lines to me!

"Kill him! Murder him!"

Everybody — first Maxie and then Julius Julius — turned toward my corner, to see who had uttered such terrible words. But I already knew, which gave me the opportunity to lash out like lightning and land my knockout punch.

Down went the Penn State champ, flat on his back. What a shout from the crowd. But none louder than the one from my trainer or cut man or whatever: “Drinks for everybody!”

In an instant Slapsie Maxie motioned me to a neutral corner and began the count:

"Eyns! Tsvey! Dray! Fir!"

At just that moment Lorre consulted his stopwatch and raised his hammer to ring the bell.

Don’t you dare!" came that same voice from the corner of the Terrible Turk. "I’m warning you! Suspension!"

Mr. Moto had to think fast. He put down his hammer.

Just then, while everyone, including me, was distracted someone came up behind me and tapped my shoulder. Who should appear before me but Julius Julius Epstein, back on his feet and rotating his gloves like a fighting kangaroo.

"Foul! Foul! Foul!" That was the Chief. "It isn’t the Julius Epstein. It’s the other one!"

What he meant was that he saw how Harpo, the corner of my fallen foe, had dragged him off to his stool and how his brother had thrown off his robe and skipped to where I thought, as the winner, I was going to start blowing kisses.

"Forfeit! Low blow! Disqualification!"

But no one in the crowd paid any attention to my corner, whether he was the Executive Producer or not. That was because — Clang! — the bell rang once more and the fight continued. What happened next was no different than what happened before: the jabbing, the hiding, the running, and then what in France they call the coup de grace. Down went Philip G., with his face full of a knuckle sandwich.

"Drop that hammer!" cried the Chief, as little Lorre was about to hit the gong, and Slapsie Maxie continued the count:

"Finef! Zeks! Zibn!"

I started waving to the crowd and began my victory trot, when all of a sudden somebody tapped my shoulder again, and there stood what could only have been the fully recovered Julius J. I put up my dukes and so did he, and it looked like this fight was going to go on all fifteen rounds, and maybe even more, when, from my corner there echoed a really spine-chilling cry:

"Enough of this crap! It’s my studio! It’s my lot! And I’m declaring the winner!"

Right through the ropes came Jack L. Warner. He marched up to where Maxie and me and whichever Epstein it was were standing. "Give me your arm," he shouted, and grabbed hold of me by the wrist.

"Just a minute, please." That was the other Epstein, I guess it was Philip G. "Who do you think you are? The Marquess of Queensbury?"

"I’ll put you on a mattress, you Queen, if you don’t get out of the ring and back to work."

But the Epsteins did not move. Neither did I or Slapsie Maxie. We were all standing there in a row, wondering what to do next, when there was a loud honk and Harpo, who I always thought was my friend, came running right at me, winding up with that extra mitt on his fist to hit me with a roundhouse right.

My old reflexes kicked in. I ducked. Slapsie Maxie did, too. So did, one after the other, Julius J. and Philip G. That’s why with a really terrible crunching sound the blow landed right on the chin of the man who was the boss of us all. The horseshoe went flying off in one direction and the Chief flew backward in the other.

M. Rosenbloom went over to where he was lying, half in and half out of the ring.

"Eyns! Tsvey! Dray!"

The whole of lot H was in turmoil. People were running this way and that. The fire engine was sounding its siren. From the corner of my eye I saw Hedda pushing her way toward the victim of the punch.

"Akht," cried Slapsie Maxie. "Nayn!"

Clang! Clang! Clang!

Too late: the referee, in his white shirt and black bow tie, had just shouted:

"Tsen!"

The fight was over.

Oh, the cheering! The hubbub! The hue and the cry! In the middle of the ring, the referee was raising not the right hand of the Terrible Turk but both hands of the twins.

"The winners by a knockout," he shouted. "the Epstein Boys!"

I turned to where Harpo was standing, even more silent than usual. "That blow was suspect," I said.

Slapsie stared down to where the defeated fighter lay dead to the world. He shook his head. "Dos Jackie, er geyt tzu dem letzn round up."

Then a strange thing happened. While they were standing there, their arms held high, the brothers turned to each other and both at the same time cried, "Round up the usual suspects!"

Hedda had finally reached the side of the ring, where the Chief’s head was hanging over the apron. “You! Jack Warner!” she cried. “Wake up! Tell me! Did you say you were going to Moscow? Moscow? It’s full of communists!”

Amazingly, the Chief did open his eyes. He even blinked them. Then he said, "Huh? I don’t get it? Round up the usual suspects? Round them up for what?"

About The Author:
Leslie Epstein
Leslie Epstein comes from a family of screenwriters. His father Philip and uncle Julius wrote classics like Casablanca. He has published 11 novels including King Of The Jews and San Remo Drive. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Harpers, Yale Review. He received the Distinction in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and directed the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.

About Leslie Epstein

Leslie Epstein comes from a family of screenwriters. His father Philip and uncle Julius wrote classics like Casablanca. He has published 11 novels including King Of The Jews and San Remo Drive. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Harpers, Yale Review. He received the Distinction in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and directed the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.

  2 comments on “Sucker Punch

  1. Great idea by a writer I never knew existed before. I’m eager to read King of the Jews. After seeing Hedda and her sister in "Hail Caesar", hearing, I. E., reading her in conversation with Ingrid Bergman is fantastic.

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