Robert Matzen Casablanca

Mystery Brothers

Epstein brothers Julius left and Philip right in 1944.
Julius Epstein (left) and his twin brother Phil (right) during their heyday at Warner Bros. They were rock stars before there was such a thing as rock stars and this portrait would have been at home on any 1970s rock album cover.

Full disclosure: I am loath to watch any Bette Davis picture. In my mind, of all the actors who haven’t stood the test of time, she heads the pack. Rules the roost. Stands head and shoulders above the rest. I’m the first to acknowledge her perfection in All About Eve, which I find to be one of few perfect pictures ever. But in general, Bette and I don’t mix well.

This is the price—141 minutes in the dark with Bette Davis—I was willing to pay last night to watch her 1944 film Mr. Skeffington for the first time, having successfully steered clear of it all my life. My interest certainly wasn’t Davis, but rather Julius and Philip Epstein, twin brothers who wrote and produced Mr. Skeffington as their successful follow-up to key involvement in the writing of Casablanca. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Epsteins, who are shrouded in mystery and legend to what I feel is the detriment of Hollywood history.

As a researcher, I’m shocked how little survives about these two screenwriters beyond the few stories repeated ad nauseum about their verbal fencing with Jack Warner, their completion of each other’s sentences, and their general brilliance as both writers and wits. They were also individuals with separate lives and families and that part is just gone from the record because they were only screenwriters in a town ruled by the stars, and neither cared to blow his own horn. Nor did they date starlets or write tell-all memoirs. They were in their 30s when they co-wrote Casablanca (for which they shared an Oscar with Howard Koch) and produced Mr. Skeffington. Then Phil died suddenly and horribly of cancer at age 42, leaving his collaborator Julie to go on another 48 years alone. That part of their story rips my guts out because of how close these guys were. Julie said that after Phil died, he never successfully recaptured the collaborative spirit with any other writer. Imagine that degree of loss for not only a twin brother but also a twin creative spirit.

Every line in Casablanca that you know is coming and still don’t see coming is thanks to Phil and Julie. “Waters? What waters?” “OK don’t have a drink.” “That is my least vulnerable spot.” Etc. Sure other writers had their hand in the Casablanca script and made critical contributions, but the wit that greased the skids and propelled the story was theirs. No, Jack Warner didn’t care for the Epsteins, but he knew they were good and agreed to make them producers as a reward for the success of Casablanca. And so, in my investigation into what made the Julius and Philip Epstein tick, I watched Mr. Skeffington.

What struck me was how ambitious this project was as their first attempt at co-producing, this epic spanning 30 years, and the social issues it took on—anti-Semitism, narcissism, mental illness, and finally, Nazism. It’s the story of a flighty woman who’s the belle of the ball in the beginning and turns down suitors right and left but marries a Jewish businessman played by Claude Rains to keep her mentally ill brother from going to jail. Several reels and relationships later she’s an old hag and reunites with Rains who has proven time and again during the course of the picture that he’s much too good for her.

The screenplay rings true as pure Epstein, or at least what I have come to understand of the Epsteins, who were brilliant, creative, energetic, and socially conscious. They threw everything into the story including the kitchen sink and every other fixture in reach and veered from comedy to tragedy so fast you could lose your lunch. Davis is Davis, affected and unbelievable at every stage of the story, so it’s left to Claude Rains and the always able Walter Abel to lug this picture on their backs for a long running time; no easy chore, but they’re up to it. When the inevitable payoff comes, I managed some tears only because Rains made it all work. He’s so damn good.

Bette and Claude. Ever the pro, he lugged the picture on his back.

And OMG Davis; what a ham. I know this is a Warner prestige picture, and Davis naturally got all the studio’s A-picture roles. But this time she was simply miscast as a raging beauty. I never bought her as a “catch” in this picture and found her shrill and unsympathetic from start to finish. The part called for Lana or Rita or Linda Darnell or somebody who could start out radiant and gorgeous, although none of these actresses had Davis’s range to fully execute the maturation of the character. But why was Bette so (frankly) bizarre in this picture? Supposedly, decades later she apologized to the surviving Epstein for being impossible during production of Mr. Skeffington; I only learned this morning the reason for a performance that feels today massively uneven.

Make-up aged Bette and make-up aged (and ever-able) Walter Abel.

The director of Mr. Skeffington, Vincent Sherman, documented its production in his book, Studio Affairs. By the time he wrote this memoir in the 1990s, Bette was gone and the story could be told. After completing the 1943 picture Old Acquaintance that they worked on together, Bette and Vince had been about to embark on an affair (both were married) and her husband, affectionately known as “Farney,” intervened and asked Vince to back off. Bette then felt doubly betrayed by both her husband and her lover when Vince deferred to Farney. One thing led to another and Bette and Farney engaged in a horrible screaming match and soon Farney dropped dead of a brain aneurism, for which Bette blamed herself. Soon thereafter, Mr. Skeffington began production and Davis was impossible for Sherman to deal with—she brought a toxic mix of guilt and resentment to the set every day that made the production of Mr. Skeffington a living hell for the entire cast and crew. For me watching all these decades later, this vibe is evident in the negatives exposed back then. Sherman concludes his chapter on Bette Davis by saying, “For some of her fans, it [Skeffington] has become one of their favorite Davis vehicles. I remember it as a turbulent, frustrating experience; I vowed never again to get emotionally involved with any actress I was directing.”

Watching the film as an exploration of the Epsteins as writers and co-producers, I came away from Mr. Skeffington impressed by their vision and ambition. The picture proved a big success at the box office (according to John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows, Mr. Skeffington made a boatload of money, $1.2M in domestic profit). Despite this fact, Julie and Phil retired from the producer role after this one shot, which speaks to the sweat and blood required to go from mere screenwriters to producers responsible for every aspect of a motion picture. It was for them a bridge too far, and they realized it.