Hill of Beans: A Nov­el of War and Celluloid

  • Review
By – July 2, 2021

Is his­to­ry a series of venal trans­ac­tions engi­neered by amoral indi­vid­u­als for their own self­ish ends? This ques­tion lies at the heart of Leslie Epstein’s engag­ing fan­ta­sia, Hill of Beans, which owes heavy debts to two Quentin Taran­ti­no films that play in sim­i­lar coun­ter­fac­tu­al fields: Inglou­ri­ous Bas­ter­ds and Once Upon a Time in Hol­ly­wood. Epstein asks the read­er to believe that the North Africa cam­paign of World War II was con­ceived as a pub­lic­i­ty stunt by Jack Warn­er, of Warn­er Bros., to pro­mote his studio’s upcom­ing pro­duc­tion, Casablan­ca, which he regard­ed as a like­ly box office dud. In order to focus the world’s atten­tion on that cor­ner of the globe, and there­fore boost tick­et sales, Warn­er first uses ill-got­ten lever­age with his friend, Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt, to con­vince him that the sec­ond front demand­ed by Stal­in in the wake of Pearl Har­bor should be opened in North Africa, with Casablan­ca as one of the key land­ing spots for the inva­sion. As the release date for the film approach­es, he then per­suades FDR that the upcom­ing Big Three con­fer­ence between Roo­sevelt, Churchill, and Stal­in should also be held in Casablanca.

Epstein comes by his inter­est in Warn­er and his film hon­est­ly. His father Philip Epstein and uncle Julius were the twins who wrote the screen­play for Casablan­ca. His nov­el, how­ev­er, is not as light­heart­ed as a cur­so­ry syn­op­sis might lead one to believe. Epstein lends a grav­i­ty to his nar­ra­tive by incor­po­rat­ing the tale of a fic­tion­al daugh­ter of an actu­al Warn­er employ­ee (a Jew work­ing in their Berlin office), who died at the hands of the Nazis. This young woman, scarred by her father’s death and by a dis­as­trous erot­ic encounter with Hitler, escapes to Amer­i­ca, where she becomes Warner’s pro­tegée and mis­tress. For some rea­son, she bears her ani­mus not toward the Third Reich but toward her adopt­ed coun­try. Along the way, aid and com­fort are ren­dered by the doyenne of Hol­ly­wood gos­sip colum­nists, Hed­da Hop­per, who even after Pearl Har­bor believes that the US would be bet­ter allied with Hitler than with Stal­in, and by Gen­er­al George S. Pat­ton, who also fig­ures promi­nent­ly in the story.

Epstein choos­es to tell his tale from mul­ti­ple points of view, often shift­ing nar­ra­tors three or four times in the span of a sin­gle page to nar­rate even rel­a­tive­ly triv­ial events from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. In addi­tion to Warn­er and his prob­lem­at­ic pro­tegée, the prin­ci­pal nar­ra­tors include a Turk­ish-Amer­i­can ex-prize­fight­er retained by Warn­er as valet-cum-body­guard, Goebbels, and Stal­in. Hopper’s col­umn express­es her voice, though Epstein walks a fine line there, incor­po­rat­ing some gen­uine archival mate­r­i­al to larg­er sec­tions that he invent­ed to serve the pur­pos­es of his plot.

Through­out, Epstein’s sym­pa­thies clear­ly lie with Warn­er, and ulti­mate­ly one’s response to Hill of Beans will depend on one’s response to this anti­hero, who is pre­sent­ed (not unfair­ly, by most accounts) as irre­deemably crude, moti­vat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by lust for pow­er, sex, and mon­ey. Do Warner’s fun­da­men­tal­ly patri­ot­ic val­ues out­weigh his baser instincts, or would Epstein have served us bet­ter by focus­ing more on Jack’s eldest broth­er, Har­ry, who had more of Jack’s virtues and few­er of his vices? Though Casablan­ca might have us believe oth­er­wise, the prob­lems of such lit­tle” peo­ple do amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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