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The Golden Boy Blogathon: "Stalag 17" (1953)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder, Stalag 17 (1953) concerns a group of American air force sergeants interned in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in 1944. This motley crew of men, placed at Barracks 4, includes J. J. Sefton (William Holden), an entreprising cynic who trades openly with the German guards for cigarettes, eggs, silk stockings and other luxuries; Stanislas "Animal" Kusawa (Robert Strauss), who is infatuated with movie star Betty Grable; Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), Animal's wisecracking best friend; Price (Peter Graves), the righteous security chief; Hoffy (Richard Erdman), whom the prisoners have appointed as their leader; and Cookie (Gil Stratton), who inventories and protects Sefton's stash of contraband items.

One day, fellow inmates Manfredi (Michael Moore) and Johnson (Peter Baldwin) try to escape through a tunnel, but are shot by waiting guards when they emerge outside the barbed wire fence. The other prisoners naturally conclude that one of them must have told the Germans. Their chief suspectsis Sefton, especially after he is allowed to spend the day in the Russian women's barracks. Meanwhile, two new inmates arrive, Lt. Bagradian (Jay Lawrence) and Lt. James Schuyler Dunbar (Don Taylor), who reveals to the men how he blew up a German supply train while he was being transported to the camp. When the camp's despotic commandant, Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger), arrests Dunbar for suspicion of sabotage, the prisoners are convinced that Sefton is in fact a traitor working with the Germans. Beaten and ostracized, Sefton decides to uncover the identity of the real spy. During an air raid alert, he hides out in the barracks and overhears a German-speaking Price talking with a Nazi guard, Sergeant Schulz (Sig Ruman), and divulging the means by which Dunbar destroyed the train. Sefton subsequently unmasks Price before his fellow inmates, after which they throw him into the compound before the watchtower guards, who mistake him for a prisoner trying to escape and immediately gun him down. The diversion eventually allows Sefton and Dunbar to cut through the barbed wire fence and escape.

J. J. Sefton: Now you listen to me. There are two guys in this barracks who know I didn't do it — me and the guy who did do it. And that could be any one of you. You Hoffy, or Duke or Price or the Animal or Blondie or even Joey. And he better watch out, the guy who left me holding this stick. Because if there are going to be any throats cut in this barracks... 

In the wake of the critical and commercial failure of the noir Ace in the Hole (1951), Billy Wilder knew that he had to be very careful in the selection of his next project. He reasoned that a popular Broadway play would be a safe bet and eventually chose Stalag 17, a smash hit by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, which Wilder had seen during his annual excursion to New York. Directed by José Ferrer, the production had opened at the 48th Street Theatre in May 1951 and ran for nearly 500 performances. The title of the play refers to a German Stalag, a contraction of the word Stammlager, itself short for Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager (prisoner-of-war camp). The real Stalag 17, in which Bevan and Trzcinski had been interned during World War II, was situated on the outskirts of Krems, Austria, near the Danube and about 50 miles from Vienna. Wilder later cast Trzcinski in a small role as the soldier who receives a letter from his wife claiming she found a baby on the doorstep that just happened to look exactly like her.

When Wilder suggested the project to Paramount Pictures, he discovered that a reader in the story department had earlier submitted an unfavorable report on the original version of the play, which had opened in a trial run in Philadelphia in April 1949. That report described the play as "monotonous and lacking in action," recommending that the studio not acquire it for filming. After the revised version of Stalag 17 became a runaway success on Broadway, however, Paramount believed it be "a very promising property" and finally purchased the screen rights to the play for $100,000 in August 1951. Stalag 17 and The Emperor Waltz (1948) are the only two Wilder pictures set in his native Austria. Since Wilder preferred to overlook the fact that his homeland was part of the Nazi Empire at the time Stalag 17 takes place, the setting of the film is not identified as Austria.

William Holden in a publicity still
Wilder's successful partnership with Charles Brackett ended after Sunset Boulevard (1950) and his longstanding collaboration with I. A. L. Diamond would not begin until Love in the Afternoon (1957). Consequently, to help him adapt Bevan and Trzcinsky's play, Wilder chose Edwin Blum, whose credits included The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), The Canterville Ghost (1944) and Down to Earth (1947), the sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). 

Working with Blum, Wilder set out to "spruce up" the play, first of all with the addition of some new characters. He created Sefton's minion Clarence Harvey Cook, nicknamed Cookie, to provide a voice-over narration as a way to cover details in the script that needed to be further explained. Another key character whom Wilder developed for the film was Colonel von Scherbach, the tyrannical commandant of the prison camp, who is only mentioned in the original play. Similiarly, he wrote into the action events that take place off-stage and are merely related in dialogue passags in the play, such as the scene in which von Scherbach interrogates Lieutenant James Dunbar, a prisoner accused of sabotage. In addition, Wilder incorporated incidents in the screenplay that were not in the play at all, specifically the ones built around Sefton's character as a crafty con man. 

Wilder's first choice to play Sefton was Charlton Heston, a World War II veteran who had made his screen debut at Paramount in William Dieterle's noir Dark City (1950). However, when Wilder and Blum began revising the script, coarsening Sefton's character to make him more of an outsider and to sharpen the rift in the barracks, they realized Heston was no longer suited to the part. Wilder then offered the role to Kirk Douglas, another war veteran who had debuted at Paramount, in the noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), but the actor turned him down. Wilder finally decided on William Holden, who had become an important star after delivering an Academy Award-nominated performance in Sunset Boulevard.

Don Taylor and William Holden
At first, Holden rejected the role; he had attended a performance of the play in New York and walked out after the first act. He thought the story was dull and found Sefton to be no more than "a garden-variety con man." Fortunately, Holden changed his mind when he read the script, in which Wilder and Blum cleverly built up Sefton's role and made him "a heel who turns out to be a hero." However, Holden was still apprehensive about the fact that Sefton was trading in black-market goods with the Nazi guards. He wanted Wilder to soften the character in order to make him more sympathetic and even asked, "Could I have a line or two that shows that I really hate the Germans?" Wilder promptly refused, arguing that if Sefton was anything other than an "unsentimental opportunist," he would not have been so successful in conning the guards and his fellow prisoners.

Although Holden's suggestions for making Sefton a more likeable character were rejected by Wilder, the director did allow for a brief moment of warmth and humanity in one of the final scenes in Stalag 17. As he slips down into a tunnel in the barracks, on his way to help Dunbar escape, Sefton says bitterly to the other prisoners, "If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let's pretend we've never met before." Deeming that departure too abrupt and anti-climatic, Wilder decided to have Holden pop back up through the hole, smile and salute before disappearing again.

Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss
Wilder retained four actors from the stage production: Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss as the clownish duo Harry Shapiro and "Animal" Kusawa (named Stosh in the play); William Pierson as the nasal mail deliverer Marko; and Robert Shawley, who played a character named Herb Gordon on stage, but appeared as Blondie Peterson in the film. The role of Lieutenant James Dunbar was given to Don Taylor, a World War II veteran whose credits included Battleground (1949), a Best Picture nominee at the 22nd Academy Awards, and Submarine Command (1951), which also starred Holden. Sig Ruman, who had previously appeared in the Wilder-written comedy Ninotchka (1939) as well as in The Emperor Waltz, was cast as Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz, a barracks guard who is friendly with the inmates, but turns out to be an accomplice of the Nazi informant.

To play Colonel von Scherbach, Wilder called on his friend and fellow Austrian émigré Otto Preminger, the famed director of such iconic films as Laura (1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Preminger had not worked as an actor since 1944 and had trouble remembering his lines in Stalag 17. Wilder recalled that he "would get very embarassed and say that he was rusty because he hadn't acted in some many years. He said he would send me a pound of caviar every time that he had a day when he blew his lines. Well, several pounds of caviar arrived for me in course of shooting that film, but he gave a fine performance." Later that year, Preminger would direct Holden in the Code-breaking romantic comedy The Moon is Blue (1953).

Richard Erdman, William Holden, Robert
Shawley and Paul Salata on the set
Paramount set the budget for Stalag 17 at $1,315,000, which was sufficient to allow the production staff to built Wilder a prison camp for filming exteriors at Snow Ranch in Calabasas, California. Whereas the play is claustrophobically set in a single barracks, Wilder decided to open it for the screen "by the taking the action outdoors into the muddy yard, so he could get the drama out in the open." Production designers Franz Bachelin and Hal Pereira constructed wooden shacks and barracks for the prisoners, along with gun turrets and observation towers for the guards.

Holden threw himself into his role with a great level of intensity. His hair was cropped into a crewcut and his face unshaven, a look that not only enhanced Sefton's authenticy, but also undermined Holden's good looks. Usually friendly and lively on a film set, he seemed withdrawn during the making of Stalag 17 and occasionally lost his patience. The actors who had appeared in the stage play had developed a camaraderie and often indulged in noisy pranks with the rest of the cast between takes. Wilder did not mind, but Holden was terribly annoyed by this; one day, he finally snapped and yelled, "Goddammit! Can't you guys shut up for a minute? Some of us are trying to get some work done!" As his confidence in the role increased, however, he became more at ease on the set and even indulged in his own kind of frivolousness.

During an afternoon break in filming, Holden reportedly "entertained" a young actress in his dressing room. Later that day, while shooting one of the final scenes with Taylor in the water tower, he looked down and saw his wife, actress Brenda Marshall, whose credits include Michael Curtiz's Captains of the Clouds (1942), standing on the set with a stricken look on her face. Convinced that she had discovered about the earlier dressing room incident, Holden climbed down, sure that his marriage was over. He must have been greatly relieved when he realized that Marshall had only come to inform him that she had accidentally wrecked their car.

William Holden, Gil Stratton and Peter Graves
Since all the action in Stalag 17 takes place in and around Barracks 4, Wilder was able to shoot the film in sequence. As production moved forward, he fell five days behind schedule, largely because heavy rains caused delays at Snow Ranch. In addition, Wilder and Blum had continued to revise the script scene by scene throughout the shooting — meaning that nobody in the cast knew who the Nazi collaborator was until the very end — and had on occasion gotten behind. When Paramount decreed that Wilder had only one more week to finish filming, cast and crew agreed to make up for lost time by working on three nights until the early hours of the morning. Principal photography, which began on February 2, eventually wrapped on March 29, 1952, almost on schedule and $346,530 over budget. 

After a successful advance screening hosted by Paramount in May, Stalag 17 premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York on July 1, 1953 to great critical and commercial success. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a humorous, suspenseful, disturbing and rousing pastime [...] certainly one of this year's most smashing films." For their Variety, described the picture as a "lust comedy-melodrama, loaded with bold, masculine humor and as much of the original's unhibited earthiness as good taste the Production Code permit." Grossing $10 million in its first six months of release, the film was Wilder's biggest hit for Paramount up to that date. The studio had warned Wilder that Stalag 17 had to earn a profit to cancel out the deficit left over from Ace in the Hole. As it turned out, Stalag 17 made enough money to cover both films.

William Holden with his Oscar
At the 26th Academy Awards, Holden won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as J. J. Sefton. His acceptance speech was one of the shortest on record ("Thank you"); the television broadcast had a strict cut-off time which forced his quick remarks. As a result, the frustrated Holden personally paid for advertisements in the Hollywood trade publications to thank everyone he wanted to during the ceremony. He also commented that he felt that either Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift should have won the Best Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity (1953) instead of him. In addition, Wilder was nominated for Best Director (his fourth of eight nominations in that category) and Strauss for Best Supporting Actor. Wilder lost to his friend Fred Zinnemann for From Here to Eternity, while Strauss lost to Frank Sinatra for the same film. Strauss, who worked with Wilder again in The Seven Year Itch (1955), was so delighted to receive an Oscar nomination that "he printed his acceptance speech in the trade papers in advance."

The German censorship board banned Stalag 17 from being exhibited in Germany in 1953. In 1956, Wilder received a letter from George Weltner, the Paramount executive in charge of worldwide distribution, indicating that the film could be released in Germany provided that, when the dialogue was dubbed into German, the spy hiding among the prisoners "is not a Nazi, but a Polish prisoner of war" who was sold out to the Nazis. Wilder was outraged by this and replied: "Fuck you, gentlemen! You ask me, who lost my family in Auschwitz, to permit a change like this? Unless somebody apologizes," he said, he would never make another film for Paramount. "I never heard anything from Paramount," Wilder concluded; "no apology, no nothing." For the record, Stalag 17 was not altered when it was finally released in Germany in 1960; in fact, it was well received by the German press and public. Wilder himself was pleased with the film, declaring, "Along with Sunset Boulevard, it is one of my favorites" As for William Holden, he became Wilder's favorite leading man. "My heart will always be with Mr. Holden," he said. Wilder made one only more film for Paramount before his retirement in 1981, Sabrina (1954), which again co-starred Holden.

This post is my contribution to The Golden Boy Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. To view all entires, click HERE.

Billy Wilder: The Pocket Essential Guide by Glenn Hopp (2001) | Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder by Gene D. Phillips (2010) | The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger by Chris Fujiwara (2008) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. What a great an truly informative piece of work! I really had a great time reading your article and learned so much! Stalag 17 truly is a special film and Bill shines in it.
    Thanks for your participation to the blogathon! :)

    1. Aw, thank you, Virginie. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. :)

  2. I would have never known this was originally a play! Some movies you can tell, but not this one! That's cool that the guy who wrote the play got to be in it!

    That's what annoys me about the Oscars. It's usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience and they don't let you say what you want to say!

    1. I didn't know this was based on a play either.
      That always annoys me too. I think it was after Greer Garson won for "Mrs. Miniver" that the Academy implemented that time rule. Her acceptance speech was about six minutes long, I think.

      Thank you for reading.

  3. I can't imagine Heston or Douglas as Sefton. William Holden was just perfect for the role! I also really enjoyed Animal, a fine and scene-stealing character. Stalag 17 is very enjoyable movie.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. I completely agree. William Holden owns that role from beginning to end. I love Animal! And Harry Shapiro as well. They are such a brilliant duo.

      Thanks for reading. :)

  4. You forgot to mention Neville Brand. He played Duke.

  5. Informative article, this has been one of my top 3 films along with battleground and the oxbow incident. They just dont make films like this anymore. Fortunately we have over 100 years of film to go back too.


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