Monday, June 22, 2015

Stalag 17

The Billy Wilder Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of one of Hollywood's greatest writer-directors, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken & Freckled. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Stalag 17
YouTube viewing

According to the book Hogan's Heroes: Behind the Scenes at Stalag 13, in 1967, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the playwrights of the original play Stalag 17 (and both former World War 2 prisoners-of-war themselves), filed a lawsuit against Bing Crosby Productions and CBS, claiming that the long-running sitcom was the plagiarized result of the playwrights' pitch for a series of their own, based on their play. While the jury ruled in the playwrights' favor, the judge overruled the decision.

I've always loved Stalag 17 and its sharp mix of both humor and pathos, but I've never seen Hogan's Heroes. I had heard of the show, of course, though a sitcom based inside a WW2 POW camp always struck me as a dubious premise. After re-watching Stalag 17 again earlier this month and doing a little reading about the movie, though, I wondered: was there any merit to Bevan and Trzcinski's case?

I watched a few episodes of Hogan from the first season. The pilot, like Stalag 17, involves flushing out a German double agent from within the barracks, though his identity is no mystery. It's a mildly amusing comic variation on the movie. The approach Colonel Hogan and his unit takes to deal with the spy is completely different, and naturally, being a comedy, it stands in tonal contrast to the film's take on the similar premise. Also, the prisoner characters are nothing like the ones in the film. There's no character similar to William Holden's - the black sheep of the group who's the prime suspect.

It's tempting to chalk it up to coincidence, except the Stalag 17 playwrights did come to CBS with the idea first. Would CBS have come up with the idea on their own? We'll never know for sure. Still, I don't want to turn this into a comparison between Hogan and Stalag 17. While the former isn't as bad as I thought it might be, I'd much rather talk about the latter. 

Holden won the Oscar for his work here, and you all know how great an actor he was, but can I also get some love for Robert Strauss, who was also Oscar-nominated? I didn't know this until I saw the IMDB page for the movie. He played Animal, the lovable goofball slob with the Betty Grable fetish. He was certainly memorable and funny, but he was also paired with Harvey Lembeck, who played Shapiro, the whole time. To me, it seems wrong to favor one over the other because they played off of each other the whole movie, and Lembeck was, in my mind at least, every bit as good as Strauss. (For what it's worth, they were both in the original play.) It's always nice to see a comedic role get recognized by the Academy, but I would've voted for Sig Ruman as Schultz. Great comedic actor; always stood out in a cast.

Director/co-writer Billy Wilder made Stalag 17 after the failure of Ace in the Hole, a film that would not be fully appreciated for many years. This one, however, was a hit. It was made during the period between Wilder's breakup with his first primary writing collaborator, Charles Brackett, and his union with his second major writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond. He adapted this from the play with Edwin Blum, but according to Wilder, Blum brought little to the table, so Wilder never worked with him again. He has said that you can always tell which writers he had the best rapport with, because they were the ones he worked with repeatedly, like Brackett and Diamond. The ones he didn't get along with as well, he never worked with again. Like many of Wilder's films, it's tricky to classify: it's too funny to be a drama and too dramatic to be a comedy... but then, that's part of what made Wilder unique among filmmakers.

Other films by Billy Wilder:
Double Indemnity
Some Like it Hot
A Foreign Affair
One Two Three
Sunset Boulevard


  1. "Stalag 17" is one of "those" movies - the movies you never get tired of watching.

    The hubby doing his "Animal" impersonation every time I watch a Betty Grable movie is something I can do without.

    I was a bit "Hogan's Heroes" fan growing up. I probably couldn't relate any individual plots with accuracy nowadays, but I loved the cast.

  2. I was quite surprised, to say the least, to see Richard Dawson as a Brit.

  3. I knew nothing of the Stalag and Hogan's Heroes connection, Rich. INTERESTING!! This is one of the wilder films I never think of, in truth, when asked about favorites in his repertoire. But it's wonderful. As is this entry. THANK YOU!!


  4. How about that? I thought it was common knowledge. Guess not.

    Glad you like.

  5. I didn't get the love for this film on first watch, but it's certainly one that's grown on me (typically against popular opinion, I was a big fan of Ace in the Hole). Interesting to read about the Hogan's Heros connection - although I haven't seen it, it sounds much more like it has more in common with a film like The Great Escape?
    (from Vicki at GirlsDoFilm, this is a very old blogger account!)

  6. Yeah, it's in the same ballpark as THE GREAT ESCAPE, only it has that trademark Wilder humor mixed in with the dramatic stuff.

  7. So glad you chose this for the blogathon. Stalag 17 is hard to categorize, as you've said, but that's why I like it so much. Great performances in this film...and a great review!

  8. This lawsuit case against Crosby is interesting. But I'll add another fact: the 1937 French film The Grand Illusion has a lot of resemblances with Stalag 17... and it was even before the war. Maybe all movies abou POWs are somewhat similar?
    But, back to the movie: I agree Animal was an unforgetable character... My favorite in the whole film, to be true.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  9. GRAND ILLUSION? I suppose, except that one's nowhere near as funny.


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