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.
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:
Some Like it Hot
A Foreign Affair
One Two Three