Who knew that being a prisoner of war could be so funny or that William Holden could be so shady. Billy Wilder did and he made on hell of a hit with Stalag 17. A somewhat true story of American soldiers stuck in a German POW camp –or stalag in German– uses one of Wilder’s greatest devices: placing a comedy against a grim backdrop (he also often employed the opposite by inserting humor into serious stories). Additionally, Wilder cast Holden (over Charlton Heston) as a suspected German spy planted in the prisoner barrack. This is the first time I can remember seeing the leading man in a role that is not a charming, all-American, likeable guy.
Wilder got his hands on Stalag 17 after it became a hit on Broadway. It was written by two WWII prisoners of war who decided to use their experience as the subject of a play. Wilder would largely change the dialogue from the stage production and wrote as he filmed the story in sequence. The story centers on one barrack at stalag 17 where the residents begin to suspect one of their roommates is spilling secrets to their Nazi prison guard. Because Wilder had not decided until the end of filming who that traitor would be, Stalag 17 becomes a movie that if you go back and watch it for a second time knowing what you do by the end, you still cannot detect and clues as to who the perpetrator is. The actors also did not know who would be the villain.
The story itself works to convince the audience and all members of the barrack that Holden’s J.J. Sefton is the guy. He’s a great trader of goods and has a footlocker full of loot. He also bets against two soldiers who at the film’s start attempt to escape but are shot down by waiting Nazis just outside the camp’s grounds. Those two soldiers are Manfredi and Johnson, and if you’re a “Penguins of Madagascar” kids TV show fan, as I am, you’ll note that those are the names of the former comrades Skipper frequently mentions as befalling a tragic fate.
Stalag 17 is full of great humor to the point the characters make it seem as though their circumstances are not too bad. Members of the barrack of focus are great pals with their assigned Nazi guard (Sig Ruman) and jokingly tell him to “dropeh zie dead” and to bring them roommates from the Russian women’s camp next door with nice “glockenspiels”. Setlif sells glimpses through a telescope he built looking towards the women’s delousing house and brews moonshine using old potato peels. The most amusing side characters are two men who came from the stage production: Robert Strauss as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Shapiro. In one scene, a drunken Animal mistakes a cross-dressing Shapiro for the real Betty Grable, love of his life, and romantically dances with the fellow.
Otto Preminger also shows up in one of his six total acting roles in his career as the Nazi commanding the camp. He is comically evil. When phoning Berlin to tell them he has found the man who sabotaged a train, he has his assistant put on his knee high boots so he may click his heels at attention when reporting over the phone, and that servant immediately removes the boots thereafter. Preminger, who like Wilder was an Austrian who fled the Nazis, said Wilder made him a detestable character he could not live down in pictures.
Holden was asked to view the play version before filming started and walked out after the second act. He also protested during filming that his character seemed to be a Nazi friendly and asked to be given a line to the effect of “I hate Nazis”, but Wilder would not budge. His character is very dark and brooding. He is not friends with anyone besides Cookie (Gil Stratton Jr.), our narrator, who later seems to reject that friendship when it seems certain Sefton is the snitch. Holden’s role also seems to stay in the background of the story, with really no part rising to the surface as a clear leading man. The story is more about the association of men rather than one soldier in particular. Holden won the Best Actor Oscar for this part and gave reportedly the shortest acceptance speech in Academy Award history: Thank You. He also supposedly threw the award against a wall backstage because he felt, as his wife said to him on the ride home from the awards show, that he received the statuette sybolically for his part in Sunset Boulevard, which he made three years earlier also under Wilder.
Source: “Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen” DVD feature, TCM.com