“Billy Wilder has a mind full of razor blades.”
That’s William Holden’s mic-drop take on Wilder’s creative genius. Holden should know. Their 30-year friendship began when Billy directed Holden in his breakout movie (Sunset Blvd.); it flourished while shooting the classic rom-com (Sabrina); and it struck Oscar gold when Holden won Best Actor for Stalag 17, their most successful screen collaboration.
Pay attention to Holden’s exit line in Stalag 17: The cynical sentiment is pure Billy.
But let’s roll back the camera a bit, shall we? In 1951, Billy’s career was stuck in Flopsweatistan after the critical shellacking of his way-ahead-of-its-time drama, Ace in the Hole. Trawling for crowd-pleasing material with proven box-office potential, Billy set his sights on a hit Broadway play.
Stalag 17 was written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, real-life POWs who met in an Austrian prison barracks in 1943. The plot was inspired by an actual incident, in which a POW slated to be sent to a concentration camp was hidden by the other prisoners until he could be smuggled to safety. After the frustrated guards learned that the missing man had distinctive tattoos, they tried to smoke him out by having all of the POWs strip. The tactic backfired because the prisoners had inked themselves with identical tats. Can you say “I’m Spartacus”?
Billy instantly sensed the dramatic, comedic and cinematic possibilities of the story. He also had one actor in mind: His buddy Holden. Too bad Holden was Paramount’s third choice, behind Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas. Luckily, the casting gods prevailed, and Holden got the part, but there was one final hiccup: Holden hated the play so much, he walked out after the first act. He thought the lead character (Sefton) was a jerk, and begged Billy to make Sefton nicer. Billy refused, but promised Holden that he’d rewrite the role to make Sefton “a heel who turns out to be a hero.”
Seeing no need to reinvent the proven chemistry of the Broadway cast, Billy signed five of them: Robert Shawley (“Blondie” Peterson), William Pierson (Marko the mailman), Robinson Stone (Joey, the mute soldier with PTSD), Harvey Lembeck (Shapiro) and Robert Strauss, who earned an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actor playing the Betty Grable-obsessed inmate, Animal. Certain he was a shoo-in to win, Strauss reportedly printed his acceptance speech in the trade papers in advance, but lost to Comeback Kid Frank Sinatra for From Here to Eternity, which swept eight awards in an Oscar tsunami.
Rounding out the crew: Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible), Don Taylor (Father of the Bride), and Otto (Laura) Preminger, a tyrannical director perfectly cast as the tyrannical camp commandant. Billy kept Otto on a short leash, knowing he might try directing himself.
Sure enough, at one point, Otto finished a scene, and walked off the set saying, “Cut! Print! Brilliant!” (Billy called him back for retakes); in a 1967 interview with Sight and Sound, Billy added, “[Otto] never could remember his lines. He told me that every time he fluffed he would send me a jar of caviar. I soon had shelves full of them."
Nepo alert: The younger brothers of William Holden and Robert Mitchum have bit parts as POWs, as does Stalag 17 playwright Ed Trzcinski, portraying a prisoner who “believes” his wife’s preposterous letter about “finding” a baby that looks just like her.
Speaking of extramarital nookie... Holden’s wife Ardis showed up shortly after Holden finished shagging an actress in his dressing room. From the look on Ardis’ face, Holden assumed that she heard about his indiscretion and that his marriage was over. Instead, Ardis confessed that she’d gotten into a fender bender. A greatly relieved Holden blurted out, “That’s marvelous!” (You know what wasn’t marvelous? Holden’s unflattering haircut and grubby appearance, which served the role, but not millions of fans who preferred their Holden served smokin’ hot).
Three final Stalag scoops:
The film was shot during L.A.’s rainy season, which made the exterior location of the camp a muddy mess. Rather than "getting" how the mud enhanced the realism of POW life, Paramount executives hated how “dirty” the stars looked (hello, they’re P-O-freaking-Ws!). When Billy threatened to quit, the suits backed down.
On March 4, 1952, Holden took the afternoon off to serve as Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s best man (Ardis was matron of honor). The Holdens hosted the couple’s wedding reception at their home, and were the godparents of Reagan daughter Patti Davis.
Check out this shot: Gloria Swanson, who worked with Billy and Holden on Sunset Blvd., stopped by for a sneak peek at their new picture. How cool is that?
Now, cue the popcorn and enjoy this free link to Stalag 17.