The Golden Boy’s Golden Hour: William Holden in STALAG 17

This week’s guest blogger is Carley Michelle Hildrebrand of Married at the Movies and the new podcast, Hollywood Scrapbook.

holden_stalag17Oh, William Holden. The things I’ve done for you.

Confession time. I used to drive 20 miles, each way, to take college classes that could easily have been completed at any one of the countless campuses near my home … because this one happened to be the alma mater of William Holden.

The year was 2002 and I had recently seen the Sunset Blvd for the first time and … I was obsessed with William Holden. Now…”obsession” has some very specific symptoms when it comes to fandoms (because, yes, the classic film community is indeed a fandom) and one of them is, of course, an insatiable thirst to consume every existing piece of media even remotely associated with him/her/it. Over. And over. And over.

First on the list was Stalag 17. To this day, that film remains my favorite William Holden performance, and is absolutely one of my top 5 favorite Billy Wilder films. The script, for me, is a thing of wonder. And Holden’s ability to make a wholly unlikable character somehow likable really blew my mind then and, after re-watching it for Diana Bosch’s William Holden blogathon, it’s as potent as ever.

OK, enough about me. Let’s talk Bill.

As mentioned, Holden was raised in Pasadena, California, which was (and still remains to this day) a more cultured, refined option to neighboring Hollywood. Perhaps in a response to that affluent, blue-blooded atmosphere, young Bill (who was a Beedle then, “Holden” came with Hollywood) was something of a teenage rebel. His devil-may-care, reckless nature coupled with his startling good looks made him enormously popular at school, with both boys and girls. As described in one Holden biography, the girls were attracted to his charm and good looks, the boys were attracted to his bad boy image.

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Fourteen-year-old William Beedle in Pasadena, CA.

When Holden graduated from Pasadena City College (go Lancers!), he eventually fell into radio acting, then local theater, and then…Hollywood. (Which was in fact, his mother’s worst nightmare come true.) The road to Hollywood was actually quite easy for the young actor. The road to fame? Not so much.

Holden got his first big break in 1939. Just 21 years old, he starred opposite Barbara Stanwyck (who would become his lifelong friend) in the boxing drama Golden Boy. He seemed poised for stardom, but for the next decade Holden struggled. He served during World War II, and his transition back to Hollywood was…clunky. By the end of the 1940s, things didn’t look too bright for Holden’s career.

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Meanwhile, another soon-to-be lifelong friend, Billy Wilder, was having a bit of a crisis on his latest project. Wilder had just been told that the lead for his latest project with writing partner Charles Brackett, Sunset Blvd (1950).

It had been a long an tricky process for Wilder and Brackett to get their script past the censors given the adult nature of the story (Joe Gillis becomes a gigolo to an aging movie star) and just when production was finally ready to go, his lead actor, Montgomery Clift dropped out of his contract. Clift, who had loved the script, reasoned that he just didn’t didn’t feel comfortable with the character. (If I may add, it was also a possible act of divine intervention: not only was Clift not right for the role, which I think he knew too and is the real reason for backing out, but his studious dissection of scripts and habit of rewriting dialogue would have been a disaster; Wilder’s words were law. No exceptions.)

The point is: Wilder was up a creek.

Forced to pick from what was available at his home studio, Paramount, Wilder cast William Holden who was highly doubtful of his acting abilities in the face of such a complex role. The result was a critical success, an Academy award nomination for best actor, and suddenly Holden found himself in a position he’d never been in before: in demand.

Billy Wilder and Holden had really bonded during the filming of Sunset Blvd., and the two had become close friends. Very close friends. So close in fact, that when Holden asked his friend his opinion on a piece of art he wanted to by, Wilder replied “If I were you– and I am –”

Stalag 17 (1953) had an interesting journey to the big screen. The story is a wartime whodunnit set inside a POW camp. One of the barracks  (“stalag” being German for barrack) is having a big problem with leaked information. A stoolie is definitely on the loose, and the natural suspect is Sgt. J.J. Sefton: a deeply amoral, unlikable opportunist with a black market operation in effect with the Germans. Stalag started off as a Broadway play, which Paramount had optioned, but the studio readers had been unimpressed calling it “monotonous and lacking in action.” Someone else who was impressed by it was William Holden. He’d seen the play on Broadway and walked out after the first act, and he especially hated the lead role of Sgt. J.J. Sefton whom he thought a ‘garden variety conman.’  

When Wilder approached him for the role, after both Charleton Heston and Kirk Douglas declined, Holden told Wilder, “second choice again, huh?”

Wilder retorted with, “It didn’t work out so badly for you last time.”

But in the hands of Wilder, Stalag 17 took on a new  life all its own. Edwin Blum worked with Wilder on the adaptation  (an experience that he, like Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity, had hated) He added new characters, some outdoor action, and most importantly, transformed the the lead role of J.J. Sefton into something much more complex and interesting. It’s also a very balanced film; the moments of comic relief still serve to advance the plot. The outdoor scenes are still confined by barbed wire. The claustrophobia is oppressive, heightening the already considerable nerves of the inmates.

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Speaking of the inmates, Wilder cast a few of the actors from Broadway play which, to some extent, explains the chemistry on film. Their camaraderie was often boisterous and it did eventually get on Holden’s nerves. He reportedly snapped at them, one day, shouting “God dammit, can’t you guys shut up for a minute? Some of us are trying to get some work done!”

A very J.J. Sefton move.

Now, Wilder’s previous film, Ace in the Hole (1951) one of the most searing indictments against the media ever put to film, had gotten him into hot water with some conservative critics who felt Wilder’s take on America’s fascination with sensationalism to be insulting. Wilder’s selection of Stalag 17 as his next project was a very shrewd move, as the story is about as pro-American as it gets while still allowing Wilder plenty of room for his famous cynicism.

J.J. Sefton may be a hero technically, but he’s also the ultimate anti-hero. There’s nothing Sefton does that isn’t calculated for personal gain. Once Sefton is exonerated by his fellow prisoners of any collusion with the Nazis, he takes the opportunity to give what Andrew Sarris called “a properly cynical adieu”: “If I ever run into any of you bums on the street, let’s just pretend we’ve never met before.” And then, Sefton ducks back inside to give them all a charming smile and a farewell salute. Writer Philip French asks, “is this is an oblique profession of love, a tough guy incapable of expressing warm feelings, or a cynical refusal to accept his humanity?

These questions are exactly why Billy Wilder was right in saying no to Holden’s constant requests to make Sefton nicer, or more likable. The result is a powerhouse performance. It simply wouldn’t have worked any other way, and the Holden was roundly praised. Audiences loved it too, and the film became a hit–Wilder’s biggest grossing film for Paramount up to that point. When Awards seasons came along, it was no surprise to anyone the Holden was nominated for an Oscar. (Along with Billy Wilder for direction and Robert Strauss, aka “Animal,” for supporting actor.)

What was a surprise was that he actually won.

Enter Academy Award politics.

The favorite to sweep the 1954 Oscars was Fred Zinnemann From here to Eternity, with Montgomery Clift pretty much the shoe-in to win best actor. The problem was that Burt Lancaster was also nominated for best actor for the same film. For Academy voters, they canceled each other out. William Holden was awarded the honor, some critics saying it being one of the Academy’s notorious “make up” awards for Holden not having won for Sunset Blvd.

One person who believed this was Holden’s wife, Ardis, who flat out told him, basically, “you know, you really didn’t get that for Stalag 17.” It’s hard for me to think of a more unsympathetic, more hostile thing to say to anyone, let alone your own spouse, on the night of their biggest career achievement. Holden was, quite rightly, incensed by her remark. The night that should have been one of the most glorious in his life ended with Holden getting bitterly drunk at an Oscar party and tearing off the front fender of his car when he missed their front driveway. According to the book Some Like it Wilder, “he awoke the next morning, still wearing his tuxedo and sitting in his easy chair with his golden statuette in his lap.”

The role that he didn’t want from the play that he walked out on ended up securing Holden’s place as one the greatest leading men of his generation–and one of the most loved movie stars of all time.

Stalag 17 airs on TCM Monday, April 9th. It’s also available to rent or buy on Amazon Video and currently has a beautiful Blu-ray release from Warner Bros.

Post script: About my going to Holden’s Alma Mater? That was the tip of the iceberg. The first studio I ever lived in was next door to the Alto Nido apartments in Hollywood: Joe Gillis’ apartment building in Sunset Blvd. I told everyone it was because it was such a good deal. But we all know the real reason. 😉

Many thanks to Carley for taking part in Holden100. Follow her on Twitter here.

For more of Holden100, click here.

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