Lost in the shadows: William Holden and film noir

holden_turning point.pngHappy Noirvember! The month dedicated to hard boiled detectives, sassy dames and suspense. Never heard of Noirvember? It started in 2010 by Marya E. Gates on her blog to watch as many film noirs as she could and since then, it’s blown up into a full on celebration of noir on social media and beyond.

Keeping with my year-long project #Holden100 for William Holden’s centennial, I contacted Turner Classic Movies to speak with the “Czar of Noir” himself Eddie Muller about Holden’s films in the noir genre. Like many actors of his era, Holden wasn’t immune to film noir and made four films in the genre including one of its best, Sunset Boulevard.  Below are his answers to my questions.

1. Like many actors of the classic Hollywood era, William Holden also dabbled in the film noir genre with The Dark Past, Sunset Boulevard, The Turning Point and Union Station. In my opinion, Holden’s ability to play sardonic characters who grapple with their own humanity made him a perfect fit for this genre. Where do you see Holden in film noir canon?
The short answer: Under-used. Paramount saw him mainly as a romantic leading man
and tried to cash in on his handsome, virile appeal during his “prime” years. But Billy
Wilder understood the drama in watching a guy like that unravel, which of course is
what typically happens in noir. One of my biggest disappointments is that Holden never
got to play the role for which he was perfectly suited: private eye Philip Marlowe. To me,
he embodies the character as written by Raymond Chandler: more a cynical intellectual
than a genuine tough guy. As you say, “a sardonic character grappling with his
humanity.” The movies never show Marlowe smoking a pipe and working out chess
problems, which he did in the books. Holden could have sold THAT Marlowe very
convincingly. And we know he can do a great voiceover. His narration in Sunset
Boulevard might be the best voiceover ever.

2. In The Dark Past, Holden plays a killer. It was a different William Holden than the public had seen before. Do you consider The Dark Past a film noir or is it more in the vein of a psychological thriller?
It’s part of the obsession Hollywood had in that era for psychiatry, which was a relatively
new phenomenon. It had been made once before, in 1939, as Blind Alley, in which
Chester Morris played the killer. I actually like that film better. It’s basically a hostage
drama with an overdose of Freudian psychobabble. Holden is fun to watch, but I’m not a
big fan of this film.

holden_sunsetboulevard3. Sunset Boulevard is Holden’s breakout film and arguably the most important film of his career. Many point to this as a landmark film noir. Can you explain why it’s revered that way for some people who make think of film noir in a nuts and bolts way like a film noir is, “When there’s a detective and there’s a femme fatale?” 
Some people don’t think of Sunset Boulevard as noir because Norma Desmond is not the typical femme fatale. I totally disagree. My only definition of a femme fatale is “The last woman you should ever meet and you can’t resist her.” That pretty much defines Joe’s relationship with Norma. There’s so much grotesque stuff in this movie, and such a sense of dread and opulent squalor that Holden’s performance tends to go unnoticed, even though, as you say, it’s his “breakout” film. But remember—he also made Born Yesterday the same year, which was much more popular with the public. Although he was overshadowed in that film by both Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford, that image of Holden—bright, smooth, attractive—is what the public liked. Which is why Wilder, the great contrarian, cast him against type in Stalag 17, which won him the Oscar. The recent 4K restoration of Sunset is amazing for how it enhances Holden’s performance—you can really see his wonderful silent reactions to Swanson in their scenes together. He’s absolutely brilliant.

4. In Union Station, Holden was paired again with Nancy Olson and in this film, he plays a tough cop. Holden and Olson made a total of four films (two of them were film noirs) but they never seemed to take off as a screen team. Do you think they had potential to be a film noir team but the scripts just weren’t there? 
I think they were both a bit wasted in Union Station. There isn’t much to the characters;
the studio was just trying to cash in on their chemistry in Sunset Boulevard, without
bothering to create interesting characters. Frankly, anybody could have played Holden’s
part in this movie. It’s an OK film, with some great sequences, but the characters aren’t
developed. As for her potential in noir, Nancy Olson was a bit too much of the spunky
good girl. She is perfect in Sunset Boulevard, but she was never really used that well
again. Or at least I haven’t seen the movie in which she’s that good again.

5. The Turning Point is one of my favorite William Holden films but it seems to be rarely seen. I’m so happy its Paramount restoration has been shown at Noir City festivals this year. Can you tell me about the restoration process and what are your thoughts on The Turning Point?
holden_turning pointWe lobbied Paramount for many years to revive this film. It is an underseen,
undervalued part of the film noir “continuum,” an important and representative example from the early ’50s, and one of the best stories by Horace McCoy, who is mostly known as the author of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. After Sunset, this is my favorite noir featuring William Holden; he’s great in it. As for the new DCP, Paramount did it from a scan of the original negative. I don’t believe there was the same amount of restoration
that went into Sunset Boulevard, but I’m just thankful that Andrea Kalas, who runs the
studio archive, made sure it got done. I believe Kino is putting it out on Blu-ray.

6. Looking back at his film noir roles, I think these four films speak to what a versatile performer William Holden was. He could play a villain, a cad and a hero with ease. Holden would have turned 100 this year. What do you think is the legacy he leaves behind?
He’s a better actor than he often gets credit for. Because he’s handsome and he makes
it looks easy, as you say. And I don’t want to overlook some great performances he
gave later in his career. He’s tremendous in The Wild Bunch, absolutely tremendous.
Pike Bishop is one of the most vivid and believable characters ever, especially for a
western. Peckinpah was a genius, like Wilder. He saw something in Holden that others
couldn’t or didn’t want to see. A depth and a sadness. And it comes out in two other
roles from around the same time, Eastwood’s Breezy and, of course, Network—in which
his great work is, again, overshadowed by the bigger, brassier performances around
him, Finch and Dunaway especially. But he’s the heart of that film, and does a
heartbreaking job with it. Holden grew old pretty fast (the drinking didn’t help) but he
wasn’t afraid to show it onscreen, which led to some very moving later performances.

Many thanks to Eddie Muller and Turner Classic Movies for taking the time to discuss William Holden and film noir. You can catch Eddie on Noir Alley every Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 10 AM ET on Turner Classic Movies. 


An actor meets his idol: William Holden and Fredric March

fredric march birthdayFredric March was born 121 years ago today.  Considered widely as one of the greatest talents of his generation, the actor was respect by his peers. William Holden also considered him one of his acting idols. The two costarred together in two films, Executive Suite and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. An actor meets his idol: William Holden and Fredric March. The ladder was even considered to be Holden’s favorite among his films.

Holden’s companion Stefanie Powers once said: “(William Holden) was never nostalgic about his films. The one film that he would talk about, his favorite film was The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It had been his second time working with Fredric March, and he loved and admired him. Every younger actor of his day realized the worth of this great craftsman, and never more than the way they worked together in Bridges At Toko-Ri,


To spotlight March’s birthday I spoke with writer and Fredric March historian Jill Blake about his work and his films with William Holden in this special audio entry of Flickin’ Out. You can listen to our conversation below and follow Jill on Twitter @biscuitkitten.

Nancy Olson at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival


One of the highlights of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival was hearing the fabulous Nancy Olson speak. I’ve been a fan of Olson’s for a while now and she is a great storyteller. Whether it be on television or in person appearances, she is always candid, respectful and full of memories and moxie. She’s attended the festival before but has eluded me. When I saw her on the lineup this year, I knew I had to make it. Olson is now 89 and her memories are as sharp as ever.

The theme for this year’s festival was “From page to screen” and what better film to spotlight than Sunset Boulevard? Arguably it’s one of the greatest screenplays ever written. On top of that, it’s William Holden’s centennial year so I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear, in person, from someone who worked with him four times! I love the screen teaming of Olson and Holden. There was a great deal of respect between the two and it shows on film.


Below is the raw audio of Olson’s talk with Micheal Feinstein at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival.

My thoughts on William Holden in NETWORK (1976)

This week’s guest blogger is Dominique Lessing from the blog, Miss Classic Film.

Holden_NetworkUBSIt’s very special to be able to relieve a moment where an artist and in this case an actor and a piece of written material fuse together at the perfect moment in time to create a monumental moment on screen. This is what magically happened to William Holden in the year of 1976. It seems fitting that as we celebrate his centennial this year, that we acknowledge the timing of his life and artistry during this period in his career.

When Holden received the script of NETWORK by Patty Chayefsky he was in the prime of his fifties. Only at that time in his life could he have played news division president, Max Schumacher who had been through all the ropes professionally and personally, and still was finding himself grappling with possessing real meaning in his life. With an illustrious career behind him Holden brought all his wisdom, truth, and compassion to the part which he never could have done if he had taken this role in his twenties or thirties.

As I watched this film for the twentieth time for his centennial what drew me in to his character was his loyalty and truth. Now, I know what you are thinking, this is a film about fabrications, deceit, phoniness, and ego, how could I see such admirable qualities in NETWORK but Holden gives it to us in all his complexities and rawness. Right from the beginning of the picture when he witnesses his friend news anchor, Howard Beal get slashed and made into a spectacle on live television, again and again, it’s Holden who stands up and lets him even stay at his apartment to avoid the media frenzy. We quickly see that he is the only one at the station or in what it seems all of New York City who remotely cares about what happens to Beal. I also know what you’re going to tell me next, he may have been a good friend to Beal but he certainly wasn’t a good husband, let’s not forget his stint of running off with Faye Dunaway for months while all the television studio chaos is going on… Yes, this is true but Holden speaks his truth. He does.


Whether you want to call it a midlife crisis or an act of betrayal in his marriage, what is certain and what we see is a character who doesn’t let his desires cloud his need to live in an honest way. When he goes off to live with the Faye Dunaway he knows in his heart it is the truthful thing to do. Holden then in the end leaves Dunaway because he cannot keep living dishonestly to himself because he knows that she doesn’t know how to love him or want to. Yes, this is what in the end makes him such a great character in Network, and why it is one of Holden’s films. He gives a man who is grappling with how does one be authentic when everything surrounding him has become a freak show of fabrication to gain attention and wealth.

I believe more than ever that we all need William Holden today because as our media society becomes closer and closer to the world of NETWORK, seeing a man like him who makes us think about how we are behaving and with what values is immensely important. I am forever grateful for this film and for this man, William Holden for giving us such a character depicted on screen.

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

For more of Holden100, click here.



All good things must come to end and so it is, the final night of William Holden movies on TCM. The programming for his Star of the Month was a versatile mix that showcased why Holden was such a special performer. He brought honesty to each of his roles and it’s something you can feel in all of his movies. Tonight is a nice mix of not only Holden’s star power but how good he was as a supporting player in ensemble films.

My picks for tonight are the first three movies airing in primetime but I must point out that if you haven’t seen his final film, S.O.B. or The Earthling, you should definitely seek them out as they are not as well known. Both are great examples of the type of risks he was willing to take as an older man and how he used his older features to continue to breathe life to complex men.


Born Yesterday (1950, Dir. George Cukor)

Although this film belongs to Judy Holliday (in her Oscar winning role), Holden is a delight as Paul Verrall, the intelligent gentleman hired to tutor Holliday’s Billie Dawn. A bespectacled Holden is charming as he teaches Dawn about American history, politics and philosophy. What makes his character so likeable is how he never looks down on Dawn and how he ends up learning more about himself along the way.

Born Yesterday airs at 8 p.m.


Picnic (1956, Dir. Joshua Logan)

As a trouble drifter battling demons and questioning his place in the world, Holden thought he was much too old to play Hal Carter but he used that weariness and sex appeal to bring complexity to the role. This is peak ‘thirst trap’ era of Holden’s career as it followed Love is a Many-Splendored Thing meaning there are many scenes of Holden without a shirt. And as this studio still suggests, the shirt really didn’t want to stay on Holden’s chest anyway.

Picnic airs at 10 p.m.

Network ( 1976, Dir. Sidney Lumet)

In this loud and boisterous social satire, Holden has the quiet part of Max Shumacher, head of of the news division at the network, UBS. Holden is the soul of Network, a man who loses his way but eventually discovers the truth of who he is. Scenes where he talks about his fear of death now that he has aged and his confrontation with his wife after he has confessed his affair, you can’t help but feel that the character may have been a little too close to home for Holden in his real life. The pain in his eyes brings a truth to Max in a powerful way only Holden could deliver and he won his final Oscar nomination along the way.

Network airs at 12:00 a.m.

Although William Holden month may be over on TCM, Holden100 is a celebration for the entire year. The conversation will continue here on Flickin’ Out and on my social media channels by following #Holden100.

For more of Holden100, click here.



:Sigh: Tonight is the second to last night of William Holden movies on Turner Classic Movies. Where did April go? Tonight’s theme is westerns! Holden is not known for his westerns but he made 11 of them. Not all of them are winners but it’s another great example that Holden was comfortable in any role he played.


The night kicks off with The Horse Soldiers. The film, from 1959 and directed by John Ford, costars John Wayne in a story set in the Civil War. Holden plays a doctor who joins a Union calvary led by Wayne on a raid to destroy enemy railroads. But Holden’s character is constantly at odds with Wayne causing friction. Although based on true events, many have criticized the film for historical inaccuracies (but then again, when has Hollywood gotten any historical film completely right?), but Holden and Wayne are so good at bringing passion and heroism into their roles making this one of Ford’s most underrated films.

The Horse Soldiers airs at 8 p.m. 

Arizona is Holden’s first western. It costars Jean Arthur, an actress I adore. In this film, wayne_holdenhorsesoldiersHolden is a young, arrogant cattle rancher with a lot of charm. Arthur is the lead character as a ‘Calamity Jane’-type of western hero creating a quasi-feminist western with some dialogue that may surprise you. Another surprise in this film is a singing William Holden! He was obviously dubbed because it doesn’t quite match up and it shows there’s a reason he was never cast in a full blown musical. Holden is so young and easy-going in the part. It’s a snapshot of a Holden we rarely see so it’s nice to see him in a laid-back role with heroics sprinkled in. Arizona is a great adventure western film that packs suspense in the end, especially the final sequence.

Arizona airs at 10:15 pm.

Wild Rovers 

Wild Rovers was originally intended to be a grand 3-hour epic by director Blake Edwards but unbeknownst to him, MGM heavily edited the film. Edwards was so upset, he disowned the film and took his anger out by making the film S.O.B, a satirical commentary at Hollywood. The film ends up being quite difficult to follow, however, the bond between Holden and Ryan O’Neil is worth the admission. I always love films that show the passing of the torch of one generation of Hollywood to another, and this is one of them.

Wild Rovers airs at 3:00 am 


Escape from Fort Bravo 

Eleanor Parker is one of my favorite underrated actresses. She is just so beautiful and tough. She could also play any role yet is so rarely talked about. Frustrating! Go watch her work other than The Sound of Music. This is another Civil War western and here, Holden is the ruthless captain in charge of a Union prison camp. Parker comes into the fray as she tries to free the camp but turning on the charm and having Holden fall in love with her. The Technicolor in this film is gorgeous but there are moments that make you feel sour as with most westerns, however the action and romance got me and I really enjoyed this one. I love Holden performances where he gets to play characters you can’t quite figure out and this is another great example of that.

Escape from Fort Bravo airs at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

For more of Holden100, click here.


Happy Holden 100! William Holden’s birthplace honors its Golden Boy

holden_stillHappy William Holden 100, everyone! Today in 1918, William Holden was born in O’Fallon, Illinois. Before he was a big Hollywood actor, Holden was William Franklin Beedle Jr., son of William Franklin Beedle and Mary Blanche Ball. The Beedle family had deep roots in O’Fallon but Holden’s nuclear family didn’t stay for long. The family moved to Pasadena, California when he was just three years old.

That doesn’t stop O’Fallon from being proud to be the birthplace of such a legendary star. I spoke to Brian Keller, a historian in O’Fallon about Holden’s legacy. April 17 is a special day for the city. A proclamation was made declaring it William Holden Day. Below is a copy of the official proclamation I obtained from Keller and the O’Fallon City Council.

O'Fallon proclamation

Keller was so kind to speak to me over the phone about O’Fallon’s native son. The town will hosting a special birthday party for Holden complete with a cake. If you live in the area or nearby, you can visit the museum for an open house from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.


Holden didn’t visit O’Fallon often as he left when he was so young but the town was very proud of his accomplishments. According to Keller, Holden never forgot his birthplace. Holden and his wife, Brenda Marshall, visited O’Fallon in the 1950s and although no photo exists, the trip was documented in the local newspaper.


The newspaper article states the couple visited First National Bank and ate lunch at the bus station with the board’s president. The bank building is now the location of the O’Fallon Historical Society that has an area dedicated to Holden that includes rare photographs and even his baby bed. Keller says guests walking through it are walking in the same place Holden and Marshall once did.


When the town marked its own centennial, it was 1954 the same year Holden won the Oscar for Stalag 17.  Holden was invited to visit O’Fallon for its centennial celebration but wasn’t able to attend. He sent this telegram to the mayor:


Listen to my full conversation with Keller below:

For more of Holden100, click here.




holden_50sI can’t believe we’re already halfway through William Holden’s Star of the Month! I have loved every minute of it so far. The films curated for his celebration are really diverse that give us a great deep dive into his body of work. The best part has been connecting with so many fans during livetweets of the films. Holden is so beloved and it’s nice to hear from fans and what they pick up while watching his films.

Tonight’s lineup is a blend that showcases Holden as a leading man and his strengths with his leading ladies. The block of films features romantic comedies and dramas.

The film leading primetime is The Moon is Blue, a saucy sex comedy costarring Maggie McNamara and David Niven. The film is notable as being the first post-Hayes Code feature to use the word…virgin. GASP! This was apparently so controversial it led to a lengthy battle with the censors, even the city of Boston, Massachusetts banned the film. The funny thing about the film is that it is very tame when you look at it today but that’s the case with so many classic films. Holden is charming as an architect named Don who tries to seduce McNamara’s character, Patty, but she plans to keep her virginity and the back and forth between the two is great fun. The standout of the film is David Niven who plays another aging playboy and is the father of a woman Holden just broke up with. Niven tries to seduce Patty as well and the battle for her affections between him and Holden is hilarious in its 50s way.

The Moon is Blue airs tonight at 8 PM on TCM.

After The Moon is Blue, TCM is airing a double feature of two films Holden made on location in Hong Kong: The World of Suzie Wong and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. These two films are notable because it helped spark Holden’s interest in travel and making more films on location. “I find that I’m terribly curious about the world, and about the people in it. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to satisfy that curiosity by traveling both for the production of motion pictures and then after their finished, selling them,” he told Edward R. Murrow on the CBS program Person to Person in the 1950s.


The World of Suzie Wong is Nancy Kwan’s film debut. Holden plays a struggling artist who finds a muse in Kwan, a sex worker in Hong Kong. The two fall in love but like any love story, it’s not smooth sailing. Kwan shines in this film with so much promise, it’s easy to see why she became one of China’s biggest mainstream stars in America. Holden gives a sincere performance in this film, never looking down at Suzie and her lifestyle but instead has empathy for her and her background. It’s a sweet film that’s not often shown so you definitely want to make it a point to catch it.

The World of Suzie Wong airs at 10 PM tonight on TCM.

After that film, is Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. This romantic drama costarring Jennifer Jones has received a lot of airplay on the network lately and no complaints from here. I love the scenery captured in this film and it’s one I wish I could see in Cinemascope. The sweeping views of Hong Kong blended with the title song make it an irresistible romance even if Jones is playing a half Chinese/half European doctor. I like this Holden performance because even though his character is a bit of a cad, he’s so romantic that it’s easy to see why audiences and women all over the world fell for him. It’s not a perfect film but it has lovely moments and if you’re not in some way moved at the end of it, they check your doctor because you may not have a heart.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing airs at 12:15 AM on TCM.

The last film I recommend tonight is Apartment for Peggy. Unfortunately, this little drama is in the overnight timeslot at 2:15 AM. Holden was loaned out to 20th Century Fox for this film. Apartment for Peggy is a light hearted film that deals with the heavy post-WWII themes such as returning veterans struggling to find work and a home, parents recovering after losing their children to war, and suicide. The strength in this film is Jeanne Crain’s performance as a lovable and determined young woman trying her best to make a life for her husband (Holden) and their child who’s on the way. This is one of the first films Holden made when he returned from war that showed his strengths as a leading man and the Technicolor also showed his fully featured face.

Apartment for Peggy airs at 2:15 AM on TCM.

I’ll be livetweeting the films tonight on Twitter with the hashtag #Holden100. I hope you’ll join the conversation!

For more of Holden100, click here.


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.


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.


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.


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.



holden_sunsetTo say this Monday’s lineup of films on TCM for William Holden is perfection is honestly an understatement. It starts off with three essential films in Holden’s body of work. It’s his greatest hits that begins with his breakthrough Sunset Boulevard at 8 PM, followed by his Oscar winning performance in Stalag 17 at 10 PM and then The Bridge on the River Kwai at 12:15 AM, a picture Holden made when he was at the top of his game. But after these three well-known films, you have two lesser known gems that are significant.

Toward the Unknown was the first and only film Holden produced and then there’s Force of Arms, a special film directed by Michael Curtiz. These are two different and special films. In Toward the Unknown, Holden plays a test pilot during the Korean War who was captured, tortured and released from a prison camp. He attempts to clear his name and in this journey, Holden captures his desperation and  stress from it all. The flight sequences are also very impressive for the era. The film isn’t shown as often as it should be and doesn’t have a DVD release, so you’ll definitely want to have it on your radar. It will air at 3:15 AM on Tuesday, April 10.


Force of Arms is the third pairing of Holden and Nancy Olson. Their first collaborationwas in Sunset Boulevard and in this film it’s nice to see them in a straight-up romantic drama. This movie is so beautiful. In this war movie, Holden is a GI on leave in Italy who meets and falls in love with WAC Olson. Their chemistry together had promise in Sunset Boulevard, and in this film it’s showcased. The film is ripe with emotional, romantic dialogue between the two but what could come off as corny in the hands of other actors is just fine for these two. You get invested in their love story because they’re so good at creating a build up and pay off. To balance the romance, this war film also features some very good action sequences that show what life is like in a war torn country. Force of Arms airs at 5:15 AM on Tuesday, April 10.

As a special feature for this week’s Holden100 guide, I spoke with New York Film Festival director and filmmaker Kent Jones about Holden’s legacy. You can listen to the interview below:

For more of Holden100, click here.