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Stalag 17

Stalag 17(1953)

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Voice-over narration, spoken by Gil Stratton, Jr. as his character "Cookie," is heard intermittently throughout the picture. In the film, Jay Lawrence, as his character "Sgt. Bagradian," does comic impersonations of several celebrities, including Clark Gable, James Cagney, Cary Grant and Ronald Colman. According to contemporary sources, Edward Trzcinski, who co-wrote the play on which the film is based and appears in a small role in the picture, was interred for over a year in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. Modern sources claim that Trzcinski's co-author, Donald Bevan, also was a prisoner of war. Paramount purchased the play for $110,000, according to a Variety news item. Harvey Lembeck, Robert Strauss, Robinson Stone, Robert Shawley and William Pierson reprised roles from the Broadway production, which was directed by Jos Ferrer. Modern sources note that director-writer Billy Wilder and his collaborator Edwin Blum altered the play significantly for their adaptation.
       According to the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, after reading a draft of the script, PCA director Joseph I. Breen expressed great concern about the "Stosh" character and warned in a February 14, 1952 letter to Paramount executive Luigi Luraschi that Stosh was not to be portrayed as a "man who is on the verge of losing his mind through sex frustration." In a March 10, 1952 letter to Luraschi, Breen further complained about a scene in which Harry and Stosh dance together: "If there is any inference in the finished scene of a flavor of sex perversion we will not be able to approve it under the Code." Despite Breen's protests, the dance scene was kept in the picture. Breen also cautioned the producers against using toilet paper and toilet activities as gags, noting that "the comedy use of toilet paper as a Christmas gift is unacceptable and must be changed." In the final film, paper napkins were used instead of toilet paper.
       Charlton Heston was first considered for the role of "Sefton," according to a Los Angeles Times item. Modern sources note that Heston was Wilder's first choice for the part, but when Wilder and Blum began revising the script, Wilder realized Heston was no longer right. Wilder then asked Kirk Douglas to play the role, but Douglas turned him down, according to modern sources. William Holden, who starred in Wilder's 1950 hit film Sunset Blvd., accepted the part, despite not liking the play. Modern sources claim that Holden asked Wilder to make "Sefton" a bit more sympathetic, but Wilder refused. According to a January 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, Charles McGraw was under consideration for a role in the picture. Shortly after principal photography began, Harvey Lembeck replaced Cy Howard, a radio and television writer-producer, in the role of "Harry Shapiro." According to modern sources, Wilder fired Howard because he felt his interpretation of the Jewish character was too exaggerated. Hollywood Reporter news items list Jay Gerard and Tommy Summers as cast members, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Paramount production files contained at the AMPAS Library indicate that a replica of a POW camp was built at Snow Ranch in Calabasas, CA, where exterior filming took place. The film's final budget was $1,661,530.
       William Holden won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in the film. Wilder was nominated as Best Director and Robert Strauss as Best Supporting Actor. According to modern sources, Stalag 17 was a box-office hit, earning over $10 million in its first year. Modern sources also note that in 1956, the head of distribution at Paramount told Wilder that German distributors were willing to release the film, which had been banned by the government in 1953, on condition that the barracks spy be made a Pole. Wilder, who lost most of his family in the Auschwitz concentration camp, flatly refused to make the change, however. The German ban was lifted in 1960, when the picture was shown with an opening disclaimer advising the audience that the depicted prison camp was "not typical...but only one example," according to modern sources. Spain banned the film until 1964.
       In January 1967, Hollywood Reporter announced that authors Trzcinski and Bevan had filed suit in federal court charging the CBS television network with copyright infringement in its series Hogan's Heroes. Bevan claimed that in 1963 he submitted a proposal for a television series based on the play, which was rejected, but that CBS then developed a series with Crosby Productions that used characters and situations from the play. The final disposition of the lawsuit is not known. Hogan's Heroes ran from September 17, 1965 to July 1971, and starred Bob Crane as "Hogan" and John Banner as the German guard "Sgt. Schultz."