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The Big Idea
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 Stalag 17

The Big Idea Behind STALAG 17

Stalag 17 was first a Broadway play that no one expected to be a smash hit. It premiered late in the 1950-51 season with almost no advance ticket sales to keep it going through the slow summer. Yet even without a single known star in the cast, the play did very well, thanks in part to the novelty of the POW setting and the bawdy, dark humor. It ran for nearly 500 performances and was produced and directed by actor Jose Ferrer, who won a Tony Award for his direction.

Wilder liked the play's mix of comedy and intrigue and was especially attracted to the character of Sefton. This character and the subject matter bore similarities to an earlier pet project, the comedy-drama-romance A Foreign Affair (1948), set in postwar Germany and featuring a character named Erika (Marlene Dietrich), who like Sefton is a born survivor willing to do whatever is necessary to live a life of comfort.

Wilder needed a hit. His first film as a producer, Ace in the Hole (1951), was considered his most bitterly cynical work yet. But it was rejected by critics and the public alike (even after Paramount re-released it with what they thought was a more appealing title, The Big Carnival). Convinced he would have a money-maker with the play, he bought the rights to Stalag 17 for $50,000.

Wilder's successful writing partnership with Charles Brackett ended after Sunset Boulevard (1950) and his longstanding collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond would not begin until Love in the Afternoon (1957). To help him adapt Donald Bevan's and Edmund Trzcinski's play, he chose Edwin Blum, who had written a few lesser-known Tarzan pictures, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), arguably the best of that series, and the supernatural comedy The Canterville Ghost (1944).

At first, Wilder conceived the lead role of Sefton for Charlton Heston. But as the character more clearly emerged, he began to think of William Holden (although some sources say he also considered Kirk Douglas). It was Wilder who had changed Holden's image from that of the handsome leading man and given him darker, more complex shadings that revealed the fine actor beneath.

Wilder asked Holden to see the play when he was in New York. The actor was not impressed, walking out after the first act. He thought the story was unexciting and found Sefton to be no more than an unmitigated con man. Wilder assured him the role would be richer and more compelling in the finished script.

Indeed, Holden found the script very appealing and agreed to do the role, but he was still apprehensive. He thought bits should be added to make Sefton less of a heel and even suggested he be given a few lines to emphasize how much he hated the Germans. But Wilder refused to soften the character beyond his conception.

Wilder retained some of the actors from the stage version, most notably Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss as the buffoonish duo Shapiro and Animal, and William Pierson as the nasal mail deliverer Marko.

In the role of the Commandant, which didn't exist in the original stage play, Wilder cast his friend Otto Preminger, another Austrian Jew who had made a name for himself as a top director in the 1940s.

by Rob Nixon

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