Laemmle Theatres and the Anniversary Classic Series present a 70th anniversary screening of Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning comedy-drama, ‘Stalag 17’ (described by Leonard Maltin as “the pinnacle of all WWII POW films”), followed by a conversation with prominent journalist Anne Taylor Fleming. Fleming is the daughter of the movie’s co-star, Don Taylor.
The Boston Globe hailed the film as “one of the great pictures of 1953,” and indeed, it was a remarkable year, with such other top films as Fred Zinnemann’s ‘From Here to Eternity,’ George Stevens’ ‘Shane,’ and William Wyler’s ‘Roman Holiday.’ Billy Wilder ranked with these directors as one of the towering American filmmakers of the era. He was arguably at the height of his success in the 1950s, with five Oscar nominations for best director (more than any other director during that decade) and several additional screenwriting nominations, culminating in his wins for best picture, best director, and best screenplay for 1960’s ‘The Apartment.’
‘Stalag 17‘ was adapted from the successful Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, based on their experiences in a German POW camp during World War II. Wilder wrote the screenplay with Edwin Blum. William Holden (who won the Oscar for his performance) played the leading role of the cynical Sefton, an opportunist who finds a way of scoring extra rations by manipulating the system. The other actors include Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, and Sig Ruman. Wilder persuaded director Otto Preminger (‘Laura,’ ‘Anatomy of a Murder’) to play the German commandant of the prison camp.
Much of the prisoners’ energies are devoted to trying to escape, and gradually they begin to fear that there is an informer in their ranks, alerting the Nazis and foiling their plans. Suspicion falls on Sefton, who seems to have the coziest relationship with their German captors, and he feels increasingly pressured to ferret out the real villain in order to survive.
The movie marked a turning point for Holden. Although he had starred in Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (after Montgomery Clift turned down the role), ‘Stalag 17’ brought him a whole new level of success. As critic Pauline Kael wrote, “William Holden’s hair-trigger performance as the crafty, cynical heel who turns into a hero won him a new popularity, as well as the Academy Award for Best Actor,” and she went on to compare his rousing performance to “the parts that catapulted Bogart to a new level of stardom in the early 40s.” Indeed, it was as a result of ‘Stalag 17’ that Holden went on to star in such enormous hits as ‘Sabrina’ (also directed by Wilder), ‘Picnic,’ ‘Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,’ ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ ‘The Wild Bunch,’ and ‘Network’ over the next two decades.
Reviews at the time were outstanding. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called ‘Stalag 17’ “crackerjack movie entertainment.” The Washington Post agreed that it was “a taut, shrewdly observant melodrama several notches above its stage original.” Newsweek wrote, “A smash hit on Broadway, the play…comes to the screen as an even more successful blend of melodrama and rough, occupational comedy.” The Chicago Tribune praised Holden and added, “Don Taylor, Richard Erdman, and Harvey Lembeck perform with unselfconscious skill.”
Taylor co-starred in other Oscar-nominated films of the 1940s and 50s, including ‘The Naked City,’ ‘Battleground,’ and ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow.’ He may be best remembered for playing Elizabeth Taylor’s husband in ‘Father of the Bride’ and its sequel, ‘Father’s Little Dividend.’ In the 1960s Taylor turned to directing, and he helmed such films as ‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ (praised as the best of the sequels to the 1968 sci-fi classic), a musical version of ‘Tom Sawyer,’ and ‘The Final Countdown,’ starring Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen. He also directed his ‘Stalag 17’ co-star William Holden in ‘Damien: Omen II,’ the successful sequel to the horror hit from 1976.
Taylor’s daughter, Anne Taylor Fleming, has had a distinguished career as a journalist, in print (writing for such publications as The New York Times, Newsweek, and Los Angeles Magazine), on the radio, and on television as a regular contributor to the NewsHour on PBS for two decades. She is also the author of several books, including ‘Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.’