Preshow Entertainment: HOGAN'S HEROES
When preselecting movies, as opposed to having them chosen at random, one can match the Preshow Entertainment to the film. Hence, STALAG 17 and HOGAN'S HEROES. There's no question one begat the other, even though when S17 sued HH for ripping them off, they lost, despite a preponderance of evidence. Both take place in a POW camp, have guards named Schultz, and oblivious Germans. And Hogan's camp is Stalag 13.
But HOGAN'S HEROES was a situation comedy. I can't imagine how,within 20 years of WWII, this show was pitched. I'm guessing it was a joke that someone took seriously (the pitch TEEN JESUS was recently bought this way).
But legal matters, "too soon!", and how it was green-lit didn't matter much, for the series ran for a successful 6 years. Cocky Col. Robert Hogan, the Sgt. Bilko of POW camps, never broke a sweat and always remained cool in his leather jacket (the same one Greg Kinnear wore in AUTO FOCUS). He's the ringleader of a group of prisoners who purposely stay in the camp (they have elaborate tunnels and can escape at any time) so they can smuggle people out of Germany, or steal tanks, or blow up trains. They're sort of the IMF of sitcoms. What GET SMART was to James Bond. And if there wasn't enough outside humor, there were certainly inside jokes. Most of the Nazis were played by Jews, including Klink, Schultz, and Major Hochstetter.
HH was co-created by Albert Ruddy, who seven years later would produce THE GODFATHER, and nearly 40 years later produced MILLION DOLLAR BABY. It's a romp of a comedy that fit right in between the grounded LUCY and escapist 60s shows (BEWITCHED, MARTIAN, MY MOTHER THE CAR, MR. ED, and many many others). Well defined and colorful characters are always the secret to any sitcom, and HH did it well- Hogan, Klink (Werner Klemperer won or was nominated for an Emmy five of the six years), LaBeau, Newkirk, and of course Schultz (the breakout character with the catchphrase "I know nothing!").
STALAG 17, based on the Broadway play (why doesn't anyone ever do this show?), has its share of comedy too. Its lighthearted moments become comedy because of (once again) the characters and their relationships to one another. And credit Billy Wilder, who I may have mentioned here before, for taking his time and letting the characters and stories take shape. Wilder assembled a seasoned ensemble of actors who were spot on (with the possible exception of over the top Animal), some from the original play.
But let me not fool you. S17 is a drama, as well as part thriller and part mystery. There's a mole in the barracks, and all evidence points to Sefton (William Holden won the Academy Award for his performance here). But is it Sefton? Well, I'm not saying.
The film was Wilder's biggest success, but it was an even bigger thorn in his side. Because his previous movie ACE IN THE HOLE (a/k/a THE BIG CARNIVAL) lost money, Paramount docked his S17 pay. Then, they requested the bad guys be Polish and not German. Wilder went wilder (he lost much of his family in the Holocaust). He denied their request and asked for a written apology. When none was given, Wilder left Paramount.
STALAG 17 has a great opening escape scene that grabs you and doesn't let go. And now you're on for the whole ride. There are wonderful moments, like the horse race and the Christmas party. And the way the spy is revealed. And what they do with him. This is a terrific movie that should not go unwatched. Or should I say (end of review bad pun alert!), do not let this movie escape you.