Continuing with my winter project to explore the filmography of a film legend I know little about, I selected William Holden. Did you miss the review of the first pairing? You can read The Wildbunch vs. The Man from Colorado HERE .
Arguably William Holden’s two best roles, or associations with writer and famed director Billy Wilder, the Wilder-Holden partnership was commercial gold in the 1950s with Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1952), and Sabrina (1954). They would pair up one more time at the end of their careers with Fedora in 1978. Check out TCM William Holden if you are interested in learning more about his career and accomplishments.
Stalag 17 garnered Best Director, picture, and actor nominations. He won Best Actor beating out Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Sunset Blvd is the premier example of American noir; it is a dark, psychological tale of two pawns within the Hollywood machine. Silent picture great, Norma Desmond, lives in a fantasy world, a recluse who cannot let go of her former self. She clings to Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, a desperate screenwriter on the run from loan sharks. He stumbles into Norma Desmond’s world. Like a fly in the web, he feeds the delusions of Norma and becomes her kept man.
There is a lot of heart in the film. Director Cecil B. DeMille’s cameo in the film pays homage to the silent film era and his former diva, protecting her ego from studio actors and staff most of whom have no recollection of her. Her omnipotent servant and chauffeur is Max, who devotes his life to protect her reputation. Erich von Stroheim plays the loyal, mysterious companion. The complicated relationship between Joe and Norma is exquisite. He assumes he’s manipulating her, but in due time, it is he who has been seduced. As the narrator who speaks from the grave, he is not angry. He wants to “set the record straight” because he cares about her. The men in Norma Desmond’s life owe her everything and bend to her whims. Her mental frailty is ironic and what makes the film one-of-a-kind. Sunset Boulevard won Best Screenplay, Best Art-Direction/ Set-Direction, and Best Music. Like Tennessee William’s Blanche DuBois, there’s a universal tale of irony behind these unforgettable female characters. As the audience comes face to face with Norma Desmond at the finale, we feel pity for the star and the forgotten greats of the silent era. We are reminded that glory is brief, beauty fades, and time is often cruel.
Stalag 17 showcases William Holden as the camp hustler and suspected “stoolie” for the German officers of a POW camp where hundreds of Allied soldiers are held captive. As a girl whose three favorite shows on television were Star Trek, M*A*S*H, and Hogan’s Heroes,I realized five minutes into the film that the entertaining albeit ridiculous Hogan’s Heroes showing ingenious Allied soldiers and idiotic German officers and enlisted guards (I still quote Schultz’s “I see nothing, nothing!”) was inspired by the film.
Stalag 17 had its weaknesses. The moronic character Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa was over-the-top to the point of distraction. The narration was unnecessary by “Cookie”. I enjoyed watching Peter Graves and William Holden’s performance as J.J. Sefton. His sarcastic humor, cleverness, toughness amid persecution by Duke (Neville Brand) offered William Holden the chance to deliver a dimensional performance worthy of an Oscar. The combination of comedy, drama, and mystery added complexity to the film to make it interesting, although it was hard to ignore how unrealistic were the shenanigans of camp personalities. Still, there’s a charm to the film that sticks with you days after viewing. Also, I doubt Billy Wilder meant for the film to be realistic. Its silliness undermines the drama and suspense for me. Others love that element of slap-stick humor in the film. Just a little less comic relief would be all I would change.
What are you thoughts about these two Holden classics? Which do you prefer?