Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Classic Comedy Lookback - Hogan's Heroes

There's something I find vaguely disturbing about Hogan's Heroes and more specifically one character on the show. It's difficult to put into words and I expect to get some comments along the lines of "you're nuts" when I explain things. It's not a big thing really but if the way this character is written is intentional - which I sort of doubt - then it may prove that the writers of Hogan's Heroes had a bit more understanding than they're given credit for.

Hogan's Heroes isn't one of the great sitcoms. It's a first rate show and has a timeless quality that does well in repeats, but when compared to series like I Love Lucy, The Phil Silvers Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show it doesn't come up to standard. The writing is less than spectacular, in many cases the characters are stereotypes rather than fully developed (mostly the Allied characters by the way) and there's nothing really innovative about the show. That doesn't make it a bad show by any means, but it doesn't break new ground.

The series is built around Colonel Robert Hogan, who has made the German prisoner of war camp LuftStalag 13 into a base for covert operations against the Nazis. It's supposed to be obvious that the entire camp is involved in Hogan's operations but we really only get to know five of Hogan's men: Sergeants Kinchloe and Carter (and after Ivan Dixon left the show, Sergeant Baker) and Corporals Newkirk and Lebeau. Hogan is Bilko working for the common good rather than personal greed, except that while Bilko could undoubtedly work his con games and other activities against any officer in the Army (with the possible exception of Ike) and not just against Colonel Hall, Hogan and his men are desperate to insure that they don't get someone who is actually competent to command Stalag 13. For their operation to continue to run smoothly they need Colonel Klink and go to extremes to protect him from any threat that will take him from them.

There is a stereotypical quality to Hogan and his men. Hogan is of course the devilishly handsome young Air Corps officer whose a fast talker and of course any woman who walks within fifteen feet of him. Sergeant Carter is one part mad professor mixed with one part naive farm boy. Not only doesn't he get the girl, you get the distinct feeling that he wouldn't know what to do with one if he did get one. Corporal LeBeau is French so of course he's a gourmet cook, a frustrated lover, a cabaret performer, and of course a hyper-patriotic resistance fighter who knows France is down but not out (this was in the decades before the French came to be stereotyped as "cheese eating surrender monkeys" by Americans who sixty years after the war are coming to hate the French). Corporal Newkirk is one extreme of the British stereotype, the good hearted cockney with a "fag" (cigarette) almost perpetually dangling out of his mouth whose acquaintance with honesty is so remote that he probably never learned to spell the word in school because the teacher didn't think he'd ever need to know it. Newkirk is balanced on occasion with Colonel Crittenden, who represents the other side of the British stereotype, the upper class eccentric who is damned if he won't play the game strictly by the rules - he'll do everything he can to escape as is his duty but won't go along with the sabotage operations and other camp activities because that wouldn't be the right thing. In large doses Crittenden, played by the great Bernard Fox, wouldn't work with the show.

Which brings us to Sergeant Kinchloe, played by Ivan Dixon, who is effectively Hogan's second in command even though there are other American officers seen as prisoners in the camp on occasion. Kinch is an African American. The character is essentially a product of the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement rather than any sense of historical reality. The US military during World War II was strictly segregated. The Army Air Corp's single bombing unit made up of Black pilots and crews wasn't deployed to Europe during the war (the 99th Fighter Squadron was sent overseas before the Italian Campaign in 1943 but any members of that unit who were in a situation where they could be captured would have been officers). If we're to believe that Kinchloe was an Air Corps Sergeant then he's an impossibility. Willing suspension of disbelief is enough for us to accept Kinchloe in the same way we accept other historical inaccuracies, like German soldier carrying Tommy guns or RAF officer Crittenden being called a Colonel when his actual rank would have been Group Captain. Would an American audience have wondered why a Group Captain was superior to Colonel Hogan?

Of the four continuing German characters on the show three are stereotypes who are by design are difficult to warm to. Werner Klemperer's Colonel Klink is the main antagonist but of course he's not really that much of a danger. He is a man who has risen well above what the Peter Principle would term as the level of his own incompetence. There's nothing there to be sympathetic to. About the only time we can feel anything resembling sympathy for Klink is when he's being browbeaten by people with real or imagined power over him like General Burkhalter or Major Hochstetter. Burkhalter at least has good reason to browbeat Klink - he knows him. Burkhalter himself can best be described as a pseudo-Goering. Leon Askin gave him the feeling of a bon vivant living very well off of the spoils of the German conquests - but someone who would as comfortable under the Kaiser or serving the post-war People's Republic as he is under Hitler. For a real Nazi you have to look to the Gestapo officer Major Hochstetter. I find it interesting that of the recurring German characters the only one played by an American (Howard Caine) is really the most vile, and the only Nazi true-believer of the lot. Hochstetter never speaks when screaming will intimidate his enemy. And everyone is his enemy, a potential spy or a possible traitor or just someone who is not up to his standards of loyalty to the Fuehrer or the Fatherland (in Hochstetter's view there is no difference). No wonder when Klink says "I hate that man", Burkhalter replies "So do I." There's not nothing sympathetic about Hochstetter which is why Hogan's triumphs over him are so much better than his victories over Klink, Burkhalter or the various one time German opponents.

But it's one of the show's greatest creations Sergeant Schulz that I find vaguely disturbing. Schulz initially started as the corruptable guard, not unlike the one played by Sig Ruman in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (also Sergeant Schulz). In a relatively short time Hogan's Schultz, played by the marvelous John Banner, became more. Schulz is the common man - in fact short of naming him Sergeant Schmidt they couldn't have made him more common. He's a World War I veteran where he fought with some gallantry, but now his primary concerns are keeping out of trouble, his sore feet and getting strudel or chocolate from Lebeau and the prisoners. Over time we get the feeling that he'd much rather serve under Colonel Hogan than the man he dismissively refers to as "the Big Shot". The writers and producers went to extremes to let us know that Schulz is a "good German"; at one point he mentions that things were so much better when the Kaiser was around and at another he tell Hogan that he voted Social Democrat - an option that was far from the Nazis but at the same time not communist. We, as the audience like Schulz, we want him to be more competent than Klink, and on those rare occasions when he has real power he does show himself to be more able than Klink (but who wouldn't be) much to the dismay of Hogan and his men who have to restore the established order to survive. Thus of Schulz's various pre-war occupations - I remember him saying at least once that he had been a baker before the war and he may have mentioned working in factories - the one that fans of the show and fans of Schulz seem to latch onto as the "truth" is one that is revealed in an episode where the Germans think that the war is coming to an end, where it's revealed that Schulz owns of the Schottsy Toy Factory which was taken over by the government when the war started. It's accepted, despite all of the vagaries of sitcom continuity, because we want Schulz to be successful and to be able to hire - and of course fire - Klink after the war ends. Schulz is a "good German."

Here's the disturbing part for me, an idea that occurred to me only in the past week or so. The concept of the "good German" is one which looks at the bulk of the German people during the rise of Hitler and the wartime period and asks why they did nothing to stop him. Schulz's oft repeated tag phrase "I know nothing! I see nothing!" is not unlike the protestations of the Germans who were paraded through the concentration camps by the British and the Americans at the end of the war and said that they didn't know what was going on there and and didn't see anything unusual. And if Schulz really did own the Schottsy Toy Factory it really was taken over by the government for war work then the factory might well have used slave labour. Schulz in the camp is analogous to the "good German." If he reports on what he sees and hears then Hogan and his operation are destroyed in the same way that if the "good Germans" hadn't been silent and had taken action soon enough they might have been able to stop Hitler before he started a war and created concentration camps. True, the comparison between Hogan and Hitler is odious if for no other reason than the character of Colonel Hogan is clearly a heroic figure on the rights side of things but nevertheless, while I doubt that the parallel was intentional or that the writers of Hogan's Heroes were even conscious of these sorts of issues, I think they can be uncovered in a deeper examination of the show's significance.

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