By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
The very first Billy Wilder film I watched as part of my burgeoning film education wasn’t one of his acknowledged classics such as Double Indemnity (1944) or Sunset Blvd. (1950) — or even Some Like it Hot (1959) or The Apartment (1960) but a movie I consider “second-tier” Wilder, the 1961 Cold War comedy One, Two, Three. Keep in mind that I don’t refer to the film as second-tier because I dislike it or am trying to denigrate the work; it’s just that with the passage of time, the topicality of One, Two, Three hasn’t particularly worn well, something that I’ve also noticed in Ninotchka (1939), a Wilder-scripted comedy (but directed by Ernst Lubitsch) whose plot and themes are revisited in the later feature. (One, Two, Three also contains echoes of the filmmaker’s earlier Sabrina, the 1954 romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden.)
The dated political content of One, Two, Three doesn’t do it any favors, but this is nevertheless going to be an enthusiastic review of a film that debuted in motion picture theaters 50 years ago on this date. “Second-tier” Wilder is miles and away better than the best movie helmed by any director today, and with his longtime partner I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond, Billy crafted a fast, frenetic and funny farce (based on a 1929 play, Egy, kettö, három, by Ferenc Molnár) that still can leave an audience breathless with laughter. The icing on this cinematic cake is that, before he returned briefly to movies for Ragtime in 1981, One, Two, Three served as the penultimate cinematic swan song for the legendary James Cagney.
C.R. “Mac” MacNamara (Cagney) is head of operations for Coca-Cola in West Berlin, a month or two before the closing of the Brandenburg Gate (and subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall). Company man Mac is extremely loyal to the Pause That Refreshes, and has been working diligently to advance himself, with an eye on assuming the post of European operations in London by shrewdly brokering a deal to introduce the soft drink to the Soviet Union. (Mac was formerly in charge of Coca-Cola’s interests in the Middle East but a mishap involving Benny Goodman resulted in Mac’s demotion after the bottling plant was destroyed in a riot.) He’s scheduled to meet Soviet representatives Peripetchikoff (Leon Askin), Borodenko (Ralf Wolter) and Mishkin (Peter Capell) to discuss introducing the soft drink behind the Iron Curtain, and is juggling that conference with plans to further his “language lessons” with luscious secretary Fräulein Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver).
The roguish MacNamara is planning to take advantage of his wife Phyllis’ (Arlene Francis) scheduled trip to Venice with their two children to dally with Ingeborg, but those plans are put on hold when Mac receives a call from his boss, Wendell P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John), in Atlanta. Hazeltine’s daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) is en route to Berlin, and he’s entrusted Mac to keep close tabs on her since Scarlett is a bit of a shameless flirt (despite being only 17). As an example of her hot-blooded tempestuousness, Mac and Phyllis meet her at the airport just in time to find her awarding herself as a lottery prize to the flight crew (the winner is a man called Pierre, prompting Phyllis to dub him “Lucky Pierre”). What starts out as a two-week assignment stretches into two months, but Mac is pleased that he’s keeping Scarlett on a tight leash.
On the day before the Hazeltines travel to Berlin to collect their daughter, Scarlett turns up missing. Mac learns from his chauffeur (Karl Lieffen) that the girl has been bribing him to let her off at the Brandenburg Gate every night to allow her to cross the border into East Berlin. Devastated by this news, MacNamara expresses relief when Scarlett turns up at his office, but then is hit by a streetcar when she announces that she’s been spending all her time with an East German Communist named Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz), whose political philosophy fills Mac with utter revulsion. The problem for Mac is that the fling between Otto and Scarlett has gone beyond mere puppy love — they tied the knot in East Berlin — something that will no doubt go over with her parents like flatulence at a funeral. The devious MacNamara arranges for the young Commie to be picked up by the East German authorities after they find a “Russkie Go Home” balloon affixed to his motorcycle’s exhaust pipe and a cuckoo clock (that plays “Yankee Doodle” on the hour) wrapped in a copy of The Wall Street Journal in his sidecar.
Mac’s machinations even go as far as to arranging for the couple’s marriage license to disappear from the official record, and he gloats about his triumph to a furious Phyllis, who has finally had enough of her husband’s neglect of their marriage in his pursuit of Coke advancement. The popping of champagne corks is put on hold when Scarlett faints after hearing of Otto’s arrest. An examination by a physician reveals that the girl has a Communist “bun in the oven!” Racing against an ever-ticking clock before the Hazeltines touch down in Berlin, Mac manages to spring Otto and then embarks on an extreme makeover of the hostile Bolshevik to transform him into someone whom Scarlett’s parents will approve. Against all odds, McNamars’s scheme comes off without a hitch, but his dreams of taking over as head of Coke’s European office are dashed when Hazeltine announces the job will go to his new son-in-law! Kicked upstairs to a position in the home office in Atlanta, Mac will reconcile with Phyllis and will hopefully live happy ever after.
Because the emphasis in Ninotchka is primarily on the romance between stars Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, that film hasn’t dated nearly as badly as One, Two, Three, whose jibes at Cold War politics make it more of a period piece, and is likely to appeal mostly to the history majors in the audience. (Wilder’s cynicism also comes to the fore in this film in that you never really believe the romance between Scarlett and Otto. They have to stay married because there’s a “bouncing baby Bolshevik” on the way.) But if you’re able to put its topicality on a back burner, there is much to enjoy in the film; it is a spirited farce, buoyed by the participation of Cagney as the main character of C.R. MacNamara. Mac is a typical Wilder hero: not the most admirable man (he’s cheating on his wife and comes across as a bit of a jerk) but an individual who rises to the occasion when faced with a crisis. Cagney, whose screen performances were usually marked by his established persona as a fast-talking wise guy, is a marvel to watch in this film, barking out orders and, in the words of a reviewer for Time magazine, “swatting flies with a pile driver.”
Cagney did not have an easy time making the film. He was no spring chicken at the time of its production, and having to spout Wilder’s rat-a-tat dialogue at a furious pace was often difficult, particularly in one scene where the director insisted on Jimmy’s completing it in one take. Cagney was tripped up continually by the line, “Where is the morning coat and striped trousers?” It was never explained to his satisfaction why Billy refused to let him paraphrase the dialogue, and so it took 57 takes to get it done (which might explain why the finished product comes off as a little mechanical). Cagney also was not enamored of co-star Buchholz and his scene-stealing antics; Jimmy had experienced a similar incident when making Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and had trouble with character actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall upstaging him in a scene, but he overlooked it because Sakall “was an incorrigible old ham who was quietly and respectfully put in his place by [director] Michael Curtiz.” But if Wilder hadn’t exercised his director’s prerogative and discouraged Horst to stop with the same, Cagney “would have been forced to knock him on his ass, which I would have very much enjoyed doing.”
All in all, the experience of making One, Two, Three drained Cagney and made him realize that he’d rather be enjoying retirement, and upon the movie’s completion, the actor settled in for a second career as a gentleman farmer (though he did narrate a TV special and a 1968 Western, Arizona Bushwhackers, in the interim). He was coaxed out of retirement for a small role in Ragtime in 1981 (as the police commissioner, his last big-screen appearance and a final reunion with his longtime chum/movie co-star Pat O’Brien), and an additional role in a 1984 TV movie Terrible Joe Moran where he played a retired boxer forced to used a wheelchair, but still a fighter to the core. Having suffered a stroke affected Cagney's performance somewhat and it was the final project before his passing in 1986.
In watching One, Two, Three, it almost seems like Wilder and Diamond presciently knew it would be James Cagney’s last significant silver screen work, what with all the in-jokes and references pertaining to the actor sprinkled throughout. There’s the aforementioned cuckoo clock (Cagney’s best actor Oscar was awarded for his role as George M. Cohan in Dandy), but there’s also a scene in which Jimmy picks up a grapefruit half and moves menacingly toward Buchholz’s Otto (shades of The Public Enemy!) and a funny cameo by Red Buttons as an Army MP who imitates Cagney while having a conversation with Jimmy’s MacNamara. Of course, the self-referential jokes are a staple of Wilder’s film comedies; at one point in the movie Cagney cries out “Mother of mercy, is this the end of little [sic] Rico?” as a nod toward Edward G. Robinson’s memorable last line in Little Caesar (something Billy also did in Some Like It Hot, in which George Raft asks a coin-flipping Edward G. Robinson, Jr., “Where’d you pick up that cheap trick?”).
Wilder also recycled a line used by Bogart in Sabrina, “I wish I were in hell with my back broken” (a variation of this also turns up in Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo) and in fact, borrowed Sabrina’s “switcheroo” ending (right down to the hat and umbrella) and use of the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” (only it’s sung in German in One, Two, Three). Music is at the center of many of the gags in the film; in addition to “Bananas,” comic set pieces use Aram Khachaturian's “Sabre Dance” (the main theme that accompanies MacNamara’s breakneck activities, described by Wilder and Diamond to be played “110 miles an hour on the curves…140 miles an hour on the straightways”), Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
Though watching Cagney go through his paces is the main draw of One, Two, Three, his co-stars also rise to the occasion. Arlene Francis is probably best known as a panelist on the longtime TV show What’s My Line?, but she provides solid support as the acid-tongued, long-suffering Phyllis (“Yes, Mein Führer!”). The real-life antagonism Cagney had for Buchholz works to the film’s advantage, of course, but Horst has a certain goofy charm that makes his Otto likable despite his political leanings, and Pamela Tiffin is delightful as the ditzy Scarlett — many a classic movie buff has wondered why, despite high-profile showcases in films such as Summer and Smoke (1961) and Harper (1966), Tiffin’s film career never reached its full potential. Fans of Hogan’s Heroes will recognize Leon Askin as Comrade Peripetchikoff, but you can also hear Askin’s fellow Hogan player John “Sgt. Schultz” Banner as the voice of two of the characters in the film — in fact, when I watched One, Two, Three the other day, it was the first time I noticed that the voice for Count von Droste Schattenburg (the aristocrat who “adopts” Otto, played by Hubert von Meyerinck) is dubbed by character great Sig Ruman!
Jules White, the head of Columbia Studios’ comedy shorts department, once described his directorial style as “mak(ing) those pictures move so fast that even if the gags didn’t work, the audiences wouldn’t get bored.” Wilder and Diamond upped that ante with One, Two, Three; the film not only moves at lightning speed, the gags remain funny today. (My particular favorite has MacNamara calling one of the Russians “Karl Marx,” and when the comrade gives Fräulein Ingeborg a generous swat on her fanny, he quips, “I said Karl Marx not Groucho.”) In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder, the legendary writer-director observed: “The general idea was, let's make the fastest picture in the world…And yeah, we did not wait, for once, for the big laughs. We went through the big laughs. A lot of lines that needed a springboard, and we just went right through the springboard…” The film may not have been a box-office smash (both in the U.S. or Germany) but the final gag left an impression on me when I first saw it as a kid (“Schlemmer!”), and 50 years later watching the great Jimmy Cagney rush pell mell through farcical circumstances beyond his control remains a Wilder devotee’s delight.