Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One, Two, Three

TCM is showing the Billy Wilder farce One, Two, Three on February 20 at 6:00 PM ET. Although it's a political comedy, and as such subject to becoming dated, it's still just as funny as ever more than 45 years on, and well worth watching.

James Cagney stars as C.R. MacNamara, an executive with the Coca-Cola company heading up the soft drinks maker's operations in West Berlin, in the period just before the Communists erected the Berlin Wall in August, 1961. (Indeed, filming occurred before the Wall went up, but the movie was released afterwards, forcing Wilder to tack on an expository scene at the beginning pointing out that the movie was set before the construction of the Wall.) He wants to advance with the company to become head of the entire European operation, while his long-suffering wife ("What's My Line" panelist Arlene Francis, in one of her infrequent movie roles) wants to return to America to raise the kids -- and to get her husband away from secretaries like the buxom Fräulein Ingeborg (played by Lilo Pulver). Anyhow, for MacNamara, the key to advancing is to look after the boss's daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), the stereotype of the vacuous young American blonde, who is traveling through Europe and will be spending some time in West Berlin.

Unbeknownst to MacNamara, however, Scarlett spends every night bribing the chauffeur and going out on the town behind his back; specifically, she's been going to East Berlin to meet the nice Communist boy Otto (Horst Buchholz) with whom she's fallen in love. MacNamara doesn't find out about any of this until Scarlett announces that she's married Otto! Ooh, that's going to cause MacNamara problems in trying to get to the executive suite! So, his solution is to get the marriage annulled by getting the marriage documents removed from the relevant government office in East Berlin. This works, but unfortunately works all too well: it is only after getting the marriage annulled that we learn, in a quite hilarious manner, that Scarlett has gotten pregnant by her husband! If C.R. thought Scarlett's marriage was going to cause him problems climbing the corporate ladder, just think how her pregnancy is going to do just that! The rest of the movie is one long farcical attempt to rectify the situation, involving espionage, false identities, makeovers, an escape from East Berlin, and more; everything, however, falls into place and makes the viewing experience immensely pleasurable. If you want a good comedy, you'll be laughing throughout this one.

Although One, Two, Three is a joy to watch, it wasn't a joy to make for Cagney. Billy Wilder decided that he wanted a rapid pace for this movie, evidenced in part by the frequent use of Aram Khachaturian's classic "Saber Dances" piece, but more troubling for Cagney by the extremely rapid dialog. Cagney was already over sixty, and found delivering the lines in the manner Wilder wanted to be a daunting challenge, to the point that one scene requiring Cagney to rattle off, rapid-fire, a list of clothing items he needed purchased, took over fifty takes! Cagney was so frustrated by all this that he effectively retired from Hollywood, making only a few TV movies, and an appearance in the 1981 movie Ragtime after this.

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