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Wilder at heart: Cola versus communism in Cagney's good-natured Cold War comedy

Revisited today, Billy Wilder's 1961 farce One, Two, Three is a Cold War poltergeist, rattling chains in the vanished spook house that was West Berlin. Indeed, this artifact from the era of geopolitical competition and nuclear crisis, sufficiently prescient to conjure the idea of Soviet missiles in Cuba, was actually in production when the Russians and East Germans sealed the border and ringed Berlin's western zone with a double-tiered wall.

The premise has been dismantled; is the movie still funny? At once hysterical and ironic, sophisticated and vulgar, set to Khachaturian's "Saber Dance" and marching to a drumbeat of running gags, One, Two, Three celebrates as it satirizes American cultural imperialism. James Cagney caps his career playing a comic vision of the Ugly American—the great gangster of the early '30s is here the megalomaniacal boss of West Berlin's Coca-Cola bottling plant, dreaming of a deal to open new territories behind the Iron Curtain.

Although it recalls two earlier Wilder scenarios—Midnight and Ninotchka (both filmed in 1939)—One, Two, Three updated a Ferenc Molnár comedy in which an industrialist's daughter, house guest of a banker hoping to become her father's partner, elopes with a socialist cab driver, leaving her host one hour to turn her husband into an appropriate son-in-law. Wilder's version, co-written with I.A.L. Diamond, raises the political stakes. The prole swain is a belligerent, ideology-spouting East German beatnik (Horst Buchholz) who must be made suitable for the dizzy teenage personification of American capital (Pamela Tiffin), daughter of Cagney's superior at the Coca-Cola home office.

Four play: Hanns Lothar, Cagney, Buchholz, and Tiffin
photo: Photofest/Film Forum.
Four play: Hanns Lothar, Cagney, Buchholz, and Tiffin

Details

One, Two, Three
Directed by Billy Wilder
Sony Pictures Repertory
January 13 through 19, Film Forum

Despite this pedigree, the joke was fresh. In 1961, Coca-Cola was the official elixir of democracy, synonymous with American culture. A regional taste before World War II, it became mother's milk for uprooted GIs. General Marshall exempted Coke from sugar rationing and, by organizing an overseas operation to keep the front supplied, created the framework for Europe's postwar Coca-Colonization. By the time the movie was made, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol had already appropriated the curvaceous green bottle, and One, Two, Three further parallels Pop Art in its ambivalent treatment of the American mass culture that would eventually defeat Communism—as when the Stasi tortures Buchholz with repeated playings of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

Wilder never made a movie with more one-liners, and Cagney never had to talk faster ("put your pants on, Spartacus," he snarls at Buchholz during a marathon fitting session). But while the jokes are largely verbal, One, Two, Three is not without its visual treats. A onetime Berliner, Wilder makes better use of the dead zone around derelict Potsdamer Platz than any director before Wim Wenders. The entropic mise-en-scéne of East Berlin's imagined Grand Hotel Potemkin suggests a red Sunset Boulevard: An ancient dance band plays a German version of "Yes We Have No Bananas" while a couple of Rosa Klebb clones crowd the floor and a few bewhiskered comrades contemplate their chess games.

Not so far from the contemporary worldview of Mad magazine, One, Two, Three was essentially good-natured. By the time it opened in late '61, however, the nation was gripped by war panic. The New Yorker nervously suggested the filmmakers had pitched their "circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery," and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the season's other cine-statement on postwar Germany), deemed Wilder's jape so tasteless, he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Such publicity notwithstanding, One, Two, Three proved a financial disappointment.

The movie may be manic, but it lacks the sustained velocity to be a great farce. Still, One, Two, Three looks forward to the 1960s' two great black comedies, anticipating Dr. Strangelove in its cynical realpolitik and The Producers in its relentless Nazi baiting. Adapted for the stage in West Berlin and re-released in West Germany during the mid '80s, it even became a cult film—something to hang on the still-extant wall.

 
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