Berlin, after the Second World War: C.R. MacNamara presides over the Coca-Cola branch of Germany. He is working hard and trying his very best to impress the Atlanta headquarters, since he has heard that the European headquarters in London will soon be looking for a new head. Now, Coca-Cola boss Mr. Hazeltine asks MacNamara to take care of his daughter Scarlett, who is going to take a trip to Europe.
Scarlett, however, does not behave the way a young respectable girl of her age should: Instead of sightseeing, she goes out until the early morning and has lots of fun. Finally, she falls in love with Otto Piffl, a young man from East Berlin and a flaming Communist, and marries him surprisingly.
When MacNamara hears of this, he intrigues quite a bit with the help of his assistant Schlemmer to get Piffl into an East German prison, but when he also gets note of his Boss and wife coming over to visit their daughter in Berlin, he needs to get Piffl out again, convert him to Capitalism and present him as a fine young and noble husband in order to get his London post, and all of that very quick!
James Cagney ... C.R. MacNamara
Horst Buchholz ... Otto Ludwig Piffl
Pamela Tiffin ... Scarlett Hazeltine
Arlene Francis ... Phyllis MacNamara
Howard St. John ... Wendell P. Hazeltine
Hanns Lothar ... Schlemmer
Leon Askin ... Peripetchikoff
Ralf Wolter ... Borodenko
Karl Lieffen ... Fritz (chauffeur)
Hubert von Meyerinck ... Count von Droste Schattenburg
Loïs Bolton ... Melanie Hazeltine (as Lois Bolton)
Peter Capell ... Mishkin
Til Kiwe ... Reporter
Henning Schlüter ... Dr. Bauer
Karl Ludwig Lindt ... Zeidlitz
C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney), a soft drink executive stationed in West Berlin with his wife (Arlene Francis) and two kids, is given the task of looking after his boss' wild daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), who flies in for a visit. But when Scarlett runs off and marries a young Communist named Otto (Horst Buchholz)---and with MacNamara's boss flying in to West Berlin in a matter of hours---MacNamara has to race against the clock to turn Scarlett's rebellious new husband into the perfect son-in-law, or risk losing his job....
Billy Wilder's "One Two Three" is one of the greatest comedy films ever made. This wonderfully zany 1961 gem is a lightning-paced, hysterical farce (and with it's classic instrumental theme of "The Sabre Dance," you know you're in for a rollicking, rapid-fire comedy). Based on a French play, much of the movie plays out like a stage comedy, as Wilder simply turns his camera on the actors and lets them do their thing. The entire cast is simply superb, their comic timing perfect. James Cagney gives one of his all-time greatest performances as C.R. MacNamara. In almost every scene, with the bulk of the script on his shoulders, Cagney is sharp, quick on the draw, and just plain hilarious as the bewildered executive. Arlene Francis lends fine comic support as Cagney's sarcastic wife, Horst Buchholz is very funny & perfectly cast as the rebellious Otto, and the gorgeous Pamela Tiffin is simply a riot as the hot-blodded, dim-witted Scarlett. But ALL the actors in this movie are funny & terrific. Billy Wilder's direction is marvelous, and his script co-written with I.A.L. Diamond is clever and hilarious.
Some may find the quick pace of "One Two Three" a little exhausting, as the movie's energy level remains high from beginning to end, rarely stopping for air, but it works for me. This movie is pure farce, plain and simple. It makes no apologies for what it is, and it's goal is to make you laugh loudly. "One Two Three" is one of the most hysterical movies I've ever seen in my life, and it never fails to give me bellylaughs. Thank you Billy, Jimmy, and all the rest for this magnificent comedy gem.
One, Two, Three is from the fertile mind of Billy Wilder where Cold War politics gets reduced to the absurd. This film is so fast and so funny it's only a few steps from Monty Python.
For what was and what should have remained his swan song to the world of film James Cagney heads the cast in this. He's the man in charge of Coca-Cola's operations in Germany which is headquartered in West Berlin and he's had a lovely little present dumped in his lap. The daughter of the CEO of Coca-Cola is in Europe and now she's in Germany and he's expected to watch out for her. The daughter is played by Pamela Tiffin and she is one of the biggest airheads ever portrayed on the screen. She's fallen big time for a German kid played by Horst Bucholtz. They've gotten married.
Bucholtz is a kid who's real good at spouting all kinds of left wing slogans without delving to deeply into their meanings. He's a Communist and that drives Cagney nuts and if it drives Cagney nuts, Tiffin's father is sure to go over the top. Cagney takes it upon himself to get Bucholtz arrested on the East Berlin side as an American spy.
Of course a small memento of their married life has developed inside Tiffin so now Cagney has a real problem. He's got to get Bucholtz back and turn him into a money grubbing capitalist in his image. The frantic pace at which this is attempted, racing against the clock when Tiffin's father played by Howard St. John arrives in Berlin is what the rest of the film is about.
Wilder has a ball reducing the Cold War to its basic absurdities. The USA is symbolized by James Cagney who thinks the whole world will become America if only enough Coca-Cola is peddled. Cagney comes real close to proving it so.
The Communists come out far worse. Karl Marx's world always looked nice on paper, but always has had a real problem being converted into a functioning state. The Russians are also good at spouting the party line, but in One, Two, Three, Wilder shows how very easily they can be influenced by some of life's most elemental things and I don't mean Coca-Cola.
Cagney did not always get along with Wilder, but both men were professional enough to bury certain creative differences. Cagney was kind and patient with Tiffin who was getting her first real break in film. However he grew to positively loath Horst Bucholtz. In his memoirs which came out in the 1970s, Bucholtz was the only colleague who Cagney had anything really critical to say about.
During the middle of the film being shot, the Russians stopped the flow of traffic from West and East Berlin. Some shots had to be redone around the Brandenburg Gate, a whole set had to be constructed. I suppose a well trained cinema professional could spot the shots where the real and the fake Brandeburg were used. I sure can't. The following year, the Berlin Wall was built, so Wilder got his film done just in time.
Arlene Francis plays Cagney's exasperated wife and she of What's My Line does just fine. Cagney made an appearance on that show just before shooting started and gave the picture a big old plug.
The laughs come pretty fast and furious as James Cagney struggles mightily to prevent the arrival of "another bouncing, baby, Bolshevik."
Mention James Cagney's name, and most people will mention one of his gangster films like G-Men or The Public Enemy or at a push will mention one of his just as memorable Song & Dance roles like Footlight Parade or Yankee Doodle Dandy. While it is true he could be both Tough and Elegant, largely forgotten was Cagney's wonderful ability to play comedic Characters. (Who can forget his film stealing role as the tyrannical Captain in Mister Roberts).
One such film that highlights his comedy talent, was Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. Made in 1961, it shows us a 62 year old Cagney still at the top of his game 30 years after he became a star.
Set in a post war yet pre détente Germany, the film is a fast, frantic, romantic, hilarious farce set against the non too funny backdrop of the Cold War which to be honest was far from 'cold' when the movie was made with the Cuban Missile Crisis just months away and American tolerance of the 'red menace' at an all time low.
Cagney plays MacNamara, a tough-talking Middle Management executive for Coca-Cola trying to secure the Coca-Cola rights on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. He Hates Communists, Hates Fascists, and loves his work. He is short tempered, sharp tongued and quick witted. He has two women in his life his wife Phyiliss, played fantastically by the always fantastic Arlene Francis, and his yummy blonde and easily corruptible secretary Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver). His organised yet double life is thrown into turmoil when his bosses 17 year old yet wild insatiable daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) arrives with the bosses strict instructions to 'look after her'. Instead of staying for the intended two weeks she stays for two months and appears to have successfully curtailed her wayward lifestyle, until one night she fails to return to the MacNamara home, frantic with worry for her safety (and the safety of his Job), MacNamara is calling everybody and his dog in West Berlin that may have a clue to her whereabouts. His Driver finally admits that since her arrival in Germany she's been crossing the Brandenburg Gate into East Germany every night has been courting and now married to a fully fledged card carrying communist called Otto (Horst Buchholz). Knowing that this will be the final nail in his coca-cola coffin if his boss ever finds out, MacNamara proceeds to concoct a plan to erase the marriage from the books and have Otto incarcerated in the East by having him arrested for being an American Spy. MacNamara pleased with his handy work returns home to find out that Scarlett is in a 'family way' with Otto's baby, now he must get Otto Back from the clutches of the East German forces, and pass him of as a blue-blooded, non commie capitalist entrepreneur.
The friction between Cagney and Buchholz on camera is brilliant yet the two actors constantly fought off set with Cagney labelling Buchholz as the most un-cooperative active he had ever worked with with Cagney even threatening to 'put him, (Buchholz) on his ass' which made the interplay between their respective characters all the more realistic as two people that detest the sight of each other.
Red Buttons makes an early movie appearance as an American MP and steals his scene by doing an impersonation of Cagney circa 1931 right in the face of Cagney circa 1961, which even though his back is to camera you can tell Cagney is cracking up though forever the professional, he gathers his composure well enough to complete the scene. There is also a blink-and-you'll-miss it in-joke where Cagney threatens to hurl a half grapefruit in Buchholz face in homage to the memorable scene he did 30 years before with Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy Another classic line is when Cagney utters rival screen gangster Edward G Robinson's immortal final line from Little Ceaser 'Mother of Mercy is this the end of Rico'.
From the opening titles the pace of this movie is set with the fast paced sabre-dance theme. Cagney refuses to let the film slow down either from the moment he first appears on screen he shows more vitality and energy than the rest of the cast combined and still moves with the agility of someone half his age.
I love this movie and is a perfect example of a sixties screwball sex-farce. typical Wilder, but a role a little different than Cagney was used to playing, but he rose to the challenge perfectly. It was to be another 20 years before Cagney made another Movie, but hell, he needed a long rest after giving it his all in this one.
Jack Lemmon once said that the film would have been much better had a more comedic actor been cast as Otto, I personally would have loved Lemmon himself in the role, but in 1960's Hollywood, any actor willing to play an anti-American communist was committing occupational suicide such was the paranoia surrounding Communism.
This movie can never be remade as it is too racially and politically intolerant for today's politically correct audiences to digest with comfort, which doesn't really upset me as the performances is this movie could never be bettered
* At one point MacNamara, played by James Cagney, threatens Otto with half a grapfruit so that the scene resembles the famous one in The Public Enemy (1931), Cagney pushed into Mae Clarke's face.
* Red Buttons, in a small role as an MP, does a Cagney imitation to James Cagney.
* After he learns Scarlett is pregnant, James Cagney moans, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" This was Edward G. Robinson's famous line from Little Caesar (1931).
* The voice of Count von Droste Schattenburg (played on screen by Hubert von Meyerinck) is that of Sig Ruman.
* The building of the Berlin Wall had begun in the night of August 13, 1961, right through the set at the Brandenburger Tor. The team, discovering the change in the morning, had to move to Munich to shoot the missing scenes on the parking lot of the Bavaria Film Studios, where a copy of the lower half of the Brandenburger Tor had to be built.
* Billy Wilder made James Cagney do over 30 takes of a scene because Cagney kept saying "coat and striped pants" instead of "morning coat and striped pants."
* In James Cagney's autobiography, he says that Horst Buchholz was the only actor he really hated working with because he was uncooperative and tried all kinds of scene-stealing moves, which Cagney depended on Billy Wilder to correct. Had Wilder not firmly directed Bucholz, Cagney said that he "was going to knock Buchholz on his ass, which at several points I would have been very happy to do".
* At the "Grand Hotel Potemkin", the band plays the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas" (in German of course). This song is used in Billy Wilder's previous film, Sabrina (1954)
* Pamela Tiffin was reportedly having trouble acting with such experienced performers. Legend has it that James Cagney helped her by giving her the famous advice about acting: "Walk into a room. Plant yourself. Look the other fella in the eye and tell the truth."
* When Billy Wilder was at Paramount, he often clashed with an executive at the studio named Y. Frank Freeman. Freeman was from Georgia and would often brag about his extensive holdings of Coca-Cola stock. That relationship was part of the inspiration for this project.
* In addition to the "Yes, We Have No Bananas" song, Billy Wilder also borrowed the climactic switcheroo from Sabrina (1954) right down to the hat and umbrella. Piffl goes to London instead of MacNamara, just as Linus Larrabee goes to Paris instead of David Larrabee.
* The building of the Berlin Wall during production badly hurt the film's marketing in Germany. It was very ill-received by German audiences and had minimal success during its initial run.
* When asked in 1974 why he made a film about Coca Cola, Billy Wilder responded, "I just think Coca-Cola to be funny. And when I drink it, it seems even funnier to me."
* James Cagney had such a negative experience making this picture that he retired from films for 20 years until his cameo in Ragtime (1981).
* Joan Crawford (then on the board of PepsiCo) telephoned director Billy Wilder to protest the movie's Coca-Cola connection. Wilder then added a final scene in which James Cagney buys four bottles of Coke from a vending machine. The last bottle out of the machine isn't Coke - but another brand... of Pepsi.
* The instruction at the front of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplay reads: "This piece must be played molto furioso". Suggested speed: 110 miles an hour - on the curves - 140 miles an hour in the straightways. "
* At one point Cagney says, "I wish I were in hell with my back broken," a line Billy Wilder used in at least two of his earlier films. Humphrey Bogart says the same line in "Sabrina", and Akim Tamiroff says a slight variation, "I wish I were in a black pit with my back broken," in "Five Graves to Cairo".
* The Brandenburg Gate figures rather prominently in this film. It and the rest of the border between East and West Berlin were closed on August 13, 1961, only months before this film was released.