On Sunday 13 August, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs 44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we're dealing with - REAL SHIFTY!
- 'CR MacNamara'
One, Two, Three was written, produced and directed by Billy Wilder, with music by Andre Previn. It is set in Berlin in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, just before the Berlin Wall was built. It's basically a screwball comedy. It's a farce about the relationship and the cultural differences between the East and the West, together with ironic insinuations about World War II and certain people's past exploits in Nazi Germany1.
CR MacNamara (James Cagney) presides over the German Coca-Cola branch, located in Berlin, but he is hoping to become head of the European headquarters in London. One day, instead of being promoted, he is asked by the Coca-Cola boss to take care of the boss's daughter, Scarlet Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), who's visiting Europe.
It turns out that Miss Hazeltine is not the respectable girl she is supposed to be, and MacNamara finds out one morning that she spends most nights out dating a young, good-looking, flaming communist from East Berlin named Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz, who played Chico, the cheeky young wannabe in The Magnificent Seven the previous year). In fact they are already married and planning to move to Moscow.
There's the old Russian proverb: 'Go west, young man.'
- Peripetchikoff, Moscow Soft Drink Secretariat
Knowing that this would be rather career-limiting for him if his boss ever finds out, MacNamara sees to it that the marriage is annulled, and schemes to get Otto arrested in East Berlin. When Scarlet gets to know this, she faints. A doctor is called, and it turns out that she's pregnant.
Otto: I will not have my son grow up to be a capitalist! Scarlet: When he's 18 he can make his mind up whether he wants to be a capitalist or a rich communist.
To further complicate matters, Mr and Mrs Hazeltine are due to arrive next day, to visit their little girl. Clearly, they will not be amused to find that she's pregnant by a communist who's currently sitting in an East German prison. To get out of this, MacNamara mobilises everything. He gets Otto out of prison with the help of his secretary Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver) and the Moscow Soft Drink Secretariat. He gets him a noble origin (Count Otto von Droste-Schattenburg), teaches him basic table manners, and converts him to capitalism. In the nick of time, just as the Hazeltines arrive in Berlin, he is able to present a respectable son-in-law.
The only thing that does not turn out as planned is that MacNamara doesn't get promoted head of the European headquarters:
MacNamara: I'm going to Atlanta. Phyllis MacNamara: Atlanta! MacNamara: Yeah, I'm the new Vice President in charge of bottle caps. They're kicking me upstairs. Phyllis MacNamara: That's something I've always wanted to do myself!
In 1961, during shooting on location in Berlin, the Berlin Wall was built. This was something that couldn't be expected. As a result, the Brandenburg Gate seen in the film is not the real one but was a set built in a studio. Also Billy Wilder had to rework the opening lines of the film, as seen in the quote at the top of this entry.
The aftermath of the historical events of 1961, with the division of East and West Germany, was of such significance for the people that nobody wanted a comedy film on this topic, even a good one. So the film was a flop. It only started getting the attention it deserves when it was re-released in 1985. It now enjoys cult status, at least in Germany.
Seeing how One, Two, Three mocks everything - capitalism, communism, American corporatism and Southernism, Nazism, and everything else - it is still a mystery how Coca-Cola could be persuaded to co-operate at the time.
Any world that can produce the Taj Mahal, William Shakespeare, and striped toothpaste can't be all bad.
Like many Billy Wilder films - like, for instance, Some Like it Hot - One, Two, Three thrives on dialogue and on the actors' performances. Here it is James Cagney who delivers one of his best performances. Most of the supporting actors are German, as the film was shot in Germany, and most of them never had a second chance to play in a Hollywood movie with a director of Wilder's calibre.
MacNamara: Just between us, Schlemmer, what did you do during the war? Schlemmer (MacNamara's assistant): I was in der Untergrund: the Underground. MacNamara: Resistance fighter? Schlemmer: No, motorman. In the Underground, you know, the Subway.
What is truly remarkable is the pacing of the film, and the rapid fire in which the lines are delivered. It's an up-tempo film and it never slows down, so it is possible to see the movie for the tenth time and still discover things you haven't noticed before - such as Phyllis calling her husband 'Mein Führer'. For many, One, Two, Three is the best Billy Wilder comedy ever. See the film.