Saturday, November 15, 2008

At the Movies: A Cold War Comedy Masterpiece ---- One, Two, Three

The other night I caught part of one of my favorite movies and one of the funniest I’ve ever seen. Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and released around 1960, it features a cross-dressing gag and won a Golden Globe for best comedy. Ah, you say, that sounds exactly like Some Like It Hot, the top movie on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest ever. Well, yes, but the movie I watched was One, Two, Three (link), which isn’t even on the list. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

The film is a witty and frenetic satire of communist values and behaviors set in pre-Wall Cold War Berlin. Jimmy Cagney is terrific as a regional Coca-Cola executive who discovers that his boss’s loopy young daughter, who has been staying with his family during a stop on a European tour, has been sneaking into East Berlin to rendezvous with a young, scruffy outspoken communist named Otto whom she has recently met and married. Simultaneously learning that his boss will arrive in Berlin in a few hours time to fetch his daughter, Cagney must turn the reluctant doctrinaire socialist into a capitalist with manners before the new in-laws show up.

One, Two, Three skewers the absurdities of communist society. Billy Wilder was born and raised in central Europe and experienced totalitarianism up close and personal, so he knows well of what he ridicules. The farce is loaded with lightning fast jokes, usually political, and filled with hilarious cold war references -- Sputnik, unilateralism, 20 year plans, a shoe-pounding Khrushchev-looking Russian, talk of “we will bury you” and “Yankee go home,” White Russia, spying, and missiles, of course. Otto reluctantly goes along with his transformation as a show of commitment to his new wife, but protests all along the way about Western imperialism and materialism. To the manicurist -- “a strong healthy girl like you shouldn’t be cutting nails, you should be cutting wheat in the Ukraine.” To the tailor -- “I will not be caught dead in striped pants – they’re for bankers and war profiteers; the tailor: “Actually, they were ordered by the ambassador of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia;” Otto, shouting: “We will deal with Tito when the time comes.” Otto’s wife begs him to start wearing underwear to help support cotton sharecroppers in Mississippi. And there’s Cagney directing the haberdasher to show Otto his new shirts but warns “don’t tell him they’re French cuffs, not with the Algerian situation the way it is.”

Wilder also gets in some funny digs at the West. When Cagney’s wife laments the state of their life away from the States and compares their marriage to stale beer, he, ever the Coca-Cola corporate man, admonishes “can’t we discuss this without your bringing up a rival beverage?” And lots of bleeding jokes as Cagney pays an impoverished German count, who boasts that his family has “one of the oldest blood lines in Europe, and one of the most in-bred,” to adopt Otto and thus give him an instant aristocratic background.

Lots of little side jokes too. One scene has Cagney parodying himself, followed by Red Buttons mugging Cagney mugging himself, and another has Cagney holding up a grapefruit threatening to shove it in Otto’s face, a reference to his famous movie scene decades earlier. And Cagney has a cuckoo clock that plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” referencing one of Cagney’s great movie roles (it won him an Oscar).

I don’t understand why One, Two, Three is not well known and better appreciated for the gem that it is. It’s funnier, and much wittier, than Wilder’s other farce Some Like It Hot. Perhaps it’s too much of a period, asking for a knowledge and feel of history that’s beyond most of us who lived through it and harder by far for those of us who haven’t. The film reminds me in many ways of the other great cold war satire, Dr Strangelove. They serve as two bookends, one light, one dark, on a time fast receding.

R. Balsamo

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