The seldom-trumpeted comedy One, Two, Three may be best known as the film that made James Cagney leave the movie business until his swan song in Ragtime two decades later. The 1961 film had several touchstones which put it in a difficult position: spoofing the Eastern Germans and the newly erected Berlin Wall, and worse — spoofing Coca-Cola. The latter required meister-designer Saul Bass to change the posters for the film at the last minute when the Atlanta corporation threatened to sue over the “Coca-Cola style bottle” with the American flag sticking out of it.
The film harkens back plot-wise to Wilder’s own Ninotchka and gives Cagney the opportunity to poke fun at some of the bits he had become best known for, form Yankee Doodle Dandy to the grapefruit scene from Public Enemy as well as showcasing his imitations of Red Buttons and Edward G. Robinson. Arlene Francis is a treat as his acid-tongued wife, though you wish for a lot more of her instead of the insipid blonde bauble of a secretary played with some smarts by Liselotte Pulver (although watching her willing strip tease at least give us some suggestion that women’s roles in films have improved over the intervening decades. A little.)
Never mind the well-tread topics of communist deprivations and love-starved Southern women (Hollywood has no idea of any of the rest of the country, this is not a new development, but one can’t help thinking of Margot Chandler’s protest about Southern women being many things but never starved for love in All About Eve). This film runs on the engine of Cagney’s manic performance, which is sheer delight throughout. His canny exec angles for the London office after rebuilding his career back from an unfortunate catastrophe when a corporation head sends his sex-mad southern teen abroad to distract her from an unfortunate liaison.
Well, you can guess what happens when the teen sneaks over to the exciting world of East Germany and falls for a devout party member. There’s nothing surprising about the turn of events (or the eventual triumph of capitalism); Wilder manages to tweak every nose a little, but no one’s too much. Hanns Lothar offers some fun as the timid Schlemmer who ends up awkwardly cross-dressing and Wilder extends the joke just enough to make Judith Butler smile.
But the real star is Cagney as he gets increasingly frenzied; you can imagine what a difficult shoot this was for him, but his performance is snappy and flawless. Dazzling but never too far over the top, he dances his way through the story polish right up to the final shot. Well worth another look — and if you haven’t ever seen it, now’s the time.
See the round up of overlooked films, television and sound at Todd’s.