The Corner

Those Wacky Germans

One final (but less serious) note about West Berlin and the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of Billy Wilder’s lesser-known movies, but an absolutely hilarious romp, is about Berlin just before the Wall was built. With scenes shot on location (a very funny car chase through the Brandenburg Gate is a highlight), the movie was released in 1961 and is called One, Two, Three. It stars Jimmy Cagney in the last movie he made before he retired (except for a brief reappearance in Ragtime over 20 years later), and it has a great supporting cast, including Arlene Francis and Pamela Tiffin.

Cagney plays C. R. MacNamara, the head of Coca-Cola operations in West Berlin. He used to be head of the entire Middle East, but was demoted after locals rioted and burned down the bottling plant because a sandstorm delayed Benny Goodman from showing up for a concert. He is asked to host Scarlett Hazeltine, the hot-blooded 17-year-old daughter of a Coca-Cola executive from Atlanta, when she comes to Berlin. To Cagney’s horror, she ends up marrying a young East German Communist named Otto Ludwig Piffl. At one point, Cagney berates her for having one of the propaganda balloons the East German Communists are distributing with the slogan “Yankee Go Home.” She replies serenely that where she is from, everyone hates the Yankees.

Cagney sees his whole career going down the tubes, so he promptly disposes of the young Communist by getting him arrested by the Stasi for smuggling Western propaganda. The arrest occurs when Piffl crosses back over into East Berlin carrying Cagney’s wedding gift: a cuckoo clock with Uncle Sam as the cuckoo, wrapped in a copy of the Wall Street Journal. Stasi agents torture him by playing “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again until he admits he is an American spy. But when Cagney finds out the executive’s daughter is pregnant and her parents are coming to Berlin, he not only maneuvers to get the husband out of the hands of the secret police, but he sets out to turn this dedicated Communist into a capitalist.

As an Austrian Jew who had actually worked in Berlin as a journalist, and then fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood in the early 1930’s, Wilder had personal experience from which to satirize and poke fun at Americans, Germans, Russians, and Communists. One, Two, Three is without doubt one of the funniest movies I have seen. The dialogue delivered by Cagney is so fast that it is hard to take it all in at one viewing. The only movie I know with the same furious pace is His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. The movie is sprinkled with references to Cagney’s most famous prior roles in other movies, from the Uncle Sam cuckoo (he played George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) to a scene where he picks up a grapefruit and threatens to put it in the face of the young Communist à la Public Enemy. (Red Buttons, in an uncredited cameo role as an MP sergeant, does a spot-on Cagney imitation.)  A really terrific movie to rent for an evening’s entertainment, and a funny commentary on the culture of the early Cold War.