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June 22, 2006

One, Two, Three: Billy Wilder's 100th Birthday!

onetwothree.jpg

Billy Wilder - 1961
MGM Home Video Region 1 DVD

"But we had to go with Cagney, because Cagney was the picture. He really had the rhythm, and that was very good." from Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe

I decided to celebrate Billy Wilder's 100th birthday with One, Two, Three. While the film can not be ranked with Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Apartment or Some like it Hot, my most recent viewing had me thinking about how it fits with Wilder's overall career. Made during the time when Wilder experienced both great commercial success and the freedom to make the films he wanted to make, One, Two, Three has some unique strengths and weaknesses.

I was more conscious of the ghost of Ernst Lubitsch hovering throughout Wilder's film. The three comic Russian businessmen that James Cagney negotiates with are clear reminders of the three Russian envoys from Ninotchka, Lubitsch's film co-written by Wilder. The treatment of Germans in general and the World War II jokes recall Lubitsch's To Be or not to Be, in particular the jokes about ex-gestapo members, and Arlene Francis' referring to film husband Cagney as "mein Fuhrer". While Cagney's heel clicking assistant, played by Hanns Lothar, is funny, the character's name, Schlemmer, lacks punch. While there is humor is seeing Cagney's Coke executive shock at finding a bottle of Pepsi in a Coke machine, his shouting the name "Shlemmer" just does not provoke the laughter that occurs after Lubitsch's inept "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" fails to shoot himself and we hear him, behind closed doors, yelling for his aide, Schultz.

I suspect that One, Two, Three fizzles out frequently for younger audiences. So much of the humor is topical, referring to events that were current in 1961, or have a cultural frame of reference for adults of that era. While it is fascinating to see a film that takes place in a divided Berlin before the wall went up, gags about Nikita Kruschev probably require explanation for some. Jokes about Adlai Stevenson and Chet Huntley may seem obscure. Too many of the jokes concerning Pamela Tiffin's ditzy character of Scarlett refer to Gone with the Wind, although the jokes about Southern contempt for Yankees are still funny. Lilo Pulver, the tall, blonde, gum chewing secretary, remains sexy and funny, periodically recalling Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, especially in a scene where Hanns Lothar has to wear her clothes for a temporary disguise.

The film is pretty much carried by James Cagney from beginning to end. There are a couple of jokes about Cagney's gangster persona, including a moment where he re-enacts his grapefruit scene from Public Enemy with Horst Bucholz standing in for Mae Clark. Cagney also has a line that is a variation of Edward G. Robinson's famed words from Little Caesar. By making a film with Cagney, Billy Wilder worked with the three top stars from Warner Brothers "gangster" films - Robinson in Double Indemnity and Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina. Even though the circumstances for working with these three actors were different, the three are known for their unique voices and speech patterns. There is a roundabout kind of logic with Wilder working with Cagney, Bogart and Robinson, the gangster persona is not to far removed from the artist who made a point of pushing boundries, especially with the United Artists films.

At this time, I should take my queue from Billy Wilder himself who was noted as saying: “If there's anything I hate more than being taken seriously, it's being taken too seriously."

Posted by peter at June 22, 2006 12:29 AM

Comments

Hey there! I love this movie, and when I saw it at Film Forum a few years back it brought down the house. I agree that the topical jokes are had for a modern audience to get (though they're funny if you know the history) but the FF audience, no doubt stacked with film buffs, got all the inside film jokes and howled.

Posted by: Campaspe at June 27, 2006 03:56 PM