Taking a 1929 Ferenc Molnar play, retaining the basic plot and moving it to the Cold War era and Berlin divided by the Wall, Billy Wilder crafted what may well be his funniest movie with One, Two, Three (1961). It’s certainly his fastest-paced film and one built around the most manic performance James Cagney ever gave—and that’s saying something. The basic idea, of the manager of the Berlin Coca-Cola bottling plant having to deal with a visit from the company president’s over-sexed Southern Belle daughter, is a nice start. Having to break up her whirlwind marriage to a scruffy communist is better. Having to get the husband back and make him presentable when it turns out she’s pregnant is the stuff of great comedy, and that’s what this is.
Looked at from a distance of nearly 50 years, it is difficult to gauge modern audience reaction to a good bit of One, Two, Three, because the film is a virtual frame-of-reference test for the era in which it was made. The topical references are many. For instance, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin) asks Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis), “Have you ever made love to a communist?” and gets the response, “No, but I once necked with a Stevenson Democrat.” References to Huntley and Brinkley, Stripe toothpaste, Spartacus, Kruschev’s tendency to take his shoe off and beat it on the table at the U.N. etc. may fly right past younger viewers. Then again, so might Cagney invoking Edward G. Robinson’s ending line from Little Caesar (1930) and recalling his own grapefruit bit from The Public Enemy (1931). I don’t think any of this will damage the film, though, because everything is at such breakneck speed that there’s not much time to dwell on individual bits.
For those familiar with the era, one of the delights of the film is the revelation of what a skillful comedienne Arlene Francis is. At the time—and even now—Francis was thought of mostly in terms of her appearances as a game show panelist (notably What’s My Line?) or possibly as the prostitute in Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). In the latter capacity, she mostly just screamed a lot while Bela Lugosi tried to mix her blood with that of his pet gorilla. That bit was memorable in its way, but it hardly prepares you for her ability to go toe-to-toe with Cagney in One, Two, Three‘s rapid-fire battle of quips. I doubt anyone else could have gotten as much good as she does out of, “This is going to be the hottest thing to hit Atlanta since General Sherman threw that little barbecue.”
It’s not all Cagney’s show by any means, but he’s definitely the whirlwind force that drives the film. Unfortunately, it was also an experience that was so taxing—not entirely due to the notoriously uncooperative Horst Buchholz—that it prompted Cagney to retire from movies altogether, returning for a small role in Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981) and the 1984 TV film Terrible Joe Moran (where his voice was dubbed by Rich Little). Ragtime is a pleasant coda to a great career, but as the real send-off, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than One, Two, Three.