One, Two, Three

Cagney reprises the grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy in One, Two, Three

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

13 August

 

Berlin Wall goes up, 1961

On this day in 1961, Berliners woke up to a Berlin divided by a wall.

The capital of Berlin had been partitioned in the aftermath of the Second World War. Like the rest of Germany, but in microcosm, Berlin was parcelled out between the victorious powers – US, UK, USSR and France.

However, Berlin was entirely surrounded by Soviet territory, the allies’ parts of Germany being in the west of the country, and the fear amongst Berliners was that all of the city would be swallowed up by the Soviets.

Stalin had already tried this before, in the Berlin Blockade of 1948, when the Soviets shut the roads which connected West Germany through the Soviet sector and into West Berlin. The allies had responded with a massive airlift and in 1949 Stalin had capitulated.

However, the tone had been set and a huge brain drain out of East Berlin (and therefore out of the whole of the Soviet part of Germany, and indeed the whole of the Soviet Bloc) got underway with anyone who wanted to leave simply having to make it to Berlin.

On 15 June 1961 Walter Ubricht, effectively the GDR boss, had stated that “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.” (“No one has the intention of building a wall”). On the night of 12 August the border between east and west Berlin was closed and by the next morning workers had erected a physical barrier of fences and barbed wire along the 27 mile (43 km) barrier between the two zones.

The following day the concrete arrived.

 

 

 

One, Two, Three (1961, dir: Billy Wilder)

It’s said that after Billy Wilder debuted Sunset Boulevard, Louis B Meyer was furious with him for showing the ugly mechanical workings of the Hollywood dream machine – “You bastard,” Meyer reportedly shouted. “You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you.”

Wilder’s films always seemed to have that edge to them, of it not being entirely clear whose side he was on. One, Two, Three is his take on post-War Berlin, a farce played out lightning speed, so fast in fact that it takes two or three viewings to catch it all. It’s worth more.

Jimmy Cagney, 62-years-old but moving like a cat, plays CR MacNamara, the ambitious regional boss of Coca-Cola forced to babysit his American boss’s teenage daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) for two weeks.

She’s a dizzy thing, attractive and has soon fallen for East German communist Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz). No problem, thinks big Mac, I’ll incriminate the Kraut by planting the Wall Street Journal on him and get him arrested by the secret police.

It’s at this point he discovers that the girl is in fact pregnant with Piffl’s child. Going to Plan B, cobbled together on the run, Mac now has to somehow get Piffl out of jail and turn him into a Coke-swilling capitalist worthy of the young woman before Scarlett’s daddy arrives.

Strangely overlooked when Wilder films are discussed, perhaps because it moves so fast that a lot of people can’t follow it, the film does suffer from a topicality so current that a lot of the jokes are gone with 1961’s newspapers. But a lot aren’t, and the energy of Cagney is astonishing as he charges around Berlin, getting deeper and deeper into trouble, barking orders, entering scenes and then leaving before his presence has even properly registered.

Wilder was shooting on old turf – in Berlin where he’d lived before the war, and in studios in Munich where he’d also worked after transitioning from journalist to film-maker and before fleeing Hitler for Hollywood.

It’s possibly this journalist’s streak that gives the film its verve – tell the story straight and clear and don’t hang about is what the best sort of journalism is about, after all.

Though as with the best Wilder films there is a knot at the centre that Wilder is exploring along with the neuroses of his subjects, in this case American cultural imperialism, Cagney running all over Berlin like the gangsters he so famously used to portray, because he represents Coca-Cola and can do what he wants. Meanwhile, the East Berlin Wilder depicts is dour, flat, joyless.

Wilder was shooting as the Wall was going up, and while Andy Warhol was creating his iconic Coke bottle pop art. Coke, the great equalizer, in a city where, in the Soviet part of it at least, equality was supposed to be the biggest show in town.

You could dig around like this for hours, finding cultural significance. Luckily the film is so funny you probably won’t want to.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great and overlooked Billy Wilder comedy
  • A great and overlooked James Cagney performance
  • Horst Buchholz, one of the Magnificent Seven
  • A fine Cold War product

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

One, Two, Three – Watch it now at Amazon

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Yankee Doodle Dandy

James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 January

 

 

FD Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, 1941

On this day in 1941, the president of the USA, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered what has become known as the Four Freedoms Speech. Addressing the US Congress in the annual State of the Union speech, Roosevelt outlined what he believed those four freedoms to be – Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The speech was significant for several reasons. First, it sought to extend the freedoms already guaranteed by the Constitution (speech and worship) with freedoms which more problematically lined up with a more progressive, interventionist, Democrat view of the role of government. Second, it sought to suggest that these four aspirations should be universal. Which, in the short term, gave the US the moral and philosophical justification for entering the Second World War – at some level this was the idea of the speech in the first place. Ironically, strongly disputed and resisted by conservatives at the time, who saw the Four Freedoms as an unnecessary widening of the power for the state, it was later on conservatives who would most readily reach for something similar to this doctrine as they sought to “spread freedom and democracy throughout the globe” (as Condoleeza Rice put it in 2005) in one military adventure or another. The Four Freedoms speech signals a shift in US foreign policy, from isolationist to interventionist. They were also eventually incorporated into the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

 

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, dir: Michael Curtiz)

When James Cagney made Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, most of the world knew him as the butt of a thousand “you dirty rat” impersonations, thanks to gangster roles in movies such as The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces. Imagine their surprise when this biopic of the legendary Broadway showman George M Cohan debuted, with Cagney in the lead role, apparently singing and tap-dancing like a man born to the part. Cagney had in fact been a dancer in his stage days, but had only danced once on film, in 1933’s Footlight Parade, a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. And, truth be told, he’s not really dancing here either. In fact he’s doing something that could be described as a close approximation, in the same way he’s closely approximating singing, in his portrayal of Cohan, the greasepaint legend called out of retirement in this biopic by FDR, to whom Cohan then tells his life story. The film unfolds as a gigantic sequence of flashbacks, which allows it to jump from one wisecracking, upbeat, cock-of-the-walk sequence to the next. And this is where Cagney excels, as the stage guy whose body telegraphs movements right out to the back row, as the board-treader who never whispers when he can roar. Cagney’s is a jack-in-the-box performance, and he’s the ideal lubricant between the schmaltzy flag-waving sentiment (this was wartime, remember) and the big feathers-and-flounce musical numbers which punctuate ever biographical turn. If the name Cohan is leaving you none the wiser, he’s the guy who wrote Give My Regards to Broadway, Over There and Yankee Doodle Boy. And if that still leaves you nonplussed, just watch the film and enjoy the sight of a dirty rat singing and dancing his way to an Oscar.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • See Cagney in a role turned down by Fred Astaire
  • Cagney’s only Oscar
  • Cinematography by James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success)
  • Casablanca director Michael Curtiz at the helm, its writers, the Epstein brothers, also contributing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Yankee Doodle Dandy – at Amazon