The subject of the Cold War was a common one in the cinema of the middle 20th century. However, there were precious few Cold War comedies. One, Two, Three stands as one of the few (along with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). The film is a fun and interesting one, dealing not only with issues of sex and gender but politics as well. However, with a closer analysis, the fifty-five year old film proves to be problematic.
The film follows C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney), an upper level Coca-Cola executive living with his family in West Berlin during the early 1960s. His comfortable routine is thrown into chaos when he is forced to baby sit his boss’ seventeen year old daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin). However, when Scarlet sneaks out one night, she comes back pregnant (and married!) to a young Communist Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholtz). And the zany, madcap efforts to hide the pregnancy begin.
One, Two, Three hit theaters in December of 1961. It is one of a number of films dealing with teen pregnancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The pregnancy melodrama was common place during this period. Films like: A Summer Place, Susan Slade and Blue Denim are three examples of the sub genre. Each of which feature a teenage girl who’s “in trouble,” and follows the drama which follows “her mistake”. One, Two, Three is a rare comedy dealing with the taboo subject matter in the post World War II period.
There are three female characters in the film: Scarlett, Mrs. MacNamara (Arlene Francis) and Fraüline Ingaborg (Liselotte Pulver). There is very little interaction between the three women. The only conversations are between Mrs. MacNamara and Scarlett, and they revolve completely around Otto and the baby, so the Bechedel test score is a fail.
The film’s treatment of sex is an interesting one. The taboo pregnancy is made slightly more acceptable by the initial revelation of Scarlett and Otto’s marriage. So, the sex was not “necessarily” pre-marital. However, the subject of Mr. MacNamara’s marital infidelities is thinly veiled. There are repeated references to his after-hours language lessons with his secretary (Fraüline Ingaborg). When it has been a while between “lessons”, she says, “You’ve lost all interest in the umlaut”. This is not the only time in the script when the word “umlaut” appears to be standing in for sex.
As Mrs. MacNamara, Arlene Francis is in rare form. The actress was a television mainstay during the 1950s and 1960s. She featured regularly on What’s My Line. Francis is considered to be the first woman to host a game show. She hosted Blind Date from 1943-1952, starting on the radio and transitioning the series to television. In One, Two Three, her character largely on an even keel with her husband. They two characters share witty banter which harkens back to radio couples like Jack Benny and Mary Livingston.
The film is a tour de force for Cagney who is in rare form. The normally dynamic performer reaches a whole new level as he tackles Billy Wilder‘s iconic (and always amazing) dialogue at an almost breakneck pace. It’s a stellar performance from one of Hollywood’s greats. At the time of the film’s release, Buchholz was a relative new comer to Hollywood. He made his Hollywood debut in The Magnificent Seven just a year before. The young actor shines in the role, and thrives as he goes toe to toe with the formidable Cagney.
One, Two Three is a small, but entertaining comedy from the cinematic genius of Billy Wilder. The film is a product of its time. While it tackles the subject of a taboo teenage, unplanned pregnancy; however, the treatment of gender and sexuality manages to be problematic. It is especially problematic in the development of the female characters. If you’re in any way a fan of classic cinema, or Billy Wilder, it’s well worth the price of a rental.