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Film / One, Two, Three

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One, Two, Three is a 1961 comedy film directed and cowritten by Billy Wilder. Set in Berlin shortly before the wall was built, it's about a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who has to care for his boss's daughter, who's spending her holiday there. And also tries to do business with some Communists to expand Coca-Cola beyond the Iron Curtain. And finds his marriage is about to fall apart. Plenty of Hilarity Ensues.

Things seem to be going fine for C. R. MacNamara (James Cagney): Coca-Cola is doing well in West Germany, and he's about to complete a deal with the Soviet trade commission to get the brand past the Iron Curtain. Hoping this will earn him a prized position in London, Mac finds himself having to jump through one more hoop: the daughter of his boss is on a tour of Europe, and said boss insists that Mac look after her. So for over a month Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin) is a guest of Mac and his wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis).

Scarlett's parents have made plans to come and take her back home. Unfortunately, her new, East German husband, Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz), has other plans. It seems Scarlett had been sneaking out of the house the whole time she was with the MacNamaras and slipped behind the Iron Curtain to have fun on the town. Which is where she ran into the young Communist, and naturally, they fell in love... naturally. At first Mac tries to get the marriage annulled by hook or by crook, but then it turns out that Scarlett is pregnant! So now Mac must try and somehow make Otto acceptable to Scarlett's conservative, high-society parents or he'll be thrown out into the streets.

James Cagney retired from acting after making this film, although he returned 20 years later to star in Ragtime.


  • The Alleged Car: The Soviet trade delegation's Moskvitch 407.
    "Is exact replica of 1937 Nash!" note 
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Played with. MacNamara has a former SS member as his assistant; one scene shows his employees acting like complete robots when issued orders. This comes in handy when Schlemmer gives away that the investigative reporter who threatens to expose the whole deal is a former SS first lieutenant, an Obersturmführer.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: And during Cold War, no one was worse than a Commie.
  • Artistic License Cars: What the Soviet trade delegation claims to be an "exact replica of 1937 Nash" is a much smaller car with up-to-date late 1950s styling.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: One of the thing that really annoys MacNamara about the East German Commies is that they buy Coca-Cola in West Berlin but don't return the empties.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Peripetchikoff is implied to have one, complete with Obnoxious In-Laws. When one of his comrades suggest they defect, he responds that unlike him, he has a wife and in-laws the authorities might take action against... then enthusiastically agrees to it.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The very movie starts with it. MacNamara starts talking how America was looking to Washington, D.C. on August the 13th of 1961... for a baseball game. Oh, by the way, on the same day the Commies built the Berlin Wall.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: The aforementioned Intrepid Reporter is unable to be put off even with extravagant bribes until Schlemmer does a Nazi salute to him in front of MacNamara and addresses him with an SS rank. The reporter quickly backs off note .
  • Brick Joke: At least two:
    • MacNamara is annoyed because Commies keep buying Coke in West Berlin, drinking it in East Berlin, but don't return the bottles. When he and his crew drive to East Berlin to spring Otto from prison, they have an uncomfortable few minutes waiting at the Brandenburg Gate because the border guard makes them wait so he can fetch the emptied six-pack of Coca-Cola (that MacNamara had given to him earlier to let him through with no questions asked) from the guard-room.
    • When MacNamara wants to make a phone call to East Berlin, his assistant Schlemmer tells him that it is very complicated, as there are no direct lines and the call will have to be routed on a circuitous route via Stockholm and Warsaw. And then you often get the wrong number. At a later point in the film Schlemmer cheerfully announces to MacNamara that the call finally got through. "And like I told you: Wrong number."
  • Broken Pedestal: Otto starts out as a dedicated communist who appears to have enthusiastically swallowed the party line. This changes after the Stasi assume he's a spy and torture him into confessing. When Mc Namara offers him a job and a title Otto turns into a dedicated capitalist almost immediately.
  • The Cameo: The hotel orchestra playing the German version of "Yes, We Have No Bananas" is conducted by composer Friedrich Hollaender ("Falling in Love Again"). And Red Buttons appears as a U.S. military policeman.
  • Catchphrase: MacNamara has two: "Sitzen machen!"note  and "SCHLEMMER!!!" Both are borrowed by other characters in the course of the movie.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: Completely and utterly averted. Joan Crawford, at the time a major stockholder of Pepsi, was enraged by what she saw as blatant product placement. In response, the very last gag in the film involves Pepsi — MacNamara puts a nickel in a Coke machine at Templehof airport and is rather annoyed that he receives... a bottle of Pepsi.
  • Comically Missing the Point:
    Peripetchikoff: We have emergency meeting with Swiss Trade Delegation. They send us twenty car-loads of cheese. Totally unacceptable... full of holes.
  • Comically Small Bribe: MacNamara gets the East German border guards at the Brandenburg Gate to wave his car through and not ask inconvenient questions by giving them ... a six-pack of Coca-Cola.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: The communist who married the daughter of Coca Cola's CEO is being tortured in East Berlin ... by being forced to listen to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polkadot Bikini" on repeat for hours on end. When that is not enough, they play it with the record spindle off-center. He writhes in pain and finally caves in, confessing to being an American spy. It should be noted this was an inverted case of Author Appeal: Billy Wilder hated Rock & Roll.
  • Cross Dresser: Schlemmer disguises in Ingeborg's dress to fool the Russians, so they'll let Otto free.
  • Deadpan Snarker: MacNamara's wife Phyllis.
    (after MacNamara comes up with a wild story about Otto being a secret agent with a posthumous medal) "Why don't you give one to yourself? First-class heel with oak leaf cluster!"
  • Defector from Decadence: Two Russian spies were sent to discover the Coca Cola secret formula, and ended up becoming successful American businessmen. Some of the Russians end up defecting too.
  • Dirty Communists: All the commies depicted are duplicitous and perfectly willing to screw their fellow party members for their own benefit.
  • The Ditz: Scarlett, definitely.
  • Double Meaning: Schlemmer told MacNamara that during World War II he had been "with the underground", correctly assuming that MacNamara would take that to mean "with the anti-Nazi resistance". In the course of the movie, when it emerges that that is not the case, he lamely explains he was with the underground railway system.
  • Even Beggars Won't Choose It: MacNamara lampshades that the Soviets are so desperate to get their hand on Coca-Cola, that they once tried to create their own brand called "Kremlin Cola". It was so bad that they gave all of it away to Albania, who then used it as a flea bath for sheep.
  • Failed Future Forecast: When production commenced in Berlin, there was no wall. Halfway through production, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik decided, quite inconveniently, to erect the first layers of what would eventually become Die Mauer. This threw a monkey wrench in the plans of the filmmakers, especially when they had obtained permits to shoot near the Brandenburg Gate. This time the other way round. Before August 1961, people could cross the border between West and East Berlin quite easily - which millions of East Germans used to move to the promised golden west. The movie was based on this premise and suffered when the wall was built.
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: MacNamara sets Otto up to get arrested, then has to rescue him and quickly concoct a scheme to make him acceptable to Hazeltine, all to get a promotion. He even has some character similarities to Basil Fawlty.
  • Fun with Palindromes: Scarlett finds it exciting that "Otto" reads the same back to front.
  • Godwin's Law: In a sign of maybe not the healthiest marriage, Phyllis refers to her husband as "Mein Führer."
  • Going Commando: Scarlett proudly tells Phyllis MacNamara that her husband Otto does not even wear underwear. Phyllis' response: "No wonder we are losing the Cold War!"
  • Gone Horribly Right: MacNamara's scheme to turn Otto into a suitable son-in-law for the Hazeltines succeeds so well that they award Otto the position as head of European distribution to which MacNamara had been aspiring for years.
  • Guile Hero: MacNamara is one of the nominal kind.
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar) often is this to MacNamara, as he is the one who has to implement most of his zany schemes.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Count von Droste-Schattenburg, currently working as a restroom attendant. He is paid to adopt Otto. Evidently his family has had money problems for a long time, as he shows MacNamara a photo of the ruins of his ancestral castle - destroyed not in World War II, but by the Turks in the 17th century.
  • Improbably Cool Car: MacNamara's "Adenauer" Mercedes; a regional Coca-Cola plant manager in Germany in 1961 would have had at most a smaller, near-taxi-spec "Ponton" Mercedes, but more likely an Opel Rekord or Ford Taunus or even a VW Beetle as a company car. Mac's independently wealthy, though, so maybe he bought it with his own money at a better price than he could've gotten back home in the US.
  • Insane Troll Logic: MacNamara is annoyed that everybody stops working and stands at attention whenever he enters the main office room, because it's hardly in keeping with the values of freedom and democracy. Schlemmer tries to explain to him that it is because the employees have internalized these values that they keep doing it. He ordered them to stop standing at attention, but they keep disobeying him!
  • It's All About Me: MacNamara is quite happy to feed newlywed Otto to the East German secret police to save his career, flips out when it's discovered that Scarlett is pregnant because of what the boss will do to him, and completely ignores the fact that his wife has completely had it with globetrotting and his behavior.
  • Kicked Upstairs: The fate that MacNamara is trying to avoid for most of the film: reassignment to the home office in Atlanta. It happens in the end, but he faces it with equanimity, since it will let him be with his family, who have announced their intention to return to America with or without him.
  • Large Ham:
    • James Cagney's performance here exhausted him so much that he retired.
    • Otto is also quite...passionate about being a Communist and chewing out the decadent West.
  • Leitmotif: The Internationale for the Commies, Yankee Doodle for MacNamara and to signal how quickly time passes, as it's the tune played by his cuckoo clock.
  • Multiboobage: Not in the movie itself, but the poster is (probably deliberately) reminiscent of a woman with three breasts.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Peripetchikoff's are implied to be this, since he mentions they might be targeted by the Secret Police if he defects... then enthusiastically agrees to defect.
  • On Second Thought: After the Russians realize Otto has been arrested as a spy, they start to waver on rescuing him:
    Peripetchikoff: Do you know what happens if I defect? They will line up my family and shoot them! My wife, my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law... [Beat] ... Let's do it!
  • Only Sane Woman: Phyllis, who pokes holes in MacNamara's Zany Scheme logic, and is generally unimpressed with the absurd goings-on.
  • Product Placement: No wonder, if the main character is a Coca-Cola exec.
  • Pygmalion Plot: MacNamara has ten hours to turn Otto from a slovenly Communist to a dapper businessman worthy of the boss's daughter.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Any time Germans are alone together, they speak German with no subtitles. Wilder uses visual cues, along with German words that sound similar to English words ("spion" for "spy") to help English-speaking audiences understand what they're talking about.
  • Ride of the Valkyries: The doctor who diagnoses that Scarlett is, what's the English word, pregnant mentions that he just missed the first act of Die Walküre and rushes off to catch the rest of the opera, happily humming "schwanger is pregnant" to this tune. Not long after the fully orchstrated version can be heard as MacNamara and co. dash to East Berlin at night to snatch Otto out of the jaws of the East German police.
  • Royally Screwed Up: Apparently Count Droste-Schattenburg's family, at least he takes perverse pride in being descended from a hemophiliac ancestor.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Bribery is a large part of MacNamara's modus operandi throughout the movie, which e. g. enables him to have Otto's and Scarlett's wedding papers removed from the East Berlin registry office and later returned and to get Count von Droste-Schattenburg to adopt Otto. Luckily for him, the Communists don't ask for that much and he can force Otto to vouch for part of the expenses.
  • Setting Update: The film is based on a 1928 play by the Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár, about a businessman whose biggest client's daughter marries an obnoxious young socialist. Wilder kept the basic premise but updated it from 1920s Paris to Berlin at the height of the Cold War.
  • Sexy Secretary: MacNamara's secretary Ingeborg, played by Lilo Pulver. The Soviet trade delegation is certainly taken with her.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Stealth Insult: At the hotel, the Russians are entertained by a band playing "Yes, We've Got No Bananas". In the German lyrics (not heard in the movie) a man agonizes that his girlfriend wants bananas even though he offers her a variety of local produce. Bananas were the number one example of a thing that was much harder to get in East Germany than in West Germany.
  • Take That!:
    • When Otto is interrogated by the Stasi, they drive him to confess... by making him listen to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polkadot Bikini" on repeat for hours on end. For what it's worth, Billy Wilder hated rock music.
    • At the very end of the movie, MacNamara puts a nickel in a vending machine and is clearly not happy when he receives a bottle of Pepsi.
  • Title Drop: Getting everyone to the airport, MacNamara shouts to Fritz, "Ein, Zwei, Drei!"
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: C.R. MacNamara is a self-centered, social-climbing, sycophantic, dishonest, adulterous blowhard, but since James Cagney's playing him, the audience is still on his side.
  • Video Credits: At the beginning of the film, with clips of the main actors accompanying their names.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Ingeborg and Peripetchikoff (Leon Askin).
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Otto about Communism. He even thinks it's a capitalist lie that Siberia is cold, and is happy that the Communists assigned them "a magnificent apartment, just a short walk from the bathroom!".
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: When a man enters shouting "Schmuck!", MacNamara at first thinks he's calling him a bad name.note  It turns out the guy is bringing the jewelry he ordered to kit out the bride and groom.
  • You No Take Candle: The Russians.
  • Zany Scheme: At one point, they need a zany scheme to revert the effects of another one. Which they are responsible for.