One of Wilder’s less fondly remembered films, “One, Two, Three” treads safe ground for Wilder by being adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster comedy from a European play (in this case the 1929 Hungarian one-act play “Egy, Kettő, Három” by Fenenc Molnár). It stars James Cagney as C.R. “Mac” MacNamara, the general manager of Coca-Cola’s operations in West Berlin, tasked with looking after his manager’s teenage daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin) for a brief period as she visits the city. Seeing it as his chance to impress his boss Wendell P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John) and be handed a golden opportunity to take over operations in London, Mac sees it quickly unravel in the hands of a precocious 17-year-old girl, her East Berlin revolutionary fiancée Otto (Horst Buchholz) and a smattering of bad luck MacGuffins along the way.
There’s a reason why this film isn’t popular anymore. The jokes tend to point towards poking fun at former Nazi officers, caricatured communists and a disjointed society recovering from devastation. Considering Wilder himself lost three close family members in the war and only escaped the Nazi onslaught by some good fortune, however, it is perhaps incorrect to dismiss it as being simply dated. Wilder had a motive to make this film, which is in deep contrast to his former documentary short Death Mills – he wanted to bring his unique blend of humour to a topic close to his heart.
It is unfortunate, then, that the jokes themselves fall short on so many occasions. Wilder achieved timelessness in many of his feature films but the sort of slapstick fast-paced humour seen here hasn’t aged well. It’s actually hard to see what joy 1961 audiences would have found in its farcical plot.There is some deep-seated commercialism on show too. The film is entirely set in and around Coca-Cola’s operations in West Berlin, providing ample opportunity for product placement. Not wishing to spoil the punchline to the final joke, the one reference at this point to Pepsi-Cola underlines the focus on advertising Coca-Cola. There’s no evidence to suggest there was a sponsorship deal with them, but in the modern age of cinema this kind of product placement has become tiresome so it is retrospectively detrimental to the integrity of the film.
It’s fast paced and hard to keep up with but die-hard Wilder fans will find some enjoyment here. Just don’t seek it out hoping for anything special.