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Sitzen machen!
by Jon Schuller

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In the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood created the "Screwball Comedy" which was essentially a story about a man and woman doing silly things, as the woman dominated the story and the man fell in love with her. Bringing the "Battle of the Sexes" to the big screen was daring for the time as it, naturally, drew the attention of do-gooders and the morality police, who would wave their fingers and tell everyone what their versions of right and wrong were. Fortunately, not all the creative minds in Hollywood caved in to the pressures. Screwball comedies became a movie staple, featuring some of the best and the brightest, like Cary Grant, Kathryn Hepburn, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell.

But this genre of movie-making, at its height in the 30s and 40s, continued to entertain audiences well past those decades. The Seven Year Itch (1955) opened, with an iconic shot of Marilyn Monroe and a subway grate. In 1959, an instant classic, Some Like It Hot, premiered. There were others: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
What's Up, Doc? (1972)
For Pete's Sake (1974)
Overboard (1987)
There was another which I feel really captured the original flavors of this movie type. It starred the one-and-only James Cagney, whose versatility as an actor was on full display in this seriously funny movie. One, Two, Three premiered on December 15, 1961; it was directed by a Hollywood legend, Billy Wilder. Cagney's co-stars were Horst Buchholz (who had debuted in The Magnificent Seven in 1960), Lilo Pulver, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, Leon Askin, and Howard St. John. This black-and-white film captured the spirit of the screwball comedy primarily because Cagney carried it himself. It's a great mix of laughs, politics, insults, double entendres, slapstick and sex.

C.R. "Mac" MacNamara (Cagney) is a higher level executive with Coca-Cola, assigned to West Berlin, after a bad experience in the Middle East. Mac desperately wants to become the head of European operations in London, which appears more tranquil than post-war Germany. His boss, Wendell P. Hazeltine (St.John) wants Mac to look after his daughter, Scarlett (Tiffin), a hot-headed rebellious teenager
for 2 weeks. She secretly marries a young, anti-American Communist named Otto Ludwig Piffl (Buchholz). Mac now has to worry about the young girl disappearing into East Berlin and then Moscow as his shaky career looks like it's about to vanish too.

Mac's a man of action and decides to get Otto and Scarlett back into West Berlin where he will transform the young Communist into a high level western executive, a perfect match for the spoiled girl.

Mac's wife, Phyllis (Francis) wants desperately to return home to Atlanta and sort of helps him when Mac's boss appears looking for Scarlett. Mac has spent time ordering his staff to help convert Piffl into a Westerner. Every time Mac enters the bullpen of workers, they all stand at attention, like soldiers, and he must bark "Sitzen machen!" at them. This running gag is Wilder's personal view of Nazis and the robotic repetitive actions of all Germans under Hitler.

Mac's conversion plans for Otto work and Hazeltine is so impressed with his new son-in-law that he names him head of European operations. Mac is promoted to VP of Operations in Atlanta. All's well that ends well.

One, Two, Three is a perfect
homage to the creators of screwball comedies in the 1930s and 1940s. Cagney was perfectly cast and carries out his scenes nearly single-handedly. There was a back story about the star and young Buchholz, whom Cagney was upset with because he thought Horst was scene stealing from a major, iconic Hollywood star; as Yul Brynner had problems with a young Steve McQueen in their scenes together in The Magnificent Seven.

The supporting cast is marvelous and we get to see and hear the real attitudes and problems as West met East, in the divided city, not long before the East Germans (and their Russian masters) erected the infamous Berlin Wall. Many thousands of people did everything they could to breach that wall, seeking freedom and safety on the other side. That's certainly a familiar scenario in our own era now. 1961 was only 16 years from V-E Day, the end of WWII, and the anti-German feelings of many Americans were not far from the surface. While the movie attempted to be realistic, Mr. Wilder was attempting to make the past stay buried and give the world some much-needed humor and out-loud laughs. I believe he and his actors succeeded. See if you agree.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

This One Is#9 To Be Precise

It's More Than Just a Number, Isn't It?

Better Explain All of the Effects To Me.

Another Unlikely Friendship. Again.

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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