Sunday, May 19, 2024

One, Two, Three - Seasoned Cagney Can Still Spice It Up

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Screen Debuts and Last Hurrahs Blogathon. Click here for more memorable firsts and lasts.

Cagney and the grapefruit make one last joint appearance

Season is an interesting word. It can mean to add flavor to something, or it can define a period of time. In the case of James Cagney, from day one he always seasoned the screen with some invigorating cinematic spice. He was also a performer who, in over 30 years, presented himself to the audience in various seasons of his acting life. From the summer of "The Public Enemy" to the winter of "Ragtime," Cagney not only physically matured, but also matured in the depth and humanity he brought to his roles. All before our eyes. While those two winter roles - the aforementioned "Ragtime" and the final performance in the television movie "Terrible Joe Moran," gave us a final glimpse of a cherished star, it is the late autumn performance in Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three" (1961) that offers us the final major performance of a great star. At age 62 he was as dynamic as he was 30 years earlier.

Not as well known as many of Wilder's other great films, "One, Two, Three" is a sharp, sly and very funny look at the cold war and corporate moral flexibility (to put it kindly). A lot of the topical humor may be lost on those who didn't live through the cold war or are not familiar with it. Originally slated to be filmed in Berlin, the crew had to quickly relocate to Munich because those pesky Russians decided to build a wall. The dialogue is filled with topical references (do modern audiences know who Khrushchev was, or the significance of the shoe banging on the table?). Fortunately, I am old enough to remember (wow - that's the first time I ever had occasion to use that phrase!).

Proving the cold war could be fun

Thanks to Wilder's script (co-written with I.A.L. Diamond) and direction, this all results in fast and furious fun. The supporting cast of Horst Buchholz, Arlene Francis, Pamela Tiffin, Lilo Pulver, and especially Hanns Lothar as Schlemmer, is top-notch. Cagney proves to be a good sport, allowing  several jokes at the expense of his long career - the grapefruit, the gangster quote from "Little Caesar" (even though that was uttered by Edward G. Robinson, it still harkened back to those good old gangster days), and a Cagney impression by Red Buttons. While those references made gentle fun of Cagney's decades-long public reputation, in true double-edged-sword Wilder fashion, it also seems an homage to many well-loved movie memories; an acknowledgement that we are in the presence of a living cinematic legend. I was getting those Norma Desmond/Gloria Swanson conflicted vibes here, though not in such a tragic framework.

An executive's work is never done

The film is very early 1960s, and I admit it's a bit arresting to see this particular star as a man of the modern world. For some reason he always seemed to be a man who lived in a past era. Even when his character was current in the 1930s and 40s, he seemed a man who lived by an earlier code. Cagney wears the 1960s suits and ties well and proves that he was a real actor playing something he never tried before - a slimy, married Coca-Cola executive, always conniving while canoodling with his mercenary secretary on the side. Still, he manages to retain that special sympathetic star shine something. That was his super power. Even when he was a gangster he was never slimy. Come on, weren't we all rooting for Rocky Sullivan?

Love and Capitalism wins the day

Cagney's personal struggles during filming are well known. While he could wear the clothes of the modern man, he was privately uncomfortable. Besides butting heads with Wilder, a very strong-willed director, he came to actively dislike co-star Horst Buchholz. In his autobiography, Cagney, who rarely had a harsh word for any co-workers, openly complained about the scene-stealing ways of the younger actor. Add to that those wildly changing times and Cagney decided he had had enough. At the end of filming, there seemed no place for him to go but to his beloved farm and let the world go by for a few decades. 

Cheers to you!

For some reason this topical and breathless movie reminds me of a line in Checkhov's "Uncle Vanya" about "autumn roses, beautiful, sorrowful roses." I feel a twinge of sadness in between the laughter. There would be those two graceful appearances much later, but watching this now, knowing this would be the last time we would see him in full power, is truly like looking at the twilight of the gods.



20 comments:

Christian Esquevin said...

Great review of Jimmy Cagney in the sunset of his career. I have not seen the film, but you summarize it well in terms of how it fits within his filmography. I have to say I've never understood the roles Horst Buchholz was given - he always seemed ill-suited for them. Cagney indulged the pleasures of his Irish heritage and loved the horses at his ranch - formerly belonging to Adrian. Making movies no doubt no longer thrilled him but was rather a way to make some extra money. He had already made his legacy - as you indicated.

said...

One, Two, Three is one of my favorite movies. It's so funny and yet so bittersweet. Cagney is my favorite actor and seeing him in this movie is a mix of joy and sorrow. You translated these feelings well in your great review.
Cheers!
Le

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Christian. In his bio, Cagney always said acting was a way to "put groceries on the table." However, I don't think he was being 100% honest. I think he liked it more than he was willing to admit!

FlickChick said...

Le - another thing we have in common. He's my favorite, too. I'm so glad we see eye to eye!

nitrateglow said...

I'm glad someone wrote about this film because I absolutely adore it. I was born in the 90s, so I don't get all the topical jokes, but the "moral flexibility" of the corporate world is something that hasn't aged at all, so much of the film's cynical humor remains relevant.

I really love Cagney in this too. He is hysterical and still has such presence even this late in his wonderful career. I'm sad he didn't have the best time on the set, but-- sorry Jimmy. Your suffering was worth it for me.

FlickChick said...

Thanks for stopping by, nitrateglow. And yes - I'm sorry Jim had such a bad time on set - but we appreciate his suffering for our enjoyment!

Marianne said...

I haven't seen One, Two, Three in a while. Your review makes me think I need to see it again! I remember it being a lot of fun to watch, even if some of the references are a little outdated. I didn't really care about that!

The Last Drive In said...

This is such a lovely tribute to the autumn roses of Cagney’s career. I’ve really come to appreciate his work! I’ve not seen One, Two, Three but it’s now on my list of must-see films.

The Lady Eve said...

Such a lovely reminiscence on Cagney's career and last-film-for-a-long-time. He may have had a rough time on One, Two, Three, but you'd never know it. A true and incomparable pro.

FlickChick said...

Marianne - the topical references do add to making the viewer feel a little smarter - but knowledge of each and every one isn't necessary. The comedy and characters provide enough laughs along the way.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, last Drive In. It's all fast and funny, but it does make me just a tiny bit sad.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. Yup - you'd never know it. Plus the photos taken on the set with Wilder and crew almost always find him smiling. He must have punched a wall or two when he got home at night.

The Classic Movie Muse said...

As always, such a beautifully written tribute, FlickChick. I have yet to see One, Two, Three, but with that fabulous cast and crew I am adding it to my list. Thank you for this lovely post.

Citizen Screen said...

I'm rather depressed after reading this seasoned entry. The thought that Cagney is not forever is actually shocking to the system. I saw this movie years ago and it didn't have the impact on me that your write-up had. Perhaps I need to revisit it soon.

Aurora

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Classic Movie Muse. The film is so very topical that a lot of the great jokes might fly over the heads of viewers not acquainted with the times, but it's Cagney, it's Wilder...what could be bad?

FlickChick said...

Citizen Screen - whaddaya mean Cagney isn't forever? That what movie are for, silly girl!

Silver Screenings said...

I've only seen a clip of this movie, and I know what you mean about seeing Cagney in modern clothes. It's a bit jarring, because he always seemed to be from Long Ago. It's high time I saw this film, thanks to your fab review.

Rebecca Deniston said...

Cagney was so quick and so sharp, even during his latter years. What a treasure he was.

FlickChick said...

Hi Ruth (Silver Screenings). For some reason, this film is rarely shown. In Fact, I don't think I ever saw it on TCM or any other station. I hope it gets some air time because it is good fun and a good Wilder film.

FlickChick said...

Yes, Rebecca, he sure was one of a kind.