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Actors: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, Howard St. John
Director: Billy Wilder
Genres: Comedy, Military & War
Hardly ever mentioned in the category of lightning-paced comedies--the His Girl Friday and Preston Sturges kind--is this breathless cold war farce from the great Billy Wilder. Adapted from a one-act play by Ferenc Molnár, ... more »
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An Indefatigable Cagney Pulls All the Stops in a Frenetic Co
Ed Uyeshima | San Francisco, CA USA | 12/06/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"A genuine Cold War relic, this frenetic 1961 comedy is the film that master director Billy Wilder made right after two genuine classics, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. While it's not nearly in that league, the 61-year-old James Cagney is in top fighting form as ever-resourceful C.R. MacNamara, the head of Coca-Cola's West Berlin plant. The pugnacious screen legend went into a two-decade-long retirement after making this film which pointedly satirizes both American capitalism and Russian communism. He makes the film watchable but not necessarily essential since this sitcom-level rehash of Ninotchka (which Wilder co-wrote with Charles Brackett) doesn't really resonate now as much as it did when the Berlin Wall was hastily built despite all the obvious sweat in the effort. Despite the scabrous political rhetoric and Wilder's unmistakable mark, it all feels more like a period piece along the lines of a Keystone Kops comedy or Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Co-written by Wilder and his constant partner I.A.L. Diamond based on a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, the story has MacNamara discovering that his Atlanta-based boss is shipping out his promiscuous seventeen-year-old daughter Scarlett for the summer. A family man with an exasperated wife and two kids, MacNamara is forced to cancel a long-planned vacation to Venice to baby-sit the Southern belle. However, before he knows it, Scarlett has become Mrs. Otto Ludwig Piffl, the wife of a die-hard Bolshevik. In the middle of brokering a deal to open a Coca-Cola plant in the Soviet Union, MacNamara contrives to get rid of Otto by having him get picked up by the secret police in East Berlin where he is tortured by the repeated playing of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini". However, complications ensue when it is discovered that Scarlett is pregnant, which means MacNamara needs to retrieve Otto pronto and convert him into a capitalist just in time for the arrival of Scarlett's ultra-conservative parents.
The indefatigable Cagney is really the whole show here as he single-handedly accelerates an addled screwball comedy into a free-for-all farce on hyper-drive. His showpiece is a ten-minute segment where he barks orders to his staff in machine-gun fashion to get Otto cleaned up and groomed for Scarlett's parents. Horst Buchholz (Fanny) - whom both Cagney and Wilder detested during filming - is appropriately didactic as Otto, while the long-forgotten Pamela Tiffin (Harper) plays the bubble-headed Scarlett with surprising élan. Effective on the sidelines are Lilo Pulver as the sexpot secretary, Hanns Lothar as the heel-clicking assistant, Arlene Francis as MacNamara's wisecracking wife, and in a cameo, Red Buttons as an MP not above doing a Cagney impression in front of the master. However, they all appear understandably overwhelmed by Cagney's all-cylinders-on presence. Composer André Previn orchestrated the music score which makes maximum comic use of Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance". The 2003 DVD offers the original theatrical trailer as its sole extra."