October 4, 2009
Once in a while I put a movie on my Netflix list, and by the time its number comes up I can’t remember why I picked it. That’s what happened with the 1961 movie we watched tonight — a Cold War farce co-written and directed by Billy Wilder. After we watched it, I still couldn’t remember why I picked it.
This film in black and white stars James Cagney, Arlene Francis, Pamela Tiffin, and Horst Bucholz. Although it is full of references to America-Soviet issues of the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was based on a play by the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar, who died in 1952.
The film concerns C.J. McNamara (Cagney), who heads Coca-Cola’s operations in West Berlin, but yearns to be named head of the company’s European operations, based in London. McNamara’s wife, Phyllis (Francis), is weary of life in foreign cities — and C.J.’s philandering — and pressures him to take her and the two McNamara kinder back to the United States.
C.J.’s life becomes further complicated when his boss in Atlanta dispatches his daughter to Europe to get her away from her latest boyfriend and asks C.J. to take charge of the girl while she’s in Berlin. Scarlett (Tiffin) turns out to be more than the McNamaras can handle, and she meets, mates, and marries Otto Piffl (Bucholz), a fiery East German Communist. C.J. has to keep Otto and the pregnant Scarlett at bay while he figures out how to make the match palatable to the girl’s parents — who set off on a trip to Germany.
However well this film may have worked in 1961, it hits the wall with a thud in 2009. It is riddled with what are now stale allusions to the Soviet Union under Nikita Krushchev as well as a steady diet of really bad jokes. In addition, the movie is a school of overacting. Wilder directs it as though directing the Marx Brothers, but Chico and Harpo are nowhere to be seen, and the actors who are in sight don’t have the chops to make this kind of comedy work. Everyone in the film, except Arlene Francis, seems to have been told that farce is measured by how loudly and how rapidly an actor can speak and how fast they can rush from room to room. Cagney — in his last starring role — opens the film speaking as though he is auctioning tobacco, and he doesn’t let up for an hour and fifty minutes.
Tiffin and Bucholz and a bunch of supporting players do their best to keep up with Cagney’s pitch and pace, and the result is an exhausting experience with too few rewards to make it worthwhile. In one scene there is an attempt at humor in which Cagney threatens Bucholz with half a grapefruit — a pathetically obvious reference to the scene 30 years before in which he pushed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in “Public Enemy.” It was almost as though Wilder were saying, “You should be laughing at this, folks; after all, this is James Cagney.”
The high points in this train wreck are a scene in which the uncredited Red Buttons, playing an Army MP, does a fleeting imitation of Cagney for C.J.’s benefit, and the closing title in which C.J. is chagrined to get a bottle of Pepsi out of a Coke vending machine. There is also some fascination in watching Cagney and Bucholz work together inasmuch as it is well documented that they hated each other and made no secret of it on the set.