PG, 115 minutes
James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin
Over the course of the evening, we will watch two films scripted by Billy Wilder: Ninotchka, a film he wrote but did not direct; and a later remake, One, Two, Three, which he did direct.
There are three screenwriters credited on Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling, sophisticated comedy about the clash between capitalist and communist values, but it clearly shows Billy Wilder’s individual development as arguably Hollywood’s sharpest, funniest storyteller. Before he was a director, Wilder honed his craft by writing almost 30 German features, mostly musicals and comedies. After fleeing Germany for Hollywood, he and his first writing partner Charles Brackett were given the bizarre challenge of writing a comedy starring Greta Garbo.
Famous for the tragic intensity of her performances, she was nobody’s first thought for a comedienne – in fact, the trailer’s big splash title was “Garbo Laughs!”: that’s how rare it was. In a stroke of genius, they pulled it off by poking fun at her image, making her character a humourless Soviet bureaucrat who meets and falls in love with a charming Count played by Melvyn Douglas. Garbo gets to use all her tools, but in the context provided by the script, they all play as hilarious. All the hallmarks of what would become Wilder’s style – the hilarious wordplay, the witty romantic repartee, the sardonic humour, and crucially, the moral compass and humanity of a Jew who fled the Nazis – are all richly on display in Ninotchka.
In 1961, Wilder essentially made his version of Ninotchka in One, Two, Three. He took an actor known for being a heavy – James Cagney – and put him in a script that repurposed all his tools as funny. The film is furiously paced, and Cagney’s hard-assed, machine-gun-fire performance is jaw-dropping. The plot has the same elements as Ninotchka: Cagney is a Coca-Cola executive stationed in Berlin, trying to sell capitalism to socialists, who tries to break up his daughter’s romance with a passionate Leninist. It’s pure joy to watch Cagney rapid-fire Wilder’s hilarious dialogue at the other actors in the film and see them try to keep up. In One, Two, Three, Wilder takes the story from the sophisticated wit of Lubitsch’s world and puts it in his own: tough, hard-bitten, but still human – still a mensch.
Special event pricing: General $13 - Members/Students/Seniors $10. $2 Double-Bill Discount. Buy tickets at billywilderrevue.eventbrite.ca