Around the Island

Column: Scaling walls


While the avid supporters of The Donald continue to yearn for the edifice of their dreams — the Great Wall that Trump has promised to build on the U.S.-Mexican border — I’d like to remind you that 55 years ago this month, another infamous wall was born. I’m referring to the one that cut through the heart of Berlin and loomed for three decades as a bleak monument to Communist tyranny.

The esteemed film director Billy Wilder was in Berlin during that summer of 1961, shooting “One, Two, Three,” a sardonic film about a harried Coca-Cola executive, played by James Cagney, who becomes embroiled in the East-West tensions that typified life in Berlin even before the wall went up.

Wilder was renowned for a keen wit, and even as he coped with the stress of a mounting Cold War crisis, he maintained his humor. When asked to describe his new movie, he said, “It’s about those two great international conspiracies — the Communist Party and the Coca-Cola Company.”

He came up with a cavalier reference to a different kind of historical breakthrough that was taking place back in the states that summer: Roger Maris’s hot pursuit of Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 60 home runs in one season.

In a master stroke of offbeat irrelevance, Wilder linked Maris’s quest to the dire turn of events in Germany. The film begins with a long tracking shot of street scenes in Berlin and a voice-over narrative, delivered by Cagney in his best rat-a-tat-tat: “On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation’s capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs number 44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we’re dealing with — real shifty!”

That quirky juxtaposition perfectly set the tone for the Cold War caper that followed.

Wilder was no stranger to Berlin. As a young man, he moved from his native Austria to the German capital to pursue a career as a journalist. He also took on a few casual jobs, including a stint as a taxi dancer in the ballroom of a raffish hotel. But he soon gravitated to motion pictures and began to make his mark as a screenwriter.

The Berlin phase of Wilder’s career came to an abrupt end when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Along with other film colleagues who were Jewish, he fled Germany and made his way to Hollywood, where he struggled to learn English well enough to write scripts in the American idiom.

By the 1940s, Wilder not only had made his bones as a screenwriter, but was also on his way to becoming one of the most gifted directors of his generation. Some of the movies he made in those years —  “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Boulevard” — have long been regarded as noir classics.

In the 1950s, he moved away from the dark side, shifting his focus to comedy. Think of such entertaining romps as “Sabrina,” “The Seven Year Itch” and “Love in the Afternoon.”

In 1959 came “Some Like It Hot,” the picture that I consider to be Wilder’s masterpiece. Nor am I alone, for to this day the American Film Institute ranks that cross-dressing farce as Number One on its list of the all-time greatest movie comedies.

And that was quickly followed by his biggest success, “The Apartment.” That satiric take on the interaction of office politics with amorous hanky-panky captured three major Academy Awards: one for best picture of 1960 and the other two to Wilder for his direction and screenplay.

So when he returned to Berlin to film “One, Two, Three” in 1961, Wilder was at the height of both his reputation and creative powers. Its most striking feature is a blistering pace with crackling, rapid-fire dialogue taking full advantage of the physical and verbal energy that defined Cagney’s acting style. This was Cagney’s last starring role, and while he was not known for his comedic talent, his performance as the frenetic Coca-Cola executive was a comic triumph  — a dazzling coda to a long and distinguished career.

A few years later, when I was writing feature pieces on film and theater folk for UPI, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Wilder when he came to New York to promote his latest film, “Kiss Me, Stupid.”

That movie was one of his rare flops — most of the big-time reviews were negative — and so I was hardly surprised to find him in a grumpy mood when we met for lunch. Sizing up the situation, I promptly called an audible and jettisoned most of my questions about “Kiss Me, Stupid.”

Instead, I focused on his more celebrated films, and that quickly put him in a more congenial frame of mind. He seemed to be especially pleased when I began asking him about his early years in Berlin.

At one point, when I expressed curiosity about his fling as a taxi dancer, Wilder chuckled and said, “I offer my compliments, young man. You’ve obviously done your homework.”

Before I had a chance to reply, he added, “I say that because in another interview a couple of days ago, a reporter asked me why I left Berlin in 1933.”

That stunned me a bit, mainly because in my research for our interview, I had read that Wilder’s mother, grandmother and stepfather were killed in the Holocaust. And so in response, all I could think of to say was, “You’re kidding!”

“No,” he replied, “but I treasure the look of astonishment on your face.”

“Good Lord,” I said, “what did you tell him?”

“Well,” Wilder said with a sigh and the faint hint of a grin, “I explained to him that while I happened to be Jewish, Hitler was not. And so, after a brief but spirited give-and-take, I decided to pack my bags.”