Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Pause That Refreshes

Several years ago, I was spending a weekend at an old friend's home, and I happened to notice that one of my favorite films was scheduled to be shown on TV.

"Have you ever seen 'One Two Three?' " I asked my friend.

"No," he replied, "but I've seen its sequel — 'Four Five Six.' "

We got a good laugh out of that one, but, unfortunately, we didn't watch the movie — and I regret that because I would have liked to share it with him. Perhaps one day I will.

Anyway, my thoughts have turned to "One Two Three" today because it was the (fictional) story of a Coca–Cola executive.

And it was 125 years ago today that Coca–Cola was first served in a drug store in Atlanta.

At first, Coca–Cola was sold as a medicine. In the late 19th century, it was believed that carbonated water had health benefits, and it was because of those perceived medicinal benefits that its developer wished to market it.

As hard as this may be for some folks to swallow, it was developed by a Georgia druggist named John Pemberton, a Confederate veteran.

The invention of Coke actually came about because of Pemberton's military service. He was wounded in battle and became addicted to morphine — and embarked on a search for a cure for his addiction, eventually coming up with Coca–Cola.

For the rest of Pemberton's lifetime, Coca–Cola was marketed as a medicine — a tonic, I suppose, intended to relieve a number of ailments.

Today, of course, it is the leading soft drink company in the world.

Well, I presume it is the leader. It always was the leader when I was growing up, and I don't think it has been displaced by anyone.

But competition has been around for a long time. Both Pepsi and RC Cola have existed for more than a century. As a result, I suppose, I always felt (well, at least since I first saw the movie) that the title was a reference to the three titans of the soft–drink industry.

Coke was the first of the colas, though — chronologically as well as in the marketplace.

In my household, in fact, "coke" was a generic term.

In other households, such drinks are called "soda" or "pop." My mother seldom drank Coca–Cola, but she used the word "coke" to refer to any soft drink.

When my mother said "Would you like a coke?" I knew she wasn't speaking only about a Coca–Cola. I knew she meant any soft drink that was available.

I always felt that "One Two Three" was one of Billy Wilder's best comedies — and that is saying something when you think about all the movies that he wrote, directed and/or produced — but it was often overshadowed by the others that he did.

The story had several joking references to the rivalry between Coke and Pepsi (which, I gather, was a fact of commercial life by that time), but I don't actually recall any references to RC Cola. Perhaps that is because Royal Crown (as it was known) was more diverse, dabbling in other flavors (and, hence, other markets) at the time that "One Two Three" was in the theaters.

It got its title from a phrase that Jimmy Cagney, playing a Coca–Cola executive in Berlin in the early 1960s, would say when he wanted something (usually several things) done quickly.

"One, two, three!" he would say, snapping his fingers with each word.

That movie will observe the 50th anniversary of its premiere later this year, and I plan to write about it at length when that time comes.

But, for some reason, today I feel compelled to write about one of its lesser–known yet memorable performers.

Her name is Liselotte Pulver. She played Cagney's sexy secretary, and her character served as the bait in his plan to retrieve his employer's new son–in–law from his East German captors.

Cagney deserved and received much praise for his performance, but the sometimes frenetic pace of the film was too much for him, and he went into virtual retirement when it was over.

There were other performers in the film who, for various reasons, seemed to get more attention than Pulver. Pamela Tiffin, who played the boss' daughter, may have been perceived by some as sexier than Pulver. She was quite a bit younger. And Horst Buccholz, who played her East German fiance/spouse, was a rising star when "One Two Three" was made. He made his American debut in "The Magnificent Seven" the year before, and he went on to appear in several American films before his death in 2003.

Cagney, of course, was an old pro — with a film resume that went back more than 30 years. Arlene Francis was, too, although she spent many years on television, not the silver screen.

Pulver's career, I gather, was spent mostly in her native Germany. Most Americans weren't familiar with it.

But Pulver was a refreshing element in the story — a true pause that refreshed.

And that was appropriate, I suppose, for a movie about a Coca–Cola executive.

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