Billy Wilder turned to these two plays because they offered the situations, structure, and characters that would allow his imagination to flower and create contemporary stories – a patriotic military thriller and a political farce. And while we think of him as a writer and director musing about the complexities of human relationships, these films point to a political and social view.
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Billy Wilder was surrounded by Hungarians. He knew journalists, playwrights, screenwriters, directors, actors, art directors, composers. He met the Kordas and Michael Curtiz (Kertész Mihály) in Vienna and Berlin. He worked with the composer Rózsa Miklós and the production designer Alexander Trauner. Between the world wars, Hungarian intellectuals and artists went West because of the ravages caused by World War I, the crushing of the Communist Republic in 1919, and the dismemberment of historic Hungary by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. They were also immersed in German, French, and English culture. And Western capitals offered them intellectual, creative, and financial opportunities that did not exist in Budapest. Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London, and Hollywood were the main stops of their emigration. Born in Galicia, part of Austria-Hungary, Wilder grew up in a multicultural, multilingual empire where plays, songs, and operettas were routinely translated into other languages. So it is not surprising that Wilder was familiar with Hungarian plays and would work with Hungarians.
In the interwar years, Hungarian plays were especially popular, all over Europe and in New York. Between 1908 and 1940, fifty-three Hungarian plays would be performed on Broadway. It would not be wrong to say that Hungarian playwrights shaped the taste of theatergoers in the United States before World War II.
In a way, Wilder was following his idol, Ernst Lubitsch. He had a sign in his office that read, “How would Lubitsch do it?” And Lubitsch himself based some of his most successful films on stories or plays written by Hungarians.
As a screenwriter he worked on two films based on Hungarian plays, George Cukor’s Ninotchka (1939), based on an idea by Lengyel Menyhért, and Mitchell Leisen’s Arise My Love (1940), based on a story by Hans Székely.
Despite sharing the accepted opinion in Hollywood that most Hungarian playwrights could write the first two acts but very few could write the third act, Wilder wrote and directed two films that were based on plays by Hungarians: Five Graves to Cairo (1943), based on Lajos Biró’s Hotel Imperial (1916), and One, Two, Three (1961), based on Ferenc Molnár’s Egy, kettő, három (1929). The first was serious, the second, comic.
So let us look at the plays and the films to see how he adapted them. What did he change and how? And why was he drawn to these plays in the first place?
Five Graves to Cairo (1916/1943)
Biró’s play Hotel Imperial opened at Magyar Szinház January 25, 1918. It was an immediate success, so it was filmed the same year by Jenő Janovics, featuring Victor Varconi (Várkonyi Mihály). It would be remade in 1927 by Mauritz Stiller and starring Pola Negri, and as a talkie in 1939 by Robert Florey, starring Isa Miranda and Ray Milland.
Curiously, the play was written at the beginning of the First World War in 1916, while the film was shot at the start of the Second in 1943. Both were timely. Both appeared before the full horror of the wars would unfold.
As a writer, Biró was energized by having been on the front lines. During the war, he would publish four novels and this play, in addition to his regular reports. He signed up as a war correspondent just days after war was declared and he reported for two years, first from the Russian front, then from Italy, Serbia and Transylvania. The play was largely based on his own experiences. He was there when Austro-Hungarian troops took back the towns of Tarnow and Csernovic from Russian forces. He wrote a dispatch he titled “Anna, the Czech Servant Girl” about the girl who became friends with Russian officers and who was entrusted with running the hotel. They chose her rather than the porter Elias because he was Jewish. Both characters appear with those names in the play. But Biró based his main character on Lieutenant Dadányi György, who had become somewhat of a celebrity through newspaper reports about his exploits as a spy behind enemy lines. So the material for the play comes from Biró’s war dispatches combined with the exploits of a war hero he read about.
The curtain opens in the lobby of the Hotel Imperial, the social center of a little town in Galicia in 1914, now occupied by Russian troops. Hungarian Lieutenant Almásy seeks refuge in the hotel. Anna, the maid, who has become the favorite of the Russian general, gives Almásy a waiter’s uniform so he can stay there safely. We feel the danger from the very beginning – his true identity may be discovered at any time. He recognizes a spy who is ready to betray the position of the Austro-Hungarian army. Almásy has had enough of killing on the battlefield, but he must kill the agent in order to save his battalion. He becomes the chief suspect in the agent’s death. But as he is about to be executed, the maid saves him, lying that he had spent the afternoon with her. Thus she saves his life and jeopardizes hers. The Austro-Hungarian army returns, and our main characters are saved. The play ends with them pledging their love to one another.
The play is, unsurprisingly, an attack on war. Biró had been a leftist journalist before the war and would become the foreign secretary of the Károlyi government. During the Republic of Councils in 1919, he continued as an active journalist in the revolutionary journal Fáklya (Torch), and when the Socialist experiment failed, he emigrated to Vienna.
The most interesting characters in Hotel Imperial simply want to lead their lives, and they mock or condemn the wholesale killing that is going on. Anna reduces war to men’s wandering nature – they put on a uniform because they are tired of their wives and want new women. Almásy plans to kill a spy, but he is torn because he cannot bring himself to kill someone in cold blood. An Orthodox priest reads the story of Cain and Abel and muses about the sin of murder. The dressmaker says that whenever the city changes masters, the ladies must be bought new clothes. Almásy tells him that “the interest of the homeland is diametrically opposed to yours.” It is the merchants who benefit from war. Once the Austro-Hungarian army takes back the town, Almásy is to be promoted for killing the spy. Yet he refuses the honor because that would be putting the mark of Cain on him. Anna sums up the contradiction of war – the responsibility for killing is not the soldier’s but the people who make the decision to go to war. At the end, Anna and Almásy recite the Lord’s Prayer. He has been transformed from being a soldier into a man of God, a believer.
Hotel Imperial was made into a film in Hollywood on three separate occasions, in 1927 and 1939 under its original title and in 1943 as Five Graves to Cairo. All three were made at Paramount. Was it that Paramount had the rights so they were able to exploit it again and again? Did they return to the play because the silent version was a success and Lajos Biró had become a well-known screenwriter, responsible for Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise (1924), Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), and The Private Life of Henry VIII and other Korda productions in London? Or was it that the play dealt with political and personal complexity, particularly dramatic in a town occupied by opposing forces, where loyalties shift with the success of the invader?
Mauritz Stiller’s silent film follows the play closely, emphasizing the drama of Lieutenant Almásy and the chambermaid Anna, remaining true to themselves and loyal to their nation while working in a hotel occupied by the Russians.
Robert Florey’s version is a romantic comedy. When the Russian troops arrive, the porter turns the painting of Emperor Franz Josef around to reveal Czar Nicholas, and the maitre d’ changes the meat order for beef Stroganoff instead of Wiener schnitzel. Anna is an actress posing in beautiful dresses, the Russian general Videnko is a bon vivant who has gambled at Monte Carlo and indulges in painting women, the Russians are drinking and dancing much of the time. The characters are in masquerade. The Hungarian lieutenant comments, “nobody is really what he seems here.” He escapes from the hotel simply by distributing bottles of vodka to the guards. And the spy makes a dramatic entrance to the dancing soldiers, declaring that he has been “busy composing a complaint against the service in this hotel” before collapsing from the bullet fired by the Hungarian lieutenant posing as a servant.
Could Billy Wilder have had something to do with the sound version of Hotel Imperial, 1939, directed by Robert Florey? The introductory card identifies the town where the action takes place as Sucha, a town in Galicia. No town is specified in the play. Yet Sucha happens to be the birthplace of Wilder.
In Five Graves to Cairo, only the second movie that he directed, Wilder moved the action to North Africa – shot it in the Mojave Desert – where American and British troops are fighting the Germans. Released only six months after Casablanca, it is also a film about the war, also set in an exotic African location. Corporal Bramble (Franchot Tone), the sole survivor of a British tank crew, makes his way to the Hotel Empress of Britain where the French maid Mouche (Anne Baxter) tells him to pretend he is the waiter Davos who was killed in an air raid. Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) and his staff occupy the hotel. Wilder builds added tension by having a German officer discover the body of the real Davos. Now Bramble has to kill him to maintain his disguise. Wilder also creates a more conflicted relationship between Bramble and Mouche. She despises the British because she believes they abandoned French soldiers, including her brothers, at Dunkirk. Bramble is repulsed by her playing up to the Germans, though she does so in order to free her brothers from German captivity. So Wilder has changed the plot and characters to create greater suspense. In the play, soldier and maid fall in love and are united at the end. In Wilder’s film, Bramble becomes fond of Mouche. He follows his duty and joins his troops. When he returns with the British army to take back the hotel, he finds that Mouche has been executed by the Germans. Her sacrifice strengthens the film as a patriotic work of propaganda.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the pacifism and social critique of Biró’s play is missing from the film versions, which were made to create dramatic tension, serious or comic, focusing on the intrigue and dangers of a man and woman caught behind enemy lines.
By adapting the story to the contemporary world war, Wilder created greater tension and accentuated the conflict between the male and female leads to end the film with a patriotic call to arms.
One, Two, Three, 1929/1961
By the time he wrote this play in 1929. Molnár had become one of the most successful playwrights in the world. His plays The Devil, Liliom, The Guardsman, The Swan, The Play’s the Thing, Olympia, and others had conquered Broadway. In One, Two, Three, he created an atypical one-act tour de force about a fast-talking European bank president who transforms a socialist taxi driver into an aristocratic gentleman so that he would be an acceptable son-in-law to his friend, an American automobile tycoon.
Wilder admired Molnár, particularly The Guardsman, (A testőr, 1910), in which a jealous actor impersonates a dashing guardsman to see if he can seduce his own actress wife. He had seen a performance of One, Two, Three when the play was first performed in Berlin with Max Pallenberg, an actor known for his rapid-fire delivery.
Why did he take the play and make it into a film? His co-writer I. A. L. Diamond said that it was an attempt to revive the fast-paced comedies of the 1930s, exemplified by The Front Page (1931). And they certainly did that with the brilliant, nonstop banter that drives the film. But Wilder had a deeper, more subtle, more personal, and more social aim. Berlin had been his home. He thrived there as a journalist; that is where he began writing for movies. Then Hitler came to power and he was forced to leave. He went back right after the war to shoot A Foreign Affair on location, to capture the turbulence and contradictions of a city that had gone from being a bawdy, vibrant cauldron of entertainment to the capital of an imperialistic fascist state to an occupied city in rubble. A dozen years later, that city had been transformed into an ideological battleground between capitalism and communism. Once again he saw a chance to create a story set in a city that helped shape him. And he realized that Molnár’s play offered him the situation, structure, and characters to spoof the madness of the twentieth century.
Molnár had created the premise – the conflict between a capitalist and a socialist – and the problem – transforming a poor taxi driver into a well-groomed aristocratic businessman. Wilder would take the characters and bring the story to contemporary Berlin, the hot spot of the Cold War.
Molnár made the story unfold in one location, the office of the bank president, in an hour and a half of fictional time corresponding to the length of the play. That concentration created the comic intensity driven by the rapid dialog.
Billy Wilder stays close to the premise of the story and the characters. He writes witty verbal exchanges appopriate to the changed time, location, and political situation. He expands the story into the streets of Berlin to show the bizarre locale of the divided city that symbolized postwar Europe. He dispenses with most of the play’s theatrical conventions. The office is only one of the locations, albeit the central one. To show the contrast between West and East Berlin, he has the characters speed back and forth over the demilitarized zone. And he develops the story over a two-month period, abandoning the theatrical conceit of an hour and a half on the stage.
Molnár opens the play in the office of Norrison, the self-made bank president in a European capital, ready to leave on a week’s vacation with his wife and two daughters. Lydia, daughter of a wealthy American automobile manufacturer, has been living with them for six months. He dreams of bringing her father’s car company into his financial empire.
Lydia rushes in with a telegram. Her parents arrive in an hour. She confesses that he met a man and given herself to him “body and soul” and has been married to him for four months. Antal is a poor taxi driver, a man with socialist ideas. Norrison sees his dream of allying with the car company quickly fade, so he offers Antal a bribe of $20,000, $50,000, even $100,000. To no avail. Antal will only accept the cab fare, $3.50. Norrison has no choice but to make the poor taxi driver into a proper son-in-law. But he is used to working wonders. He will transform him into an ideal groom. Immediately, like a magician – one, two, three.
Wilder reimagines the businessman as McNamara (James Cagney), the head of Coca-Cola in Germany. His voice-over narration introduces his daily routine as his chauffeur pulls up at the office. His assistant Schlemmer clicks his heels as he opens his car door. The whole staff snaps to attention when he walks in. He is carrying on with his voluptuous secretary Ingeborg, barely skirting censorship by reminiscing about “the lilacs in Lower Bavaria” and missing her lessons about the “umlaut.” Three Russian trade commissioners have come to see him to obtain the franchise for Coca-Cola, reminding us of the three comrades who greeted Ninotchka at the Paris train station in the Lubitsch film written by Wilder.
Answering a call from his boss in Atlanta, McNamara boasts that Coke has succeeded where Napoleon and Hitler have failed, conquering Russia. His boss asks him a favor, to host his daughter Scarlet, who has become entangled with a rock ’n’ roller. McNamara calls his wife, who routinely calls him “Mein Führer,” to give her the news. They drive to the airport to welcome the hot-blooded Scarlet, who has already wrapped the three pilots around her finger.
Two months pass and she appears in McNamara’s office, announcing that she got married six weeks ago. Now we are almost at the start of the play.
But Wilder teases more possibilities out of the premise. First, McNamara uses his wiles to annul the marriage. That allows for more comedic complication as characters drive back and forth through the Brandenburg Gate. It is only when they all realize that Scarlet is pregnant that McNamara is confronted with the task set for Norrison at the start of the play – transforming Otto, the young Communist, into the successful aristocratic partner appropriate to be the son-in-law of a Coca-Cola executive.
From this point on, the film closely follows the play. In the play, Norrison mobilizes his staff. He makes travel plans for all of them to go to Saint Moritz. He dictates a letter to the Labor Party, offering Antal’s resignation. Lydia gets involved, telling him what to wear. Norrison arranges for him to be adopted by an aristocrat Dubois-Schottenburg and appoints him to be the president of an automobile company he owns. He calls in a tailor to take his measurements for his new clothes and shoes. He sells him his car and gets him a chauffeur. He sets him up with an office and a secretary. He orders the dinner to which he will treat his future in-laws. He has a picture taken of him which he will superimpose onto a photo of Mussolini, showing them in conversation.
McNamara does very much the same, issuing rapid-fire orders to make the young man acceptable. He procures an aristocratic title, an executive position in the company, clothes and shoes befitting a man of the world, just as Norrison did.
Norrison tells Antal how to converse with his future in-laws, how to respond to a wide range of issues in a conversation. “America? ‘Great possibilities.’ Russia? ‘Let’s see how it ends.’ Einstein? ‘I’m in the midst of reading him.’ Modern music? ‘Laughable.’ Modern love? ‘Main thing, With a heavy sigh You must be able to forget quickly.’ Economic conditions? ‘Worse than last year.’ You can repeat that for the next fifty years. That’s all. Study these. They will be enough intellectual capital for a refined, conservative gentleman.”
McNamara coaches Otto as well. The Civil War – “it was a draw.” Golf – “the family that plays together, stays together.” The world situation – “serious, but not hopeless.” Otto will get confused and reverses it when he meets his in-laws, “hopeless, but not serious.”
In the play, Lydia announces that her parents have arrived, but we do not meet them. Norrison is satisfied; he averted the danger. Mission accomplished. He leaves for the train station to go on his vacation. The play ends. We started at 2:45 in the afternoon. The train leaves at 4:31. Norrison dealt with the crisis and transformed the young revolutionary into a successful aristocratic financier in an hour and a half, the length of the play. Molnár succeeded admirably in meeting Aristotle’s three unities of action, place, and time.
Wilder creates more comedic situations by introducing the transformed young man to his in-laws. He takes us on a furious drive to the airport, where Otto is getting dressed and being given final pointers. When the parents from Georgia meet their well-groomed son-in-law, they are extremely pleased. The grooming has worked so well that Otto is promoted to head European operations in London. McNamara, to his chagrin, is kicked upstairs to a boring job in Atlanta. He has done too good a job.
Billy Wilder’s aim was to create a political farce, mocking two rival ideologies, capitalism and communism, as well as fascism, the one they replaced. And he succeeded brilliantly with some of his most inspired situations and lines. His employees treat McNamara with Prussian correctness, snapping to attention, clicking their heels. His assistant proudly claims that during the war he worked in the underground. When pressed, he admits that it was not in the resistance, but on the subway. When asked about Adolf, he returns the question, “Adolf who?” Wilder takes a swipe at both fascism and communism by showing East Berliners marching under a banner reading “Nikita über alles.” And the transient nature of heroes – Hotel Potemkin used to be Hotel Göring, and before it was Hotel Bismarck.
The jokes about communism and the Soviet Union are the staple of the film. Otto, the young man, proudly announces that he is planning on sharing an apartment with other families, that he plans on sending their baby to a state nursery. When McNamara smokes the Havana cigar offered him by the Russian trade commissioners, he tells them that they have been gypped – the cigar is crumby. Don’t worry, their leader says, we gave them crumby rockets.
When Otto finds out that Scarlet’s parents are wealthy, he says matter-of-factly that they will have to be liquidated. In the background of an East Berlin restaurant, men are playing dominoes and chess. When Ingeborg starts dancing on a table, one of the commissioners keeps time by slamming his shoe on the table, the way Khrushchev famously did at the United Nations. And as the music builds, the poster of Khrushchev slips out of its frame, leaving the poster of Stalin behind, showing the idolatry accorded the leader and the shifting allegiances of party politics.
The fanaticism, poverty, hero worship, and sloganeering of communism is set up against the comfortable consumerism of capitalism and American culture. When the Soviet trade commissioner offers the Bolshoi Ballet as payment for the Coke concession, McNamara replies, “No culture, just cash,” prompting the Russian to call him “an ugly American.” Otto insists that his wife Scarlet can only have one mink coat. And he is tortured by Stasi agents playing “Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again.
Wilder also played with film history. He reached back to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, a film he cowrote, and revived the three Russian commissars who greeted Greta Garbo at the Paris train station. The cuckoo clock in James Cagney’s office plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the song he sang in the movie of that name. When he finds out that Scarlet is pregnant, he mutters to himself the final line of Little Caesar, “Is this the end of Rico?” When the young man resists his attempts to transform him into a proper son-in-law, he picks up half a grapefruit, ready to smash it into his face, as he did to Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy. And he borrows from his own work when McNamara fools the Russian comrades by delivering to them his assistant Schlemmer, dressed up as Ingeborg, recalling Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag in Some Like It Hot.
Clearly, Wilder created a brilliant, original spoof of competing ideologies in contemporary Berlin. Yet he needed a situation, a structure, and characters. And those he found in the play written by Molnár thirty years before.
Because of its politics, Wilder’s film had trouble from the beginning. And it was never properly appreciated. President Kennedy was worried about its impact on American-Soviet relations, so he invited Wilder to his brother-in-law Peter Lawford’s house to ask for a copy of the script. He met JFK and they talked about sports and beautiful actresses, but Wilder politely refused to give him the script.
Wilder began shooting in Berlin in June 1961. The Wall went up in August. Originally the city was portrayed as being divided. The narrator would have declared “Subsequent events have proved that this decision was – to put it diplomatically – a boo-boo.” Now he had McNamara lead off with the events of August 13, 1961 – “the eyes of America were on the nation’s capital where Roger Maris was hitting home runs 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.” So Wilder set the story a year earlier.
Wilder moved the shooting to the Bavaria Studios in Munich and had a partial replica of the Brandenburg Gate and Tempelhof Airport built there. By the time it was released in December 1961, the tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had escalated. The movie turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. The Berliner Zeitung complained, “What breaks our heart, Billy Wilder finds funny.”
When Michel Ciment noted that the film was attacked by both left and right, the director replied as he lit a cigar, “Ain’t that nice? I love it, you know, to irritate everybody. Ultimately, naturally, they’re going to put me up against a cellophane wall and shoot me from both sides – the Communists, the capitalists.”
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Billy Wilder turned to these two plays because they offered the situations, structure, and characters that would allow his imagination to flower and create contemporary stories – a patriotic military thriller and a political farce. And while we think of him as a writer and director musing about the complexities of human relationships, these films point to a political and social view. In Five Graves to Cairo, he is lending his creativity to the ongoing war effort, showing the Allied resistance to the German invasion of North Africa. In One, Two, Three, he is mocking capitalism and communism, the two rival ideologies struggling for domination of the world, and keeps poking fun at fascism, the one they defeated and replaced.
Both plays presented human sensitivity and frailty in a social and political context, but Wilder altered them radically. He replaced the World War I pacifism of Biró’s Hotel Imperial with a patriotic call to fight against the enemy in World War II, the German military, the shock troops of fascism, that would kill his mother and members of his family who stayed behind.
In Molnár’s play One, Two, Three, the socialist cab driver is merely a dramatic necessity for transforming an individual. Wilder expands that into a full-scale spoof of the conflict between capitalism and communism. The fast-talking bank president and socialist taxi driver become the Coca-Cola executive and the committed communist who embody the global confrontation of ideologies in the postwar era. But that story is based on the frailty and inconstancy of human nature. How easily the young man is turned from being a true believer into the well-dressed acquiescent businessman ready to please his future in-laws!
While Billy Wilder greatly transformed the tone, message, and context of these Hungarian plays, he stayed faithful to story, action, and character. He turned to these plays because they revealed the complexity of human emotions and the weakness of characters – essential dramatic elements in well-crafted situations. They were the basis for his powerful cinematic adaptations.
Note: All quotes from the plays were translated by the author.
Bíró, Lajos. 1927. Hotel Imperial: Szinmű 4 felvonásban. Szinházi Élet: 79-125.
Kepes, András. 2000. Történetek. Budapest: Park Kiadó: 208-209.
McBride, Joseph. 2021. Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge. New York: Columbia UP.
Molnár, Ferenc. 1929. Egy, kettő, három.
Varga, Katalin, ed. 2017. “…nem látunk semmit…” Biró Lajos levelei és haditudósításai az első világháború éveiből. Budapest: Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshot from the films discussed.