Mel Brooks Monday: The Twelve Chairs

Between his breakout hit The Producers and the legendary Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks directed a little film called The Twelve Chairs, based upon a Russian novel. I’ll cop to never having heard of it before doing this series. Thankfully, my lack of expectations paid off, because the movie is an absolute delight, a forgotten gem in the Brooks canon.

The film, set in Russia after the rise of the Soviet Union, follows Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody), a former nobleman whose dying mother-in-law leaves him with a big secret: she has hidden a fortune’s worth in jewels inside one of her old dining room chairs, part of a set of twelve. He quickly runs off in search of the jewels, but there would be no movie if the chairs were where they were supposed to be, or all in one place. Vorobyaninov’s loud, sometimes boorish antics prevent him from keeping a secret very well; soon, a charismatic drifter (a very young Frank Langella) and a greedy priest (Dom DeLuise) are after the jewels as well.

The Twelve Chairs is a hilarious throwback to the madcap slapstick antics of the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

The Twelve Chairs is a hilarious throwback to the madcap slapstick antics of The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

This is the sort of film where the plot matters very little. The jewels are a McGuffin that exist to drive forward the madcap antics of our trio of misfits. The film is Brooks’ love letter to beloved slapstick trios like The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers, and their influence covers every inch of the movie. Thankfully, the movie works as more than homage; it is a very funny movie in its own right.

Much of the credit for that must certainly go to the actors. Moody plays Vorobyaninov as a very desperate man, and desperation is funny. We feel for his plight and continued failure at obtaining the jewels that are, after all, rightfully his, but his greed and callousness keep us laughing at his constant misfortune. Those who are more familiar with Frank Langella’s recent dramatic work (he played Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon) might be surprised as his gifted comedic talent even at a young age. His suave street rat is “the smart one” of the trio, and his continual manipulation of his situation (and the other treasure hunters) gets some big laughs.

But the show really belongs to the late great Dom DeLuise, one of the most gifted physical comedians we’ve ever had. If you combined the vaudevillian antics of Buster Keaton with the warmth and amiable goofiness of Bill Murray, you’d come close to an understanding what makes DeLuise so special. His Father Fyodor gets most of the movie’s best visual gags, and DeLuise makes it look as natural as breathing. Two sequences—one set in a museum library and another in Siberia—should be considered all-time slapstick greats, if they aren’t already. They’re just perfection.

But I was equally struck by the quality of Brooks’ filmmaking here. Some of his later films take on an increasingly cheap-looking quality, as parody begins to overshadow coherent story and engaging characters. Here, he experiments with slow and fast motion during several vaudevillian-inspired fistfights, and the movie’s globetrotting locations give it a unique visual style and pacing within the director’s filmography. The cinematography is sometimes breathtaking, as is the Russian-inspired soundtrack. The ending, one of Brooks’ more cynical, is pitch-perfect, both funny and tremendously tragic in a way I wasn’t expecting.

I came into The Twelve Chairs expecting to be underwhelmed, but I’m glad I was wrong. This is brilliant comedic filmmaking all around. It may have laid the groundwork for Brooks’ more popular and enduring works, but it’s a wonderful, hilarious film in its own right. If, like me, you’ve never heard of the film before, it’s definitely a treasure worth seeking out (yes, that was a pun. You may laugh now).

Mel Brooks Monday: The Producers

Along with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, no other filmmaker has had a larger influence on the history of movie comedy than Mel Brooks. Throughout his impressive body of work, Brooks deftly mixed socio-political commentary, pop culture references, slapstick and the kind of deep, guttural belly laughs that can only be produced by a true comedy genius.

I recently came across a complete collection of Brooks’ films, and am curious to see which of his films hold up best. Which of his films deserve the title of “comedy classic,” and which ones are best forgotten? Join me for a (hopefully) hilarious retrospective every week for Mel Brooks Monday!


All of Mel Brooks' 12 films in one convenient collection.

All of Mel Brooks’ 12 films in one convenient collection.

Although Mel Brooks is perhaps best known for his various spoofs and genre parodies, his first film is actually one of the most original comedies of all time. Released in 1968, The Producers is, in some ways, still shocking by today’s standards. It’s the dirtiest, most politically incorrect movie I can imagine being made at that time. Like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, I watch it today and wonder, “how did they get away with that?”

The relatively thin (though not by Mel Brooks standards) story follows Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), a struggling Broadway producer hungry for his next big hit. To make money for his plays, he has taken to (ahem) “entertaining” rich, randy old ladies. Soon, accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who has been hired to do Max’s books, arrives at his doorstep. During a hypothetical ramble, Bloom convinces Max that, through some “creative accounting,” they can make more money with a Broadway flop than a hit. With dollar signs in his eyes, Max coerces Bloom into helping him find the worst play ever written, even though it’s, you know, technically illegal.

Many are probably familiar with this story through the musical re-make starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. The songs are catchy, but the only real version in my mind is the original. That is, in major part, to the brilliant lead performances. Mostel’s gregarious blowhard is perfectly pitted against Wilder’s neurotic, sheltered hypochondriac. These guys have never been better, committing two of the funniest performances ever seen on screen. Wilder is probably best known for playing the warm, gentle Willy Wonka, but I much prefer his edgy, comically uninhibited performance here.

The Producers is a brilliant introduction to the madcap insanity suffused with potent cultural commentary that is the hallmark of Brooks' best work.

The Producers is a brilliant introduction to the madcap insanity suffused with potent cultural commentary that is the hallmark of Brooks’ best work.

The duo’s eventual choice, Springtime for Hitler, is every bit as jaw-droppingly offensive as it sounds (song lyrics include Don’t be Stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party), but I think the very Jewish Brooks realized how therapeutic laughing at Nazis could be, even when the atrocities they committed were only a few decades behind and still very much in the forefront of global consciousness. A roomful of actors (including beach bod Hitler) auditioning for the role of the fuhrer is probably funnier than it has any right to be.

This madcap classic is bolstered by one of the funniest supporting casts in movie history. Kenneth Mars is perfect as Franz Liebkind, the German writer determined to “clear the fuhrer’s name” through his work. Christopher Hewes kills as “eccentric” theater director Roger De Bris, and Dick Shawn as LSD, the play’s “perfect” a.k.a. “worst” Hitler? Well, that’s something I wouldn’t dare ruin for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Several Mel Brooks staples could be seen in his debut film, although some of them would never be used to quite the same success again. His trademark mixture of gleeful subversion and old-fashioned, almost retro fun is in full swing here. The occasionally shocking content never gets in the way of the humor, proving the age-old rule that being offensive is okay—as long as it’s funny. It also gave us a good dose of Brooks’ Shakespearean sophistication, from comical asides to biblical allusions and grand speeches. We can always tell that there is a fiercely intelligent mind underneath the potty humor.

The Producers remains Mel Brooks’ most manically unpredictable movie, maybe because it’s not exactly skewering a genre; there are no jokes we expect, so everything remains a delightful surprise. But the film, thankfully, still has plenty to mock, from the money-hungry world of Broadway production to Nazism to the “high class” clientele that would pay to see a play called Springtime for Hitler in the first place. To say anything else about the plot, characters or jokes would spoil the experience for anyone seeing this true comedy classic for the first time. I say stick to the original and avoid the inferior remake.

Gone Girl review

“What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done?” At the opening of Gone Girl, Nick Dunne asks these questions regarding marriage to his wife, Amy. He also says he wishes he could get these answers by cracking open her skull.

This thin, delicate balance between love and violence, control and chaos, is a major draw of Gillian Flynn’s breakout 2012 novel as well as David Fincher’s film adaptation. Amazingly, nearly everything that made the book so engrossing has found its way to the screen.

It’s tough to discuss the film’s plot without giving away the many twists and turns, but here’s an extremely basic summary: on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) gone without a trace. Nick’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), along with Amy’s parents, police and seemingly the entire town of North Carthage, Missouri begin a dogged search for the missing housewife. Soon, Amy is the subject of a national media frenzy. But, as the days go by and revelations begin to pile up, everyone begins to ask the question that has already been on their mind: could Nick have killed his own beloved wife?


Gone Girl is a brilliant adaptation of tricky source material.


The movie shoots back and forth between Nick’s search for Amy and Amy’s rosy (and then, gradually, less and less so) recollections of the early days of their marriage. This parallel structure worked so well in the book, and helps the film build a slow, relentless intensity. The audience is forced to piece together each part of the mystery at the same time as the characters; we never feel like we’re ahead or behind Nick in figuring out what happened to his wife. This pacing imbues even the plot’s small revelations with greater meaning.

The pacing is only one of the things that makes Gone Girl one of the best book-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen. The source material is tricky to say the least, but Flynn has done a bang up job adapting her own book for the screen. If anything, the tight screenplay improves upon the book, keeping the story’s unique dialogue and pitch black humor while excising some of the overlong book’s more extraneous elements.

It also helps that the acting, down to the smallest part, is spot-on. Everyone here seems perfectly cast. Ben Affleck has never given a more natural performance; he’s totally believable as a down-and-out unemployed everyman, kicked to the curb by the recession but finding ways to stay positive in the midst. Not a movie star, but an average guy put in the middle of a very bad situation. Coon is given a very juicy supporting role as Nick’s sister, and Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry, cast against type, do wonders with their small but pivotal roles.

But there’s no denying that Pike is the breakout star here. Hers is an incredibly deep, layered performance, revealing Amy’s character slowly, never giving everything away. Pike’s eyes alone convey the idea that we’ll never quite figure her out, no matter how much information the movie gives us. I guess you could say she plays a woman, a real, flesh-and-blood one who refuses to be categorized or put in a box. Such a performance is surprisingly rare in our modern movie landscape. She even helps make the book’s somewhat unpalatable denouement infinitely more intriguing.

Apart from being a faithful adaptation, Gone Girl is exquisite genre filmmaking. Although some initially questioned it, David Fincher is the perfect director for this material. Although he has made a career off of crime thrillers like Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac, Fincher has really always been concerned with issues of identity. He explored it as it relates to our modern media saturated landscape in Fight Club and Zodiac, and here he’s interested in those fundamental questions Nick asks at the beginning of the film. How can I ever truly know this person in my bed? Or myself? Or anyone, really?

These are questions another famous thriller director, Alfred Hitchcock, asked repeatedly throughout his career. In fact, Gone Girl feels like the type of movie Hitchcock would have made if he didn’t have to tiptoe around the Hollywood production code. Amy strikes me as the perfect quintessential bombshell blonde, a tough-as-nails woman who won’t live her life by anyone else’s standards but her own. Nick is the film’s Scottie Ferguson, endlessly chasing after a woman he can never truly understand. I’m sure Fincher would chuckle over all the comparisons to Vertigo, but the film seems to invite them at every turn.

Fincher was wise to bring along his crew from The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for scoring The Social Network, have crafted another killer soundtrack that helps ratchet up the intensity to obscene levels. I love the now recognizable Fincher “look” cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth brings to his films, and Gone Girl’s sumptuous color palette and uncomfortably slow camera movements give it a unique rhythm all its own. Kirk Baxter won an Oscar for editing Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and his name may be in the drawing again here. A sequence near the halfway point of the film in particular is easily the finest cutting job I’ve seen all year. It’s the kind of editing that dares you not to breathe as you watch it work its magic.

The quintessential question in Gone Girl is not “do we really know or spouse?” but rather, “do we really know anyone?” And how to do we go about the process of knowing? Like Fincher’s best films, The Social Network and Zodiac, the movie doesn’t provide any answers, particularly in its bitterly ironic conclusion. But it asks some provocative and uncomfortable questions that will leave you pondering long after the lights go up. This is far more than your average thriller. Be ready for it.