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).

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