Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Unsung!: The Twelve Chairs

It somehow stands to reason that one of my favorite Mel Brooks films would be the one that not many people have ever heard of or seen.

Mel Brooks has certainly been in the news of late. He received the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award during an entertaining testimonial dinner that was broadcast on cable. Shout! Factory released a six DVD “box set” (it is actually a book) of previously uncollected funny stuff, including his Oscar-winning short film, The Critic. American Masters on PBS devoted a recent two-hour program to Brooks’ career. Do all of these institutions think Mel is going to die soon and want to make sure his praises are sung while he is still alive?

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: On her deathbed, the mother-in-law of deposed Russian nobleman Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) reveals to him that she hid her jewels in one of the family’s dining room chairs before the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, during confession, she also reveals this to the village priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise). Ippolit begins a mad search for the twelve chairs and is soon joined by lovable rogue Ostap Bender (Frank Langella). Renouncing his vows and shaving his beard, Father Fyodor joins the chase, hoping to find the treasure-stuffed chair and become rich. The quest takes our principals from the cold remoteness of Siberia to the grand splendor of Yalta. Who will find the lucky chair first?
The Twelve Chairs used to be my favorite Mel Brooks film. I grew up watching Brooks and eagerly attended Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in junior high school, enjoyed his many television appearances during that time to promote his films, suffered through the diminishing returns of Silent Movie and High Anxiety in high school, listened with relish to his 2000 Year Old Man records in college, and even saw Spaceballs on my honeymoon.

CAVEAT: I thought for a time that Mel Brooks was the funniest man on earth. Revisiting his films lately, I find they are a mixed bag. While I readily acknowledge the parts of his oeuvre that once appealed to the pre-teen JB, I now find most of his films quite flawed. Brooks’ work certainly does not stand the test of time as well as his one-time rival Woody Allen.

Maybe Brooks’ early work writing for television’s Your Show of Shows cursed him to think in terms of single jokes and sketches; this focus hurts his films as narratives. Most of his films are really a series of sketches. As funny as individual scenes may be, they lurch from one to the other. It certainly does not help matters much that Brooks started his directing career with no experience; the struggle to turn the raw footage of The Producers into a releasable film is well-documented in editor Ralph Rosenblum’s seminal book, When The Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins.

All that being said, there is a lot to like in The Twelve Chairs. Revisiting it again I was surprised at how well it holds up (although I would now award my “Best Brooks Film” crown to Young Frankenstein.) Both films are helped being based on a literary source, which provides a ready-made narrative skeleton for the gags. On Young Frankenstein, Brooks worked with the best collaborator of his career, co-screenwriter Gene Wilder; it is a pity that the two never worked together again.

Like most early Brooks’ films, this one concerns male bonding and friendship. We can add Ippolit and Ostap in The Twelve Chairs to the other memorable teams that Brooks created, like Bialystock and Bloom in The Producers and Bart and the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. In his early films, Brooks seems obsessed with this theme of male friendship. Several critical studies suggest that Brooks’ use of overly flamboyant gay characters (Carmen Giya and Roger DeBris in The Producers, or the hissing sissy chorus doing “The French Mistake” in Blazing Saddles) is meant to assure audiences that his central characters are straight.

Moody and Langella make a great team here. I love how Langella’s laid-back irony contrasts with Moody’s fits of passion and greed. Even the way Ippolit savors the pronunciation of the word “chairs” gets funnier and funnier as the film goes along. Greed is a great plot motivator in comedies (second perhaps only to lust) and it may only be my personal taste that greedy people having hysterical fits over money strikes me as so goddamn funny. The Twelve Chairs certainly shares that feature with It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a comedy I also love and champion, all three hours and twenty minutes of it. Greed is so much funnier in a movie comedy than, say, homicide or intestinal distress.

I was surprised to discover that The Twelve Chairs was Frank Langella’s first film. His performance is poised and accomplished; the camera loves his face and he is a natural. For a time, Gene Wilder was interested in playing the Langella character, Ostap, but Brooks discounted him because the source novel describes the character as “handsome.” Ouch. (Brooks wanted Wilder to play Ippolit, but Wilder demurred.)

Two other reasons to recommend the film are Mel Brooks’ performance and the beautiful location photography. Brooks is Tikon, one of Ippolit’s former servants whose chief complaint about the Revolution is that it no longer affords him the opportunity living a life of abject servitude. Brooks plays the part with an accent somewhere between the 2,000-Year-Old Man and a manic Boris Badenov. So endearing is he in this small role that when our principals take off on their quest we are disappointed that they leave poor Tikon behind.
The Twelve Chairs was filmed in Yugoslavia, which fills in for post-Revolution Russia. Yugoslavian Cinematographer Djordje Nikolic fills the frame with beautiful landscapes and color, making this the only Brooks film that is really pleasant to look at.

The film reaches its climax with some well-deserved and heart-warming pathos. The final scene, which I will not spoil, involves adjusting to one’s circumstances and lowering one’s expectations. Paradoxically, it is one of the most hopeful and funny conclusions ever filmed. Ending comedies is hard; look at the work of Charlie Chaplin. You have to hand it to Brooks—he always sticks the landing.

My favorite part of The Twelve Chairs is its theme song with lyrics by Mel Brooks. The music seems based on Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 4. I love this song and sing it at the least provocation—just ask my family. Here are Brooks’ lyrics in toto:

“Hope for the best, expect the worst

Some drink champagne, some die of thirst

No way of knowing
which way it's going

Hope for the best, expect the worst!

Hope for the best, expect the worst

The world's a stage, we're unrehearsed

Some reach the top, friends, while others drop, friends

Hope for the best, expect the worst!

I knew a man who saved a fortune that was splendid
Then he died the day he'd planned to go and spend it
Shouting "Live while you're alive! No one will survive!"

Life is sorrow—here today and gone tomorrow

Live while you're alive, no one will survive—there's no guarantee

Hope for the best; expect the worst

You could be Tolstoy or Fannie Hurst

You take your chances; there are no answers

Hope for the best expect the worst!

I knew a man who saved a fortune that was splendid

Then he died the day he'd planned to go and spend it,

Shouting "Live while you're alive! No one will survive!"

Life is funny—Spend your money! Spend your money!

Live while you're alive, no one will survive—there's no guarantee

Hope for the best; expect the worst.
The rich are blessed; the poor are cursed

That is a fact, friends, the deck is stacked, friends

Hope for the best, expect the…
(Even with a good beginning, it's not certain that you're winning.
Even with the best of chances, they can kick you in the pantses)

Look out for the… Watch out for the worst!

The Twelve Chairs is available on Twentieth Century Fox DVD and Blu-ray and as part of the box set The Mel Brooks Collection.


  1. Great write up JB. I actually saw Twelve Chairs back in college after I was introduced to The Producers (for the longest time Spaceballs was my #1 Brooks film, now it's Blazing Saddles). While at the time I don't remember liking Twelve Chairs all that much this Unsung column definitely makes me want to give it a 2nd chance. One quick defense for Mel, while on the whole Dracula Dead and Loving It doesn't work, there are moments of that movie that crack me up to this day ("She's dead enough") and I think it gets shit on a little too much, cut it some slack moviegoing public.

    1. Yes, there are some great SCENES. Most of those Mel tributes I listed included the Steven Weber staking scene ("She just ate!"), but my favorite scene is the one where Peter MacNicol eats the fly and then denies it when Harvey Korman questions him about it ("I saw you... just then.") Both of these scenes seem to owe something to the spirit of Monty Python.

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  3. The Twelve Chairs is a movie that has alluded me, despite my (for the most part) enjoyment of Mel Brooks, so you can place me in the camp of people who have never seen it. I really feel like I need to check it out soon. I don't think it could possibly get any better than Young Frankenstein, which I think is pure comedy brilliance, but I'm at least up for seeing all Mel Brooks' movies. I saw a DVD Verdict review of the Blu-ray of The Producers, which must have just recently been released, so I plan to snatch that up as soon as possible, too.

  4. Thank you for your reviews; very interesting and honest. I don't completely concur, but, that would be stupid.
    One of my Top 10 Comedies for 30 years; I'm 60. Ron Moody--comic genius, especially facial expressions and vocalisms, not to mention his humanity/empathetic portraits, all the while being insanely greedy and self-centered. Mel B mostly tires me with schtick in his acting, but, he's funny enough and the underplayed, realistic bits are good-I think he tries to embody a serious human side as he acts--but, it gets muddled; not skillful enough. And, D. Deluise, one of the most hilarious people EVER. LOVE THIS MOVIE! "CHAIR!"

  5. BTW, your comments on MB's motives are interesting. I would add that he has always tried to educate his public in toleration and empathy and forgiveness. He seems to be saying "Time marches on toward global love...Come on, get with the PROGRAM, FOLKS!", as he throws bigotry and scape-hosting right back in our face: "See how stupid and pathetic it sounds when we use the n-word or the fa---word? But, it's funny to; just not to everybody. I appreciate MB and all comedians of all kinds for their courage and intelligence.
    Thanks again for this blog!

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  7. By far my favourite Mel Brooks movie. I have it and watch it from time to time. This is the one that sticks out for me and I always tell people about it, and they have never heard of it. Go figure!!

  8. "How could you do such a thing??"

  9. His first film, but Langella definitely had a good amount of stage experience already.