An impoverished nobleman from Czarist Russia returns to his homeland to retrieve a fortune smuggled inside one of his family’s dining room chairs.
Frank Langella won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1971. Mel Brooks was nominated for a Writer’s Guild of America Screen Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium that same year.
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Before I can begin this review about a family fortune hidden inside a household chair in Communist Russia, I need to mention a correction. In my previous review of “The Producers”, Mel Brooks’ directorial debut, I stated that his subsequent feature was the highly popular Western parody, “Blazing Saddles”. Wrong. How could I forget “The Twelve Chairs”? When you consider Mr. Brooks’ impressive filmography consisting of favorites like “Young Frankenstein” and “Spaceballs”, it is an easy entry to overlook.
Written and directed by Mr. Brooks, “The Twelve Chairs” is different from all of his other films in that it is not a direct parody of a particular genre. There is no grand musical number with crude and suggestive lyrics (although he did write the opening number for the credit sequence: “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”). No sign of a sultry Madeline Kahn dressed clad in lingerie. In fact, there is not even an English-spoken curse word in Brooks’ second farcical adventure, which earned the director his only G-rating.
Based on the 1928 Russian novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, the story begins when an exiled aristocrat named Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) attends his mother-in-law’s deathbed confession. There, he discovers that she hid a fortune in jewelry from the Bolsheviks by sewing the rubles into one of the family’s dining room chairs. A nemesis is introduced in the story when the dying mother spills the news of the hidden treasure to her Russian Orthodox priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who immediately shaves his foot-long beard and bolts straight for Vorobyaninov’s former estate.
Enter thrifty con man Ostap (an almost unrecognizable Frank Langella). He quickens the pace of the comedy by joining forces with the pathetic Vorobyaninov as they scheme their way undaunted through Soviet Russian society in order to get hold of the right chair.
Once they reach Vorobyaninov’s mansion, they learn from the drunken servant Tikon (played with true affection by Brooks himself) that the chairs have been expropriated by the State after the Russian Revolution.
Imagine “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” if it was set in 1920’s Russia. Instead of Arch Stanton’s grave, the three treasure hunters are looking for a missing upholstered chair with a walnut finish.
As the three opportunists struggle through visual and verbal obstacles, the film entertains its audience as a satire based on failing Communism. While much of the humor is created through physical and apocalyptic farce, Brooks makes the time to present the burden of Communism imposed on Soviet citizenry. In between accelerated framed chase sequences, Brooks throws the audience member an intellectual bone to ponder the moral codes of con-artists threatening to report on their thieving comrades.
As Tikon reflects on the pre-Bolshevik glory days with his former master, he reveals how much he hates having to call everyone “comrade” in Soviet Russia.
Fans who are familiar with Mr. Brooks’ brand of comedy will undoubtedly be entertained by this charming and often forgotten caper in the filmmaker’s repertoire. Today’s younger audiences may have trouble laughing at the fairly innocent physical comedy gags Brooks employs in this early comedy. In this current climate of in-your-face comedy, Brooks’ sense of humor in “The Twelve Chairs” may come across as too silly and not dynamic enough to sustain enthusiasm. In fact, the youngest viewers may even become confused regarding the definition of Communism in the first place.
By filming the exterior scenes in Yugoslavia, Brooks treated his audiences to impressive and picturesque background shots. Credit Serbian cinematographer Djordje Nikolic for his skilled camera eye while filming “Twelve Chairs” in his native homeland. While the interior shots have that simplistic look typical of Brooks’ early features, the exterior shots are chock full of cinematic splendor.