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The Twelve Chairs


The Twelve Chairs (1970)

     By now, movie fans have come to associate a certain comedic style with Mel Brooks‘ movies, but in 1970 in creating a his second film and using a story from a Russian novel, the director/writer/actor produces a product distant from his later works.

     The Twelve Chairs is your basic treasure-hunt plot involving family jewels that had been sewn into a dining room chair before the Russian Revolution when wealthy families had their possessions seized for the people.

     Ex-nobleman Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) learns of the jewels when his mother-in-law reveals the secret on her death bed. A greedy Russian Orthodox priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), also learns of this in the woman’s dying moments and the two separately start the hunt for the long-lost family chair, which is part of a 12-chair set. Returning the former family estate, Vorobyaninov reunites with his old manservant Tikon (Brooks) and encounters a young beggar Ostap, played by a very young Frank Langella. Vorobyaninov accidentally reveals his quest to Ostap, who agrees to help him in the hunt that starts with the one chair remaining in the old house. That chair exits the property in the hands of Father Fyodor, however.

     Once the fighting parties discover chair No. 1 does not contain the jewels, Ostap hits the records office and discovers the 11 chairs are in a museum while also sending Fyodor off the scent to a Siberian destination. The actual chairs will not remain in the museum long enough for the protagonists to search them, and the plot follows the men as they hunt down every last seat.

     The story obviously draws its comedy from the mishaps and frustrations of the men along their penniless journey toward wealth. Despite the unlikeness that the jewels would be contained in the last of 12 chairs located, the story nevertheless establishes this as the story’s process.

     The Twelve Chairs features some of the Brooksian comedic elements, especially displayed by frequent collaborator DeLuise. The story, however, is without many of the absurdities that stand out in the director’s future works, which is likely because it drew its inspiration so much from the 1928 novel “Dvenadtsat stulyev” by Ilya Arnoldovich Ilf and Yevgeniy Petrov.  

     The performances are entertaining and it is fascinating to see previous stage actor Langella in his first screen role at age 32. Being as handsome as he is here, I find it surprising studios did not use him more often in his younger years. The Twelve Chairs is a decent movie, but it does not compare to Brooks’ later work and expectations should not be in that vein when sitting down with it.


One Response

  1. Rachel, I very much enjoyed your post about THE TWELVE CHAIRS! Our family has loved Mel Brooks’ movies since THE PRODUCERS, and THE TWELVE CHAIRS has always had a special place in our hearts because it blends zany comedy with poignancy. We still sing the theme song “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” here at Team Bartilucci H.Q., and often quote lines like “I am Cousin Michael — CHAIR!!!” 🙂

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