johnlink ranks THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970)

Amazon ran a ridiculous price of something like 22 bucks for 9 Mel Brooks movies on Blu-Ray. It was something like three hours between the time the set came in and I watched TWELVE CHAIRS. I’ve heard from years (and not entirely from my father and his friend Paul) that this was a really great comedy, but I was never able to stumble upon a copy of it. I’m a fan of the comedy of Mel Brooks, so I was certainly excited to get a chance to finally see this.


I watched THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970) on 6.7.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

Much of Mel Brooks work is reliant on the viewer knowing something about the subject he is riffing. It helps to know something about the Frankenstein stories to see the layers of humor in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. You would be lost in SPACEBALLS if you weren’t familiar with the Star Wars universe. ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS leans heavily upon the previous films regarding the legend. None of this makes these bad movies by any means, those are all among my favorite comedies, but they do become something of a niche film in that you need to know something about the subject to really get it. Of course, Brooks is trading on the fact that you know what it is he is spoofing.

On the other hand, BLAZING SADDLES (which many consider his best film) uses the fence of western film history as something for his cowboys to lean on. They wouldn’t fall without it, but it certainly makes things much easier. BLAZING SADDLES uses the cliches and motifs of westerns as a tool rather than a crutch.

All of that brings us to Brooks second film (after 1968’s THE PRODUCERS): THE TWELVE CHAIRS. This is a film adapted from a book, set in 1920s Soviet Russia. The setting provides a wonderful backdrop from which to play, but the audience need not be versed in the history to enjoy the movie. Sure, it helps. One great sign sitting in the background reads Trotsky Street. Only Trotsky has been crossed off and the street is now called Marx, Engels, Lenin Street. This bit of background humor is prevalent throughout the film, enriching the mise en scene without forcing the viewer to recognize it.

The story proper concerns a former lord, Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) and a young vagabond Ostap Bender (an impossibly young and dashing Frank Langella) as a couple of guys just searching Russia for a set of twelve chairs. Well, they want one chair in particular because a woman told Ippolit, on her deathbed, that a small fortune was stitched into the seat of one of those twelve chairs. The two men race against time as the chairs are also being sought by a less-than-noble Priest named Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise).

Being a comedy, you go in knowing that the first eleven chairs they find will bear no fruit, so the entire plotline serves as a Macguffin by which to get these guys to do funny things. What surprised me most about THE TWELVE CHAIRS is the level of desperation and honesty which was found in the comedy. When Ostap suggests Ippolit fakes a seizure in order to get people to throw money at the poor man, the suggestion nearly ends their friendship both before and after Ippolit takes the action. These characters don’t throw away the impact of immediate past events, which often happens in irreverent comedy, but instead their past informs their present decisions.

While the film is not shot with any particular beauty, there are a couple of wonderfully shot and edited scenes, most notably the first rapid-fire exchange between Ippolit and Ostap. This is quality comedy derived from inspired performances. The level of acting is solid and consistent between the pathos of Moody and the emotional buoyancy of Langella. Of course, the movie would be considerably more dry without the eccentricity of DeLuise and the well-timed addition of Mel Brooks in a couple of early scenes as Ippolit’s former servant Tikon.

The ending of this film is both surprising and correctly done. I’m not sure if that comes from the novel or not, but it completes a perfect arc for both the characters and the tone of the film.

I came into this thinking I was going to see something hilarious. I’m not sure I ever did. Instead, I saw a considerably funny movie which bore its humor out of character. I saw a much better film than I anticipated seeing, when considering that most of Brooks canon is all entertainment and less concerned with filmic impact. Considering that there is plenty of silly (and absolutely hilarious) Brooks to go around, I’m really happy to have finally found something as dynamic from him as THE TWELVE CHAIRS.





~ by johnlink00 on June 9, 2013.

One Response to “johnlink ranks THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970)”

  1. Ok, bare with me here — ahead of time, I admit that I must be missing something, but I only counted eleven chairs. Again, please tell me what I’m missing!

    A) The dude gets his first chair by fighting the priest. (1)
    B) Then there are the four chairs left in the museum exhibit. (1+4)
    C) Then there are the two chairs searched on the theatre ship. (1+4+2)
    D) Then there are the two chairs that they search in an alley, from the theatre crew’s thief [who was supposed o bring four but only brought two]. (1+4+2+2)
    E) Then there is the one from the circus. (1+4+2+2+1) [Note: Weren’t there supposed to be two chairs at the circus — is this where I’m missing something…?]
    F) Then there is the one found at the end, which is THE one. (1+4+2+2+1+1).

    When I add 1 to 4 to 2 to 2 to 1 to 1, I get 11. So obviously I’m missing one, but which is it?

    Please tell me!

    Was there indeed a second one from the circus?

    I know I sound crazy, but this thing has been bugging me for over an hour now! (I just saw the movie tonight, for the first time; yeah, I know, I’m late!)


    P.S. Agreed that Mel Brooks is awesome.

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