Monday, August 26, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #225 - The Twelve Chairs (1970, dir. Mel Brooks)

In 1970 Mel Brooks was something of a new kid on the scene. His first movie, The Producers, had been a big hit on Broadway and a successful movie so expectation was high. His second movie The Twelve Chairs proved he was both as funny and as talented as he seemed. Set in the post-revolution USSR, the film plays on the historical realities of the newly minted communist government as it obliterates the life known by the former aristocratic class. Ron Moody plays Vorobyaninov, a once rich man who now works as a clerk in a government office. We meet him as he visits his mother-in-law’s death bed. She informs him that before the revolution she sewed a fortune of jewels into the lining of a dining room chair. Unfortunately, she also tells the town priest Father Fyodor, played with wicked glee by Dom DeLuise. Thus we are off on a chase across the USSR to find the missing chair with the missing fortune inside. This is the perfect setup for Mel Brooks to ply his madcap trade of pratfalls, visual humor and Semitic in-jokes. And ply he does. Along with Blazing Saddles, Brooks finds his comedic stride most effectively in The Twelve Chairs. However, he also is surprisingly effective in creating a real relationship between the main characters, who, in spite of their reprehensible greed, actually evoke something resembling pathos by the end of the film.
Immediately upon learning of the chair, Vorobyaninov is joined by handsome con-man Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) who acts as the straight man throughout the movie as Dom DeLuise and Ron Moody offer a master’s class on physical comedy. DeLuise is one of the great clowns of modern film. His physical performance in The Twelve Chairs ranks as one of the best of his career. His rubbery face, loose-limbed movements, and schoolboy goofiness were never used to greater effect. Mel Brooks also offers a brief but hilarious cameo as the drunken servant Tikhon. Ultimately the film belongs to Ron Moody though. His outrage at his lowered social station is palpable and it manifests in a series of physical and verbal tics and twitches that anyone who has experienced loss can relate to. He also is a master of the lost art of the slow burn. His rage and frustration grow and increase throughout the film exploding as he repeatedly fails to get the right chair.
The Twelve Chairs succeeds wildly on this slapstick level, but there is much more to this film. The most surprising element is how effective Brooks is at creating scale and meaning. Filmed in Yugoslavia, Brooks does an admirable job of capturing the post-Revolution Russia, a country suspended between rural village life, old-world aristocratic highs, and the coming bureaucratic lows of the USSR. Brooks succeeds in conveying an epic feel to the landscape and the journey the main characters make across this huge country in search of their chairs. Every one of Brooks strengths is on full display here. The journey for treasure feels like Chaplin’s The Gold Rush while the beautiful travelogue elements are obviously influenced by (or maybe making fun of) Dr. Zhivago. Drawing those comparisons may seem far-fetched, but I’m not sure Mel Brooks’ first five or so films don’t represent the funniest body of work in the second half of the century. His combination of Marx Brothers-like chaotic action and sound filmic technique could be seen as a bridge between old and new Hollywood. There’s more to this great comedy than initially meets the eye.
-         Paul Epstein

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