The Twelve Chairs (1970) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Frank Langella, Ron Moody, Dom Deluise, Mel Brooks, Vlada Petric, Andreas Voutsinas
Director: Mel Brooks
Screenplay: Mel Brooks (based on the book, "Dvenadtsat stulyev" by Ilf and Petrov)
It's the Mel Brooks film very few have heard of, and for long periods of time since, wasn't available for most to rent or purchase. There is a DVD out of it now, the kind of cheapie, no-frills effort you might expect, but really it's probably only worth viewing out of long-expectant curiosity than anything else. I suspect that if The Twelve Chairs had always been readily available, perhaps it would not have gained the cult status among Mel Brooks' fans that it has, because there's always that element that likes to tout the things others do not.
The real reason many have been curious stems mostly from its placement in the Mel Brooks oeuvre, falling right between the film many critics consider to be his best film, The Producers, and the film many consider to be his funniest, Blazing Saddles. However, The Twelve Chairs is never really as inspired or as funny as either film, mostly relying on the energy of the performances than in a witty script or lampooning society's ills. It's based on the famous Russian book, Dvenadtsat Stulyev, by Yevgeni Petrov and Ilya Ilf, and reportedly not very faithfully done, stripping away some of the colloquial humor for Brooks' typical sight gags and slapstick.
The storyline is one that will remind you of other classic films, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Good the Bad and the Ugly, so if you like treasure-hunt films with race between greedy competitors, this may be right up your alley. Ron Moody (Oliver!, Murder Most Foul) plays the aging Ippolit, shortly after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, who learns from his mother-in-law on her deathbed that she has hidden her stash of valuable jewels in one of twelve chairs. The local priest (Langella, Masters of the Universe) also learns of the loot, and soon the two are in a race to see who can get to the right chair first. It's going to be tricky, because they have all been sold or stolen by various entities throughout the country.
The storyline is a parable about greed, and as such, it's not really difficult to tell that there's probably going to be little reward for these players in the end. Still, with Brooks at the helm and some decent actors, the getting there should be part of the fun. It is, but just barely. The direction by Brooks is stagnant at best, utilizing too many static shots and awkward positions to create good comic timing. Oh, there's some sped up chase scenes that are supposed to denote hilarity, yet even if they are fast-moving, they continue on too long, certainly far longer than the level of amusement gained merit. Then there are scenes which make almost no sense, leaving the impression that there are many deleted scenes floating around out there that didn't make the final cut.
The Twelve Chairs is primarily recommended for fans of Mel Brooks, and for insatiably curious movie-watchers looking for hidden gems they may have overlooked. Although I can't quite give it a personal recommendation, the performances are enough to keep most of the film afloat, and and far as Mel Brooks films go, it's probably the most palatable to watch with the whole family. Over the years, Brooks has shown that he's not exactly the master of subtle comedy, but the attempt is interesting to see. I suspect that after his experience making this one, he too realized that bawdy, broad farce was the way for him to go in the future.
©2001 Vince Leo