TCM Classic Film Festival 2013: The Twelve Chairs (1970)
You know you’re in the right place when Robert Osborne strides out – so I am overjoyed when he personally introduces Mel Brooks. And Brooks, at 87, still has it. After the TCM representative reminds the audience that one of the sponsors is Porsche, Brooks quips, “we should support Porsche cause they did so much for us during World War II.” Brooks is beside himself that he gets to see The Twelve Chairs with a live audience, cause it beats “an old bald guy watching it in a room alone, eating spaghetti.” He recounts making the film, and that the book was presented to him by a group he called the Gourmet Club that included author Joseph Heller. He loved the Russian novel so much, he turned it into a screenplay, and was able to get financing by shooting all of it in Yugoslavia which “had no money. If you needed a car,there was only one in the whole country, and Tito had it on Saturday nights.”
The result is, in my estimation, the finest, most fully realized film in Brooks oeuvre. I first saw it when I was only six, and I remember my parents and I laughing so hard throughout. I’ve seen it on video many times since, but it loses something without an audience. It’s always been a strange entry in my Bucket List, to see it as an adult, with an audience, because no one besides me and my Russian heritaged father, seemed to get it. Well, the wait paid off. The audience loved it, and as I was leaving , a woman who had evidently enjoyed it – laughing throughout – had her head in her husband’s lap, and she was weeping copiously. And it all came back to me — how I had also found the pathos overwhelming as a child and felt foolish crying on my way out of the theatre, holding my parents’ hand. So I got very verklempt, went out to the Delta Airlines charging station and pretended to focus on my iPhone while holding back the tears.
Besides the amazing humor and hilarious performances, Brooks’s understanding and whip smart satire of post-revolutionary USSR is a marvel to behold. Only his contemporary (in 1970, the year it was released) Woody Allen ( both were writers for Your Show of Shows) ever trod this comic terrain as deftly. And while “Young Frankenstein” later illustrated how well Brooks understood both parody and satire, he has not since created such a richly layered and perfectly realized story.
Ron Moody, known best as Fagan from the musical Oliver!, plays the post-Revolutionary deposed aristocrat, on the hunt for 12 Chairs, one of which holds a fortune in family jewels. Moody is brilliant, and I mean brilliant, making you laugh, then cry, through his subtle ability to convey anger and despair after losing his family and his way of life. His sad grey eyes deliver on a Chaplinesque scale. And comparing his work to a silent film star is appropriate, because so much of The Twelve Chairs’s over-the-top slapstick is reminiscent of that period. And it is Brooks’s deft direction that allows the film to swiftly and effortlessly switch tone from sophisticated satire, to lowbrow comedy to authentic sadness.
But the real comic revelation is Dom DeLouise. I have always found him funny, but this is by far his best work. Every scene, he just “goes for it” in such a gonzo way, it is a pure marvel to watch. If you can have a comic relief IN a comedy, then he is that. His character, an Orthodox Priest who hears the late matriarch’s deathbed confession, is also after the 12 chairs. He swings from desperate, to cunning, to psychotic in seconds. And even though he is a self-defrocked priest, he continues to pray to God for help and guidance throughout. At one point, he’s on his knees praying to the heavens for a “sign”‘ when Ron Moody runs by with a chair. Without missing a beat, he sings: “Thank youuuu” and the chase is afoot again.
If you love your borscht-belt humor with a purpose, you owe it to yourself to see The Twelve Chairs. No matter how you feel about Mel Brooks, it will give you a whole new perspective on his comic genius.
Gallery of Images from The Twelve Chairs