“I want to grovel at your feet! I must grovel at your feet!” exclaims Father Fyodor. Madame Bruns replies, “No groveling! There will be no groveling in this house! This is a Soviet household! We don’t allow groveling!”
After winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1967’s The Producers, Mel Brooks chose to focus on an adaptation of a satirical Russian novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, The Twelve Chairs, for his next film. Although there have been several film adaptations of the Ilf and Petrov novel, including 1933’s Dvanáct Kresel, 1936’s Keep Your Seats, Please!, 1945’s It’s In the Bag!, 1969’s Twelve Plus One, and 1971’s Twelve Chairs, Brooks’ 1970 film version is the best known of the bunch. This little-seen, underrated gem of a film can often be considered a forgotten work of Brooks’ due to its being overshadowed by his much more popular and famous works that preceded and followed it. I got a chance to see The Twelve Chairs at the IFC Center in New York City three years ago as part of a Mel Brooks retrospective, and it was a hilarious experience. This review of The Twelve Chairs is my first entry in my Mel Brooks Blogathon.
1970’s The Twelve Chairs follows a former aristocrat in 1927 Russia as he searches for some jewels hidden in one of his family’s 12 dining room chairs (which were sold off by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution). Complicating his search is a Russian Orthodox priest and a homeless con artist who are also looking for the chairs, hoping to cash in on the jewels. Brooks assembled a terrific cast that includes Ron Moody (as Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov), Frank Langella (as Ostap Bender), Dom DeLuise (as Father Fyodor), Brooks (as Tikon), Andreas Voutsinas (as Nikolai Sestrin), Diana Coupland (as Madame Bruns), David Lander (as Engineer Bruns), Vlada Petric (as Sevitzky), Elaine Garreau (as Claudia Ivanovna), Robert Bernal (as the Curator), and Will Stampe (as the Night Watchman). Moody is arrogant and greedy as the former aristocrat turned civil servant, and yet he somehow manages to make the character sympathetic in a way (as well as funny). Langella is charming in his film debut as the con man who manages to form a partnership with Vorobyaninov. DeLuise is hilariously over-the-top as the greedy priest who tries to outcon Vorobyaninov and Bender, and Brooks is hilarious as Vorobyaninov’s former servant.
The screenplay by Brooks faithfully adapts the 1928 Ilf and Petrov novel. Brooks adds a lot more slapstick humor to the story and makes some other changes (mainly the ending). Brooks also takes the opportunity in his script to satirically show how Communism was already a failure in the Soviet Union before the end of the 1920s. Djordje Nikolic ‘s cinematography reflects the tone of the film, and Ruth Myers’ costume designs reflect the period, culture, and classes depicted. Mile Nickolic’s production design covers a wide variety of Yugoslavian locales doubling as Russian locales, and Alan Heim’s editing moves the film at a great pace. John Morris contributes a wonderful, comedic score, and the song “Hope For the Best, Expect the Worst” is downright funny. Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs is an outstanding adaptation of the Ilf and Petrov novel that’s hilarious and its social commentary on Soviet life during the period of the film’s setting can get a little dark.