Pros:locations, Langella, Moody, and Brooks
Cons:pacing is rather leisurely
The Bottom Line: Likeable, not great (3.5 stars)
Back in 1970, when it was released, I liked the Mel Brooks adaptation of the 1928 Soviet satire by Ilya Ilf (1897-1937) and Yevgeny Petrov (1903-1942), Dvenadtsat'stul'ev (The Twelve Chairs), more than I had liked the first movie Brooks directed, "The Producers" (1968). It has remained in my memory my second-most- favorite Mel Brooks movie ( the 1974 "The Young Frankenstein" is my top favorite). I remembered Ron Moody as being more restrained than he had been in his most famous role, Fagin in the 1968 Oscar-winning "Oliver!" and Frank Langella being far more sympathetic a character than he had been in his screen breakout as the husband in the 1970 "Diary of a Mad Housewife: or was later in "The Wrath of God" or more recently as Quilty in the second version of "Lolita."
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Having watched "The Twelve Chairs" again, has confirmed these memories of it. The movie is less madcap and schticky than "The Producers" or other Mel Brooks movies. Dom DeLuise and Mel Brooks play as broadly as they did in other movies, but the protagonists are the team of Vorobanyinov (Ron Moody) and Ostep Bender (Frank Langella). "The Twelve Chairs" is a buddy picture (as was "The Producers"). After Vorobanyinov's dying mother-in-law tells her priest Father Fyodor(DeLuise) and spendthrift son-in-law Vorobanyinov that she sewed her jewels into one of the twelve chairs of a gold-brocade dinning room set, both set out to find the chairs and treasure.
Ca. 1927, Ostep Bender is a con man who realizes that Vorobanyinov has a secret and extracts it form him. Rather than racing Vorobanyinov to find the chairs, Bender works with him, and being more conniving, less impetuous than Vorobanyinov, Bender manages to send Father Fyodor off on a wild-chair chase to Siberia. Father Fyodor proves just as determined to get the treasure as Vorobanyinov, and there are some slapstick chases.
The movie was more smile-stimulating than productive of laughing out loud. (for instance: the division of offices that includes "Bureau of Bureaus and Dressers" and "Bureau of Furniture Not Listed in Other Bureaus"). Langella was quite striking, not least in that he was costumed in a blue jacket, red pants, and a white blouse displaying chest hair, while all the other characters were dressed in earth tones. Also, Langella was much taller than anyone else in the movie (reminding me of Tommy Tune). His performance was recognized with an award (best supporting actor?!) from the National Board of Review. (Langella has preferred to act on stage, but has appeared in a number of television and theatrical movies, including playing Clark Kent's boss Perry White in the current "Superman Returns" and CBS chief Bill Paley in last year's "Good Night and Good Luck")
The movie was shot in what was then Yugoslavia, with the generally impressive (but rather static) cinematography in charge of the Serbian Djordje Nikolic.
Dvenadtsat'stul'ev came as the New Economic Policy (NEP) that had been proposed by Leon Trotsky in 1920 and then by Lenin in 1921 and championed by Nikolai Bukharin was coming to an end. Before Stalin consolidated power and suppressed it, there was a florescence of culture, including very popular satires by Ilf and Petrov, Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog, Black Snow, Yuri Olesha (Envy, Three Fat Men), and others.
Although its main comic targets were a greedy priest and an aristocrat whose loyalty was not to the new regime (the USSR was officially founded in 1927 and forced collectivization of agriculture began in 1928), it is doubtful that Dvenadtsat'stul'ev could have been published much later than it was. It was very popular, and Ostep Bender was revived for a sequel about petty criminals and a residual millionaire in The Little Golden Calf published in 1931. (It satirized the follies of the NEP, so was acceptable to Stalin's cultural commissars.) I think that both books run on too long. The movie of "The Twelve Chairs" has the main plot points and most of the charm (though fewer adventures during the quest). There are also two adaptations of the novel in Russian from the Brezhnev era (1971, 1976).
The only DVD extra is a set of trailers for "the Mel Brooks Collection." Also, I think the images have been cropped, though allegedly the video format is 1.81:1 anamorphic.
Verbatima has written insightfully about the Ilf and Petrov novel here.
©2006 Stephen O. Murray
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