Saturday, December 28, 2013

Film Review: The Twelve Chairs

"The Twelve Chairs"  *** (out of ****)

Recently, for Christmas, I received a gift. A DVD called "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy". Talk about a long title! Regardless, it is a collection of everything Mel Brooks minus his movies. I already own all of his movies on VHS and see no reason to "upgrade" to DVD. So, someone was nice enough to buy me this DVD which includes interviews with Brooks, documentaries made on him, television specials of shows he wrote; "Get Smart", "When Things Were Rotten" and new exclusive interviews with Mel talking about his career.

Needless to say, watching all of this, put me in a Mel Brooks mood. You see, back when I was 12 years old I had decided I wanted to make movies. My earliest childhood memories involved movies. Movies have always been a part of my life. But, in wasn't until I was 12 I said to myself, I want to be involved with the movies. And the reason for that was Mel Brooks.

Oh, I can talk a good game and tell you the importance of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard. I can sing the praises of Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. Spend a good deal of time writing about Francois Truffaut and Werner Herzog. And I have and will continue to. They are all great filmmakers. But Mel Brooks was the reason I wanted to make movies.

To some film snobs, that is not an acceptable answer. You must mention the names I just recited or talk about Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles. If you must mention comedy (dear God why!) you may talk about Chaplin or Woody Allen. Anything else is vulgar and unacceptable.

Over the years I haven't written much about Mel Brooks. As soon as I became a fan, back in 1995, he stopped making movies. I was able to see "Dracula: Dead & Loving It" (1995) in a movie theatre and that has turned out to be his last movie. I think because of that I "forgot" about him. It was also at that same age I discovered Woody Allen. Allen kept making movies past 1995. This year he has given us "Blue Jasmine" (2013), a critical success. I have written more about him. But sadly Brooks took a back seat.

If I were to attempt to convince you Mel Brooks can be a great comedy filmmaker, I would point you to "The Twelve Chairs" (1970). Is it Brooks' funniest? Nope. His most popular? Nope. It is completely forgotten. It gets lost in the shuffle of everyone's favorites; "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and "Young Frankenstein" (1974). But with "The Twelve Chairs" Brooks shows he can direct. He can turn down the vulgarity, the fart jokes, the sex jokes, and tell a "clean" story. Not only is he able to tell a clean story but he can add sentiment. He is capable of giving a comedy heart.

This of course is not what people want to read when discussing Mel Brooks. And it may be for that reason Brooks stood away from material such as this. Perhaps he himself found it too restrictive, though he was the sole writer on the film, based on two novels by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov called "The Golden Calf" and "The Twelve Chairs". But I point you to this movie anyway.

We are in Russia, now the Soviet Union. It is 1927. The revolution has taken place. The communist have won. A great man of nobility, Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) has lost his fortune. He fled his home and now works as a clerk. All he now has are his memories of his past life.

On this particular day, his mother-in-law is on her death bed. She may not make it through the night. Something heavy rest on her conscience. She must confess something to Vorobyaninov. On the day of the revolution, she took all of her jewels, in order to hide them from the communist, and sewed them into one of twelve dinning room chairs. Where, they have remained (?) all these years.

At first frustrated that his mother-in-law would keep such a secret, Vorobyaninov heads out to find the chairs and recover the family fortune. In doing so he travels back to his old mansion, which has now been turned into a boarding house. Still there is his servant, Tikon (Brooks) who informs him all of the chairs, except for one, are gone. But through Tikon, a traveling con-man, Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) finds out about Vorobyaninov's story, and tags along with him to search for the chairs.

And so we have the set-up to Mel Brooks' mad-cap treasure hunt. It actually is not unlike Brooks' previous film, his debut, "The Producers" (1968). Two men are out to make a fortune and will lie, steal and cheat if they have two in order to achieve their goal. In both movies one man has more street smarts; in the case of 'The Twelve Chairs" that would be Bender. And the other has more book smarts. And together, they know nothing.

In order for a movie like this to work there must be an antagonist. Someone we are rooting against. So we have Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who takes advantage of the dying women's confession about the jewels and heads out to find them himself.

There are some sight gags in the movie but nothing really reaches the belly laughs in "Blazing Saddles" or my favorite Brooks comedy, "History of the World Part 1" (1981). Then again, Brooks isn't going for that here. This movie is more about personalities. It is more about the characters and their relationship to each other. In the hands of another director, it could be a commentary on the life of the poor. In fact it was! Filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea, considered the greatest Cuban filmmaker, made his own adaptation in 1962 under the title "Las doce sillas". It is a pro-communist, pro-Castro film commenting on the classes and the new, better life which is in Cuba's future. It is actually a funny movie and is worth seeing. It is available on DVD.

"The Twelve Chairs" does lack Brooks' signature staple of humor but he tried for something different and in my opinion succeeded. The film is able to work on more than one level. There are still laughs mind you but Brooks shows a streak of sentimentality. I like it. It shows Brooks was capable of more. This and "Young Frankenstein" I would say are his greatest films as a director. Where he really showcases his craft.

Listen for the film's theme song, "Hope For the Best, Expect the Worst". While it pretty much sums up the old Eastern European outlook on life, it was based on Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 4 (trust me I know. I'm Hungarian). It has some very funny lyrics. Pay attention!

Not a Brooks classic but an interesting movie with some insight and a lot of heart.