On the occasion of Mel Brooks’ 88th birthday on June 28, I have a present for you: “The Twelve Chairs.” You’re welcome.
The holy Brooks trinity of “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” have each been enshrined by the American Film Institute as among the top 15 best comedies ever made. Released in 1970, “The Twelve Chairs” is perhaps his least known film, but it is one of his best and well worth seeking out.
It is based on the satirical Soviet novel by Ilia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov. Ron Moody, who recently passed and is best known for his portrayal of Fagin in the musical, “Oliver!”, stars as Vorobyaninov, a deposed aristocrat, whose mother-in-law, on her deathbed, informs him that she sewed the family jewels into one of a set of the family’s former dining room chairs. Frank Langella, in his screen debut, co-stars as con man Ostap Bender, who learns of the missing fortune and makes himself Vorobyaninov's unwelcome partner. Dom DeLuise plays Father Fyodor, a greed-stricken priest who learns of the jewels during confession and sets off on his own mad scramble across Russia for the chairs. Brooks, too, appears, as Vorobyaninov's former servant, Tikon.
Brooks got into the genre-spoofing business with the phenomenal success of “Blazing Saddles.” He would not return to this kind of personal, from-the-gut filmmaking until “Life Stinks.” I interviewed Brooks years ago when “The Twelve Chairs” made its home video debut and, tellingly, he rates “The Producers,” “The Twelve Chairs” and “Life Stinks,” and not his genre comedies, as the favorites of his films.
Granted, Brooks’ birthday might put you in the mood to revisit other, more well-known benchmarks in his EGOT-winning career. That’s the Emmy (as a co-writer for the legendary “Your Show of Shows”), the Grammy (for his iconic comedy recording with Carl Reiner, “The 2000 Year-Old Man”), the Oscar (for writing “The Producers”), and the Tony (for the musical adaptation of “The Producers,” which gave him a new career as the King of Broadway”).
Or, you might want to seek out other career curiosities, such as Ernest Pintoff’s Oscar-winning short film, “The Critic,” in which Brooks’ voices a disgruntled moviegoer commenting on the experimental animation. Or “Get Smart,” the spy spoof he created with Buck Henry. You’ll find them all on YouTube or home video.
But “The Twelve Chairs” is something special, an unsung character-based gem that perfectly encapsulates Brooks’ optimistic, but cynical world view, as expressed in the film’s theme song, “Hope for the Best (Expect the Worst),” arguably the best song he’s ever written (not for nothing did he choose this song with which to close his recent HBO one-man show).
“The Producers” was a commercial bust, and despite great reviews, “The Twelve Chairs” earned even less. But as Brooks told me, “It is with us, it has a miraculous way of surviving.”
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the birthday of a national comedy treasure.
Your turn: What’s your favorite Mel Brooks creation?