As the least well-known of Mel Brooks’s early films, The Twelve Chairs stands well apart from the others. It’s not a spoof of other films nor is it a balls-to-the-wall farce like The Producers. While it has its slapstick elements, it also has a kind of sweetness and elements of character drama not normally found in Brooks’s filmography.
In the post-revolutionary Russia of the 1920s, Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) is a minor official under the new Communist regime, but he was nobleman under the Czars. Before his mother-in-law dies, she reveals that she hid the family jewels in one of twelve dining room chairs in their old palace.
This sends him back to the city to try to sneak back into his old home, which has been converted by the party into an old folk’s home. He finds his old servant, Tikon (Brooks), still working there, although drinking vodka seems to be his primary job. Tikon has befriended a young con artist named Bender (Frank Langella), who manages to extract from Vorobyaninov his reason for seeking the chairs. Bender agrees to assist in the search for the chairs.
Unfortunately for them, Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law also made a deathbed confession to their priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who’s decided that greed is next to godliness and is racing to recover the chairs for himself.
The conflict and contrast between Vorobyaninov and Bender gives the movie its strongest scenes and a depth not typically associated with a Mel Brooks film. The former aristocrat has been robbed of all dignity by his desperation to reclaim what was once his, while Bender, the peasant who ain’t too proud to beg, as the song goes, has the more regal bearing.
The film also allows Brooks to poke some fun at the often incomprehensible Soviet bureaucracy, particularly when Bender searches the Ministry of Housing for the missing chairs. The ministry has a separate bureau for every piece of furniture, including a bureau of sofas and a bureau of bureaus.
Holding this movie up in contrast to the often frenetic nature of Brooks’s later films, you have wonder why Brooks didn’t do this kind of film more often. The Twelve Chairs definitely has the curiosity value of the road not chosen.