The Twelve Chairs

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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.

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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.

6 thoughts on “The Twelve Chairs

  1. Brenda from Brooklyn

    Nice take on one of my favorites. An interesting harbinger of Brooks’ talent as a songwriter was a deliciously quasi-authentic-sounding spoof of doleful Russian folk songs, “Hope for the Best/Expect the Worst.” Ron and Frank were strangely touching together, and it is absolutely Dom Deluise’s funniest role ever.

    Reply
  2. Ayre Post author

    Having seen the film when it was first released, its theme song has haunted me for years. Very clever lyrics like (paraphrased from a long ago memory) ‘you could be Tolstoy, or Fannie Hurst. Some drink champagne, some die of thirst. So hope for the best, expect the worst.’

    I’m searching for the full set of lyrics.
    I’ll post them when I find them.

    Arye Michael Bender

    Reply
  3. Philip

    Sigh. Ok, I’m clueless; but I just don’t understand why this is not considered Brooks’ best movie- and one of the best period. It’s beautiful. Fabulous cinematography; wonderful acting. Comedy. Honest pathos. As good as any Chaplin. Please, Mel, do another like this.

    And- how the heck did he manage to make it? Where was it filmed? I want the stories- the scenes look so much like the USSR- but they aren’t. Where did he find the coal-fired steam engines!?

    Besides being a fantastically good story, it’s technically astonishing.

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  4. Philip

    Ah, the theme song- actually, it IS an authentic folk melody- also used by Brahms in one of his more obscure works- which is possibly where Brooks heard it.

    Reply
  5. Glen

    I found these lyrics through Google (the same way I found this site). I’m including the original submitter’s name, since he did the work, not me.
    —————————————–

    Hope for the best, expect the worst,
    Some drink champagne, some die of thirst,
    No way of knowing
    Which way it’s going,
    Hope for the best, expect the worst
    !
    Hope for the best, expect the worst,
    The world’s a stage, we’re unrehearsed,
    Some reach the top, friends,While others drop, friends,
    Hope for the best, expect the worst
    !
    I knew a man who made a fortune that was splendid
    Then he died the day he’d planned to go and spend it
    Shouting “Live while you’re alive! No one will survive!”
    Life is sorrow — here today and gone tomorrow.
    Live while you’re alive, no one will survive –There’s no guarantee.

    Hope for the best, expect the worst,
    You could be Tolstoy or Fanny Hurst.
    You take your chances,There are no answers,
    Hope for the best expect the worst!

    I knew a man who made a fortune that was splendid
    Then he died the day he’d planned to go and spend it
    Shouting “Live while you’re alive! No one will survive!”
    Life is funny — spend your money! Spend your money! [*]
    Live while you’re alive, no one will survive –There’s no guarantee.

    Hope for the best, expect the worst,
    The rich are blessed, the poor are cursed,
    That is a fact, friends,The deck is stacked, friends,
    Hope for the best, expect the —

    (even with a good beginning, it’s not certain that you’re winning;
    even with the best of chances,they can kick you in the pantses)
    Look out for the, watch out for the worst! Hey!

    [*] I have never been able to figure out exactly what this line is supposed
    to be — if I’ve gotten it wrong, I’d appreciate a correction.
    —–Richard Schultz
    Department of Chemistry, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel

    ———————————————-

    It’s been too long since I last heard the song. Or seen the movie, for that matter. But these lyrics brought back memories, and I’m going to have to corral a DVD soon to revisit Brooks’ film.

    Glen, Oklahoma City

    Reply
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