Friday, January 17, 2014

Dvenadtsat' stulyev

Over the summer, TCM finally showed The Twelve Chairs. It's on again tomorrow morning at 8:15 AM, so now would be a good time to do a full-length post on the movie.

Based on a novel by Soviet humorists Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, The Twelve Chairs is set in the Soviet Union of the late 1920s, after the Revolution and upheaval of the Civil War, but before the Stalinist repression really took off. All of the old nobles have been dispossessed, such as Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) and his mother, who is on her deathbed. He learns, however, that before the Soviets were able to confiscate everything, she hid a box of her jewelry in the upholstery of one of the chairs of the family dining room set, hence the twelve chairs of the title. Find that dining room set and that chair, and you'll be rich. Or at least, that's the theory. Needless to say, it's not going to work like that in practice. Or at least, it's not going to be so easy to find that chair.

There are a couple of complicating matters. One is that the set was split up, so Vorobyaninov is going to have to go all over the Soviet Union to find the right chair. The other thing is that he's not the only personj in on the search. Vorobyaninov meets Ostap Bender (Frank Langella), who survived the revolution and civil war on his wits as the Soviet version of a con man in a system which even more than capitalism frowns upon such conmen. He's got wits and Vorobyaninov doesn't, so Bender gets Vorobyaninov to let him in on the search for the chair. The bigger problem, though, is Orthodox priest Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise). He heard about the jewels in a deathbed confession from Vorobyaninov's mother, and with organized religion officially on the way out in the USSR, why not fall in to a life of greed? Thankfully for Vorobyaninov, Bender and his quick wits send Fyodor all the way to Siberia, where the dining room set was not delieverd, to look for it.

Vorobyaninov and Bender go on their own search for the chairs, first to Moscow where they find some of them, but none of those contain the jewels. This perhaps shouldn't be a surprise, since there might not be so much of a movie if they found the jewels early on. (Well, there would be a radically different movie.) Eventually, the search takes the two men to a theatre troupe performing on a barge on the Volga; to the Crimea, and eventually back to Moscow, with Fyodor showing up from time to time trying to find the jewels himself.

The Twelve Chairs was directed by Mel Brooks, which might be a warning, since Brooks' style can be at times a very acquired taste, especially with the later parodies. This is earlier Brooks, though, so the things about his movies that aren't quite my thing don't show up here quite as much as they do later in the 1970s. Plus, there's a real plot here of the search for hidden treasure, and not something designed for the purpose of shoehorning in all the parodic elements. There were a few things I found grating, though, such as Bender's teaching Vorobyaninov to beg by faking epileptic seizures, which reminded me of one of the hysterical fit/argument scenes from early in The Producers.

Even with the caveat that this is a Mel Brooks movie, it's still pretty good, mostly because the plot is such a staple that it can be translated almost anywhere and in any culture. The main actors are all good enough not to detract from the story, and the resolution of where the jewels are is handled in a way that makes eminent sense. If I were going to recommend a Mel Brooks movie, I think I would have people start off with The Producers, but The Twelve Chairs also isn't a bad movie to show to people who may not be such big fans of Brooks' type of comedy. TCM's shop lists this movie as being on a box set of eight of Brooks' movies.

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