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AFI Life Achievement Award: Mel Brooks
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The Twelve Chairs

By 1970, Mel Brooks had already achieved a lifetime's worth of remarkable success: co-writer on the seminal Your Show of Shows, mastermind behind the 2,000 Year Old Man comedy franchise, co-creator of Get Smart, and his 1968 debut feature The Producers won Brooks the award for Best Original Screenplay, among other impressive nominations (the picture was not a commercial success, but you can't have everything). In the decades to come, Brooks would eclipse these accomplishments with an even greater legacy: Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, History of the World: Part I, and more-and transforming the cult hit The Producers into a blockbuster Broadway musical. But in 1970, Brooks stood at a crossroads between being a rising star and becoming a national treasure-1970 was the year of The Twelve Chairs.

To say that The Twelve Chairs is largely forgotten today implies it was ever remembered: the film was perhaps the biggest commercial flop of Brooks' career, and has only rarely been discussed critically. Nevertheless, Brooks himself cites it as one of his proudest and most personal accomplishments.

As his follow-up to the 1968 Producers, Brooks had been considering a number of possible projects, but found his attention settling on the 1928 Russian satirical novel Diamonds to Sit On (Dvenadtsat' stul'ev, if you're Russian). Brooks had encountered the novel back in the 1950s during a phase in which he had been studying Russian literature, and its distinctly Russian style of grim comedy clicked with Brooks' sensibilities.

Diamonds to Sit On is attributed to the writing duo of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, but those are actually pen names for Russian journalists Ilya Faynzilberg and Yevgeny Katayev. Set in 1927 Russia, the novel concerns a fortune in jewels that were hidden from the Bolsheviks during the Revolution by being stitched into the lining of a dining room chair. The entire set of chairs, both the treasure-packed one and its conventional siblings, have been appropriated by the Soviet state and redistributed, as all private property now has been. A fallen aristocrat is hunting for the chairs-the jewels within belong to him by birthright, but belong to everyone by law. Along the way he has rivals-and allies-in his quest, which satirically explores greed, social responsibility, and the nature of friendship.

In other words, it handles some universal themes. And as a result, Diamonds to Sit On has inspired no fewer than eighteen different screen adaptations over the years (not every adaptation openly acknowledges the debt). Movie versions have been made all over the world, including Monty Banks' 1936 Keep Your Seats Please and a 1945 Hollywood version called It's In The Bag, which featured appearances by Jack Benny, Rudy Vallee and Jack Carradine. In fact, one of the many rival adaptations, The Thirteen Chairs, opened just a year before Brooks' version-featuring Sharon Tate, Vittorio DeSica, Orson Welles and Terry-Thomas (there's something about this story that invites oddball casting choices).

At first, Brooks had intended to cast Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, and Peter Sellers as his three leads in the picture, but was unable to secure their services. Meanwhile, Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft had just finished a stage production with a young up-and-coming actor named Frank Langella. She introduced Langella to Brooks, and the two had many meetings to discuss the casting of The Twelve Chairs.

Langella suggested Ron Moody for the role of the former nobleman Vorobyaninov. After seeing Moody's acclaimed performance as Fagin in Oliver!, Brooks agreed he had found his Vorobyaninov. Although Langella assumed he was on hand just to advise Brooks on casting decisions, and claims he had no ambitions to a screen career at the time, he found himself summarily cast as Vorobyaninov's partner, the confidence trickster Ostap Bender. It would be Langella's second film role, and one for which he would be awarded the National Board of Review's prize for Best Supporting Actor.

The third lead role went to another relative newcomer, a comedian named Dom DeLuise. Recommended by Bancroft, DeLuise discovered an instant rapport with Brooks. Their first meeting lasted for hours, and was the start of an enduring friendship and professional collaboration.

In order to simulate 1920s Russia on a shoestring budget, Brooks arranged to film on location in what was then Yugoslavia, with the services of the talented Yugoslav Director of Photography Djordje Nikolic. Compared to some of the rookie mistakes Brooks had made in cinematic technique on The Producers, his experienced Yugoslav crew enabled his sophomore effort to look like a handsomely appointed arthouse import-The Twelve Chairs has a lived-in authenticity and an eye for natural beauty that sets it apart from most comedies. (The Yugoslav crew also brought an unfamiliar cultural sensibility to the production: according to an anecdote by Brooks, one day the frustrated director hurled his chair into the sea as a way of venting his anger. The crew immediately threatened to strike: he had thrown away a chair belonging to the people. Brooks found himself caught in the irony of his own film's content coming to life on him-he placated the crew with vodka, and they all succumbed to drunken camaraderie, singing and laughing into the night).

Laughing on a Mel Brooks set was an occupational hazard, and one Brooks had developed institutional safeguards to control. Prior to production, Brooks invested in a case of 100 white handkerchiefs, which he duly distributed to the production team, with the instruction: if you think you're going to laugh, stuff this in your mouth first.

Recreating Russia was not strictly necessary for this endeavor, of course: the numerous film adaptations over the years have shown that the story can be adapted into just about any time period or locale. But a version of The Twelve Chairs set in 1970s America would have been just another comedy chase movie-not substantially distinguishable from It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), or The Great Race (1965). Much of the distinctive bite of The Twelve Chairs owes to its Soviet setting-where the greedy principals aren't just racing against each other to find the treasure, but are fundamentally at odds with the basic tenets of their society. The Soviet context ups the stakes by making their comic shenanigans openly treasonous. There's a typically Eastern European fatalism that suffuses the proceedings-as the title song, "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst" signals.

That being said, 1970s America might not have been the most receptive audience for such a characteristically Russian fable. The story doesn't condemn Marxist values-it's the greed of the principals that gets condemned, as they create havoc, injure bystanders, and destroy resources in their single-minded efforts to enrich themselves. Such pro-Socialist attitudes might have found broader public acceptance in another age, but in 1970-a year that saw police open fire on college students because they were protesting a war to fight against international communism-the politics of the film were bound to alienate many audiences.

A prototypical Brooksian buddy movie, The Twelve Chairs presents two wildly disparate character types thrust together by circumstance, their friendship forged amidst conflict and friction. And like many other Brooks films (see The Producers or Young Frankenstein) it concerns a fallen man seeking to recapture old glories. Yet these recognizable Brooksian attributes coexist with the visual aesthetics of an Eastern European import, where audiences half-expect the movie to be subtitled.

The Twelve Chairs is less tonally consistent than most Mel Brooks films that followed. Ron Moody and Frank Langella were serious artists, not comedians, and they played their roles with real gravitas-which contrasted strangely with the scene-stealing over-the-tope absurdity of Dom DeLuise's performance, or the slapstick-inflected direction of many scenes. Many audiences and critics found the juxtaposition of arthouse grandiosity and broad farce to be infectious and thrilling, but others found it off-putting and clumsy.

Frank Langella later said of the film, "I think it has the most heart of any film Mel has ever made. It has tremendous warmth and sweetness. Like The Producers, it is very strong on character relationships." This was not a sentiment shared by all viewers-some critics chided the film as loveless and unsympathetic. Meanwhile other critics fell over themselves to praise the film as visionary. Brooks was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for Best Adapted Comedy.

Brooks would later say the main problem The Twelve Chairs in finding its audience was his own reputation-that the name Mel Brooks carried connotations of farce and parody that interfered with peoples' ability to engage with the material on its own merits. "You can't do The Twelve Chairs and make money if you use your name," he noted.

"It's all about money or love," Brooks summed the film up, "We know we need money, we know we have to get money, we know we have to hurt others to get money. But we don't know until maybe it's a little too late in life that love is the most important thing. Love, friendship, affection, bonhomie, whatever."

By David Kalat

Sources:
Robert Alan Crick, The Big Screen Comedies of Mel Brooks.
Steve Heisler, "Mel Brooks on how to play Hitler, and how he almost died making Spaceballs," AVClub: Random Roles (12/13/2012).
Donald Liebenson, "Finding Long-Lost Treasure Among The Twelve Chairs," Los Angeles Times (7/6/1997).
James Robert Parish, It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks.
Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, American Masters (PBS). VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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