It took me a while to track down The Twelve Chairs for viewing. Indeed, if I hadn’t once decided to look up all the films that Mel Brooks had directed, it’s possible I might never have known it existed. It doesn’t seem to get talked about as much as his other movies. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more obscure film that he helmed; Life Stinks, perhaps, but it’s debatable and I don’t think any others come close.
In a way, my hunt for the film is somewhat appropriate, though. After all, the characters in the film are themselves on a hunt for the twelve chairs. Or rather, for one particular chair out of twelve.
The film is set in the early days of the Soviet Union, far enough from the revolution that the nobility is starting to be forgotten, but not so far that they aren’t still around in quiet and secretive poverty. Ron Moody stars as an ousted count who learns from his dying mother-in-law that she hid the family jewels in the cushions a chair from their dining room set. The jewels are worth a small fortune, enough that the count would be able to live his remaining days in comfort. The only problem is, he doesn’t have the chairs. They were left behind in the estate when the aristocracy was driven out… and were subsequently sold. And so the count sets out on a mission to find the chairs and recover his family jewels. He is joined by a streetwise young con man played by Frank Langella. The con artist works his way into the arrangement through a combination of blackmail and cooperation; he has the knowledge and people skills to get the information on where the chairs are located, and if he isn’t cut in on the deal, not only will he not help the count, he’ll turn him in to the Soviet authorities.
The film is as much character drama as it is comedy. The count is naive and aristocratic and prone to quick anger. The con man is suave and unscrupulous and thoroughly unimpressed with his erstwhile partner. Watching the two individuals with diametrically opposed backgrounds and personalities try to work together provides both the heart and the bulk of the humor in the film. But it’s a much quieter humor than a typical Mel Brooks film, and it may be this which explains why it doesn’t get discussed as much. There is a bit of farce in it, with Dom DeLuise playing a corrupt priest who is also after the jewels, but it’s not as outrageous as most Brooks films, and it’s not as big a part of it. For the most part, the humor fits the setting of the story: it’s quiet and a bit sombre. The film has more gallows humor than pratfalls. It might be that this film doesn’t get talked about as much as other Mel Brooks movies simply because it’s not what we expect out of Mel Brooks.
But there’s something else that we expect from Mel Brooks besides wild farcical humor: we expect a quality film, with solid storytelling and skillful craftsmanship that displays an underlying level of respect for the source material. And The Twelve Chairs is no exception to that rule. It may be going for the wry smile more than the belly laugh, but it’s still a film that entertains throughout. The story, with its setbacks and twists, easily holds a viewer’s attention, as do the captivating performances by its two leads.
Hunt down The Twelve Chairs if you haven’t seen it. It’s worth the experience.