#3 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
There’s an alternate reality where Mel Brooks never made Blazing Saddles, where The Twelve Chairs was successful enough financially and critically where he ended up making comedies with melancholic cores to them for the rest of his career. I’d actually be really interested to see his output had that happened, because I think that The Twelve Chairs is the unsung hero of his entire body of work. Intelligent, tender, sad, and often very funny, it’s a surprisingly moving comedy of a man’s complete and total degradation in the Soviet Union.
Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) is a former Russian prince who fled his ancestral home at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution with his mother-in-law who, ten years later, lays on her deathbed. With only hours left to live, she separately tells both her son-in-law and her priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise) that she hid some of her most valuable jewels in one of twelve chairs of a dining room suite the family had possessed in their mansion ten years prior. Vorobyaninov makes the trek to his old home, reminiscing about the old times, where he meets his old servant Tikhon (Mel Brooks) and a young, attractive conman Ostap (Frank Langella). Ostap uses the threat of turning Vorobyaninov into the Secret Police to get him to tell him why he’s there, and a partnership in crime is born. They will work together to track down the jewels in whichever of the twelve chairs it resides. The problem is that aside from a single chair in the mansion, the other eleven have been taken to Moscow in a furniture museum. To make matters worse, when the pair find the chairs, they get dispersed to the four corners of Russia, and so begins our madcap chase after a dwindling number of elegantly assembled chairs, each one destroying heartlessly for the jewels hidden inside.
It’s first a race against Father Fyodor who cuts off his beard and becomes, essentially, Dom DeLuise, full of manic, heightened energy as he tries to hide his motives for looking for chairs that don’t belong to him, poorly. However, when Ostap tricks Fyodor into going to Siberia to track down an alternate set of chairs, it allows Vorobyaninov and Ostap to focus on the chairs themselves. They pretend to be actors and get onboard a ship long enough to tear through several of the chairs they’ve received from the state, leaving three that, after Vorobyaninov screws up his acting debut, they have to bribe a member of the troupe to get them the three. The problem is that they don’t have any money.
And this is where the film begins to develop its level of sadness. As the film has gone on and the situation become more dire, Vorobyaninov has become quieter and more savage at the same time while Ostap has taken the reins of planning and execution. However, it’s here, where they need thirty rubles and have none, that Ostap has the idea of having Vorobyaninov fake seizures, an act so repellant to Vorobyaninov’s aristocratic sensibilities that he immediately rejects it, spitting on the idea. However, when Ostap makes it obvious that either Vorobyaninov does this or they part ways, Vorobyaninov must acquiesce, immediately beginning to writhe on the open ground while Ostap calls attention to the plight of the poor man to elicit some money from the onlookers. The man who started life as an aristocrat, with servants, mansions, and jewels, has been brought down to the point where he must beg.
There’s still more comedy to be had, especially around Father Fyodor who tracks down the alternate chairs, pesters the owners until they sell them to him, and he tries to kill himself only to be put off by the pain he feels pushing his knife into his belly. Dejected, he is ready to just give up on everything when Vorobyaninov runs past him just outside a circus where the former aristocrat stole the second to last chair left from a highwire performer in the middle of his act. Fyodor ends up with the chair as Vorobyaninov and Ostap fight as well as on top of a peak with no way down and a chair that does not contain any jewels.
The pair make their way to the final chair and discover that the jewels had been discovered and used to pay for a recreation center for railroad workers. The prize is gone, cast to the four winds and a small gift to the working people of the Soviet Union is in its place. That still leaves Vorobyaninov with nothing, and when Ostap declares that their partnership is over, that Vorobyaninov must fend for himself, Vorobyaninov does the only thing he can now do: he writhes on the ground for the crowd with fake seizures. It’s a small victory for Vorobyaninov, who learns the true extension of his fall and how much he has grown to rely on the conman he’s attached himself to, but a victory in the midst of misery.
The ending is a complex combination of melancholic and hopeful and sweet. Vorobyaninov spent the film becoming an animal, losing all of his aristocratic graces as the journey dragged out, until he snarled and growled at anyone trying to take food from his plate. The journey, ending with nothing gained, is humbling, and he realizes it in the end.
There’s a gentle humanity to the film that I really gravitate towards. Brooks would abandon this kind of storytelling with his next film, embracing chaos rather than catharsis, but I think that this is the Brooks that I actually prefer.