Last night Turner Classic Movies did a major tribute to Mel Brooks that included a rare showing of his second, and least known, film as a director, The Twelve Chairs, along with an edited version of the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement tribute to him, a 12-minute clip of him being interviewed by Johnny Carson in February 1975 (he was supposed to be on the show to promote Young Frankenstein but about all he bothered to say about that film was how wonderful he thought Gene Wilder was in it), and a documentary called Excavating the 2000-Year-Old Man about the famous comedy routine Brooks did with Carl Reiner in which Brooks played a 2000-year-old man with a lot of Jewish-humor observations about the famous historical events he’d witnessed. It turns out that, like Frank Loesser’s song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the 2000-year-old man routines were originally just performed privately at parties — Reiner and Brooks thought up the idea when they were both working for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows (Reiner as a supporting actor and Brooks as one of the writers along with other comedy geniuses like Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen) and just as a weird little joke to pass the time Reiner asked Brooks if he’d witnessed the Crucifixion — and Brooks muttered a world-weary “Oh, boy,” and they went from there. (It got really funny when Brooks recalled hiring Jesus to build him a cabinet and said, “If I’d known what a star he was going to become, I’d have made him a partner in the store!”) The show also mentioned that the 2000-year-old man got recorded as a result of pressure by Steve Allen, who booked World Pacific Studios and told Reiner and Brooks to be there, put the routine on tape, and if there was enough material for an album, all well and good; if not, they would shelve the tapes and no one would be the wiser. They invited 300 guests for the session — you couldn’t make a comedy album back then without an audience present to laugh at the jokes (though one of their technical problems was keeping Carl Reiner from laughing at Mel Brooks’ jokes — Reiner had to remember to turn away from the mike to make sure his laughter didn’t get on the tape) — and ended up with the first of five smash-hit albums, the last of which, The 2000-Year-Old Man In the Year 2000, won a Grammy Award (and helped make Brooks one of the few people in showbiz history who’s won all four of the big awards: Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy).
The Twelve Chairs was the film Mel Brooks decided to make for release by Joseph Levine’s Avco-Embassy Pictures after both he and the studio were riding high on the success of his first film, The Producers. (This was the one Levine hadn’t wanted to release until Brooks sneak-previewed it in a private screening at Peter Sellers’ home; Sellers thought it was screamingly funny and took out full-page ads in the Hollywood trades demanding it be released — which it was, though Levine insisted on changing the title from Brooks’ original, Springtime for Hitler.) Well, this was yet another example of a producer who was wrong about a director’s first film deciding to make it up to him by giving him carte blanche for what he wanted to do next — and what Brooks wanted to do next was film a 1928 Russian novel called Dvenadtsat stulyev (“Sitting on Diamonds”) by Ivan Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov (who signed it with their last names only). He wrote the script himself, working from an English translation of the novel by Doris Mudie, and filmed the entire movie on location in Yugoslavia, the most liberal of the Eastern Bloc countries and therefore a haven for Western filmmakers who wanted an authentic Slavic background. (Orson Welles’ The Trial, Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, and Barbra Streisand’s Yentl were all made there.) Alas, The Twelve Chairs was a major box-office flop, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a marvelously funny film but it’s not zany, and it’s certainly not what people expected from Mel Brooks then — or now, for that matter. The plot opens with a dying Russian noblewoman (Elaine Garreau) summoning her scapegrace son-in-law Ippolit Vorobiyaninov (Ron Moody) to her deathbed and telling him that in order to keep the Bolsheviks from confiscating the family jewels, she had them sewn inside the seat of one of 12 walnut dining chairs, upholstered in gold brocade. Alas, the chairs have been seized by the Soviet government and distributed around Russia — so Ippolit has to travel through the country tracing them. Naturally he wants to keep his mission a secret, and being the hero (or at least the central character) of a comic movie he blurts out the secret almost immediately to a con artist, Ostab Bender (a drop-dead gorgeous Frank Langella in his first feature film — one doesn’t expect to see any male, especially a white male, that hot in a Mel Brooks film!), and an opportunistic priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), is also after the chairs. What follows is a brilliant comedy that offers satire, pathos, slapstick (Brooks himself — playing Tikon, Ippolit’s former servant who remembers him as a particularly nice master: “He hardly ever beat us” — takes a spectacular pratfall I wouldn’t have thought he had in him) and some stunning visuals that take full advantage of the Yugoslav countryside.
That’s a real surprise because, aside from Young Frankenstein, it’s hard to imagine another Brooks film that has real visual distinction — things like The Producers and Blazing Saddles are hilarious but one doesn’t go to them for the kinds of breathtaking shots Chaplin and (especially) Keaton could throw into their movies and awe your eyes while still tickling your funnybone — and aside from Young Frankenstein and Brooks’ odd remake of To Be or Not to Be (which Charles remembers seeing on its original release and not having any idea that it’s a quite close remake of a movie Ernst Lubitsch made during the war!), The Twelve Chairs is the only time Brooks really went for pathos. It’s also got some amusing bits of satire on the Russian bureaucracy — trying to trace the chairs Ostab goes into a giant hall with various offices: “Bureau of Tables and Chairs,” “Bureau of Bureaus and Dressers,” and of course “Bureau of All Furniture Not Covered by Any Other Bureaus” — and even some class-conscious jokes: needing to raise 30 rubles in a hurry to buy three of the chairs from a theatrical producer touring a play about the Revolution (did he soak the Soviet government for 25,000 percent of its production budget? Just asking … ), Ostab presses Ippolit into service as a beggar, faking epilepsy, after an initially reluctant Ippolit raises himself to his full aristocratic arrogance and says, “No Vorobiyaninov has ever sunk so low as to beg!” I’d seen The Twelve Chairs in a theatrical revival in the mid-1970’s but hadn’t encountered it since, and Charles had never seen it at all — but it holds up as quite a good movie, even though aside from a couple of scenes with the DeLuise character (one in which he’s trying to buy one of the chairs from a family, and another in which he assembles the chairs he’s been able to acquire on the beach and holds one, praises its beauty and workmanship, then smashes it to splinters looking for the jewels that may or may not be inside) it almost completely lacks the zaniness we expect from Brooks. The slapstick scenes are stylized, shot in fast motion with tinkly pseudo-ragtime on the soundtrack, but through much of the rest of the film Brooks seems to be making a rare (for him) attempt to connect with the audience emotionally instead of just being outrageous.
The Twelve Chairs might have looked more like a normal Mel Brooks film (and done better at the box office) if Gene Wilder, the actor Brooks wanted as Vorobiyaninov, had been in it — but Wilder would only be in the film if he could play Ostab, and Brooks pointed out that the book described Ostab as “devilishly handsome” and, for all his talents, no one ever said that about Gene Wilder! As it is, Brooks was obviously directing Ron Moody to copy Wilder’s mannerisms instead of finding his own way into the part, and that may have accounted for the rather chilly reception this film got originally — despite a huge advertising campaign (a Joseph Levine specialty — when he picked up the U.S. rights to the Italian film Hercules he spent more money promoting the American release than the Italian producers had spent to make it!); I remember TV screens in 1970 being inundated with scenes of all these odd-looking people running around a beach holding these elaborate chairs. The Twelve Chairs wasn’t even the first U.S.-produced filmization of the novel; in 1945 another quirky Jewish comedy genius, radio star Fred Allen, had produced one called It’s In the Bag, relocating the story to the U.S. and simplifying it by reducing the number of chairs to five — and his version had been a modest hit instead of a mega-flop. As it was, the failure of The Twelve Chairs put Mel Brooks into what’s come to be called “movie hell” — nobody would give him a job in films until Warner Bros. called him in the early 1970’s and asked him to do some touch-up writing on a film they were developing called Tex X, a comedy about a Black sheriff in the Old West. The rest, as they say, is history …