This is the film that usually slips through the cracks. Ask people to name comedies by Mel Brooks, and they'll probably answer "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles," "History of the World," "High Anxiety," "Silent Movie," "Spaceballs," maybe "The Producers," "Life Stinks," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." I'd be willing to bet, though, that almost no one would remember "The Twelve Chairs." Written, directed, and performed by Brooks and only his second film, it's a delight from beginning to end. Yet "The Twelve Chairs" is the one that got away, and a shame it is. I hope its appearance on DVD will help rectify the situation.
"The Twelve Chairs" is not a typical Brooks film, not a parody of any other art form, and not a satire, unless you count its constant pokes at Mankind's greed. Certainly, it uses a string of gags like most Brooks films, but the gags are mostly visual this time, not verbal. Slapstick is the order of the day, some of it broad, a little of it subtle.
The story, too, is atypical of Brooks. He adapted it from an early twentieth-century novel by two Soviet journalists, Ilya Ilf and Yevgenni Petrov, the same novel, in fact, that inspired "It's in the Bag" with Fred Allen and Jack Benny in 1945 and "12 + 1" with Sharon Tate and Orson Welles the same year Brooks did his version, 1970.
Set in Russia in 1927, the story stars Ron Moody ("Oliver!") as an impoverished former nobleman named Vorobyaninov, down on his luck since the Revolution took away his lands, servants, house, and money. But on his mother-in-law's deathbed he learns that she had sewn the family jewels into one of twelve dining room chairs. The trouble is, the chairs were long ago confiscated by the State, and before anyone can lay hands on them they are scattered all over the country.
Dom DeLuise costars as Father Fyodor, an avaricious priest who learns of the treasure while taking the old lady's final confession. The two immediately set upon a competition to beat the other to the chairs.
Frank Langella shows up as a dashing young con artist, Ostap Bender, who eventually plays straight man to Moody and DeLuise. There's one exchange between Langella and Moody where Langella is trying to get Moody to tell him why he's so interested in the chairs that is so funny and so well timed it's worthy of comparison to the best routines of Abbott and Costello.
Regrettably, Brooks gives himself only a small part at the beginning of the story, as Tikon, the old servant to Vorobyaninov. His brief appearance is one of the most comical parts of the movie.
Image Entertainment's DVD transfer of the film is only so-so. The picture is unquestionably brilliant and colorful, but it is not too sharply defined. Its 1.66:1 aspect ratio approximates its original 1.85:1 screen size.
Audio is provided via Dolby Digital monaural. It, too, is just so-so, usually sounding bright and crisp and not a little harsh.
There's really nothing else on the disc to talk about. English is the only spoken language, there are English captions for the hearing impaired, a mere sixteen scene selections, and a theatrical trailer. The folks at Image routinely produce a bare-bones operation, and this is a good example.
I have always found "The Twelve Chairs" preferable to later Brooks silliness like "Spaceballs" or "Dracula, Dead and Loving It." The earlier film has a kind of earnest, threadbare, yet endearing charm to it. If you're a Mel Brooks fan but have somehow overlooked this one, you owe yourself a rare pleasure.