What is it about stories that feature rich people who lose their money?
For some reason, it often feels like a heart-rending tragedy, even if the rich people involved are bunch of snooty, obnoxious jackhammers.
You want so much for them to recover what they lost and return to their previous lifestyle, while the rest of us poor schnooks still have to struggle until death to make ends meet.
Scarlett O’Hara, anybody? Come on, even while you called her a bitch, you know you still wanted her to stop wearing a dress made from her mother’s drapes and get back into expensive couture, where she belonged.
It’s a weird phenomenon, and probably why it’s such a popular subject in fiction. This is especially true in film, because copious riches look so darn good on a big screen.
Add a mad chase to recover the lost fortune, and you have comedy gold. Comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin, and there’s something inherently hilarious about someone born to privilege subjected to the humiliations of the poor in an effort to get it back.
The 1927 novel Diamonds to Sit On (better known today by the title The Twelve Chairs) by Russian writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov has been adapted at least eighteen times in various languages. (There are probably more that do not acknowledge it as a source.) In fact, it’s hard to name a caper movie made over the last eighty years or so that doesn’t owe something to it.
The plot is quite simple: a former aristocrat named Vorobyaninov has been reduced to life as a lowly clerk after the Revolution. He is told by his mother-in-law on her death bed that she sewed a fortune in jewels into one of her dining room chairs to hide them from the Bolsheviks. He is joined by a con man named Ostap Bender in the search. Also searching for the chairs is the woman’s priest, Father Fyordor, who found out about the jewels during her final confession. What follows is a mad dash across Russia to locate the now-dispersed chairs.
The 1970 film version, written and directed by Mel Brooks, was the first film Brooks made after The Producers. Brooks became fond of the book during a period when he was studying Russian literature. With a successful movie under his belt, he was able to get financing for the film.
Unlike his contemporary Woody Allen, Brooks has not aspired to write and/or direct “serious” movies (though he has produced a few). The Twelve Chairs is probably the closest Brooks will ever get to writing/directing a “serious” movie. Although the story is satirical and the movie features some classic Mel Brooks comedy, it reminded me in some ways of Von Stroheim’s great dramatic opus Greed.
Speaking of Woody Allen, it’s tempting to compare The Twelve Chairs to Love and Death, which is a sublime spoof of Russian literature. The Twelve Chairs, however, is not a spoof. It is a pretty straightforward adaptation, although some elements, particularly the ending, have been changed.
Originally, Brooks hoped to cast Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, and Peter Sellars in the main roles, but all were unavailable. Frank Langella, a virtual unknown at the time with only one film credit, was cast as Bender at the suggestion of Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft. It was Langella who suggested Ron Moody, coming off his success as Fagin in the Oscar-winning movie Oliver!, as Vorobyaninov. Bancroft also introduced Brooks to Dom DeLuise. They hit it off immediately and began a life-long friendship. DeLuise was cast as Father Fyodor. Brooks cast himself as Vorobyaninov’s former servant Tikon.
The film is a bit of an odd duck in the Brooks canon. It’s been almost forgotten by his fans, even though it has been available on DVD for several years now. It was not a box office success and while some major critics loved it (Roger Ebert was a big fan) the reviews were mostly mixed.
While I was watching it again for the first time in many years, it was not difficult to see why. There’s almost a schizophrenic quality to the film. It also has a strong art house film vibe, which probably puts some of his fans off.
The first real clue that you’re watching a Mel Brooks movie is during the opening credits that features a song written by–who else?–Mel Brooks. Called “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” it’s a great example of Brooksian humor–hash, hilarious truth topped with a big dollop of cynicism. (I’m putting a Youtube video of the opening credits at the end of this review–listen to the song, it’s a treat.) Which is why, in spite of the seemingly discordant tonal shifts in the film, Brooks was perfect for the material.
There are other “Brooksisms” sprinkled throughout the movie (my personal favorites are a sign in a bureaucratic office that says, “State Your Business And Leave!” and a train window opened upon arrival in a Siberian town with nothing in front of it but a block of snow). There are several chase scenes, some reminiscent of silent film chase scenes, right down to the frenetic speed and accompanying music. (Both Brooks and Allen have been strongly influenced by silent comedy and it shows in many of their films.)
Vorobyaninov and Father Fyodor are humiliated again and again during the search. Vorobyaninov even ends up walking the high wire in a circus in pursuit of one of the chairs–without a net. In another scene he is forced to act in a play for a theater company that possesses some of the chairs. The play, of course, is a criticism of people just like him, who were overthrown during the Revolution.
Fyodor is sent on a wild goose chase to Siberia by Bender, tracking down a Soviet bureaucrat and his wife from Siberia to Yalta in pursuit of the wrong set of chairs. Unlike the other two main characters, Bender remains remarkably unflappable after each failure. He wants the fortune but has never experienced the kind of privilege the other two knew before the Revolution.
In one of the best scenes in the movie, Fyodor wrests one of the chairs from Vorobyaninov and Bender and runs up a mountain with it. Ripping the chair apart and finding nothing, he cries, “Oh, Lord–you’re SO STRICT!” Then he realizes he is trapped on top of the mountain with no way down.
This line is reminiscent of a scene in High Anxiety, where Dr. Montague (Harvey Corman) arrives late to dinner and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) orders his fruit cup removed. “You’re so strict!” he hisses at her. She teases him by pretending to share her fruit with him, then yanking it away. This little exchange is only one of many sado-masochistic moments the two characters share.
In a Brooks movie, it seems he’s saying God is a sadist who teases humans into believing he will give them what they want, then yanks it away from them at the last moment. It’s the characters longing and fighting for things they will never get that Brooks uses to make the rest of us laugh.
The ending of the original story is very different from this film–Vorobyaninov kills Bender to avoid splitting the money with him and then goes insane when he finds out the jewels were found and used to build a chess club. (The authors resurrected Bender–bearing a scar from Vorobyaninov’s murder attempt–for a subsequent novel called The Little Golden Calf.)
Of course, the POINT of the original story is also different–remember, it was written in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and the authors did have to defer to the times they lived in–in spite of the way it satirizes the new Soviet system and those who didn’t fit into it, it’s also supposed to make us shake our heads at the folly of those who don’t see that great riches should benefit all and not just a few.
In this version, it’s not collectivism that’s triumphant, but God or the Devil or Life or whatever random thing it is that keeps us from getting what we feel are our just desserts.
In spite of the cynicism, there’s usually a friendship to give Brooks’ movies humanity. As disparate as Vorobyaninov and Bender are, their shared defeats bind them together. It’s a relationship that echoes other male friendships in Brooks’ movies, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein in particular. There’s almost a resignation to the relationship–oh, well, you’re here and I’m here, everything else sucks, so we may as well be friends.
It’s a good thing, too–because the Lord, he’s SO STRICT.