The 1970 film, one of the director’s least seen and recognized, opens the cycle “Mel Brooks: the King of Comedy” that will take place in the Sala Lugones on Tuesday the 13th at 4.30pm and 9.30pm.
Of all the Mel Brooks films that will be shown in the cycle that begins on Tuesday the 13th in the Sala Lugones –in fact, all of his filmography in general–, perhaps THE TWELVE CHAIRS is one of the least known. Or the one that was least sustained over time, as other more classic ones such as THE PRODUCERS (WITH A FAILURE… MILLIONAIRE), THE YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN O BLAZING SADDLES (MADNESS IN THE WEST). Filmed in 1970, it is his second feature film and is based on a traditional comic novel that takes place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and that focuses on an elderly woman who, on her deathbed, reveals that she has left a fortune in hidden jewels in one of the twelve chairs in his old house and the three people who rush, desperately, to find them.
Using a model of comic farce that today is clearly in disuse, Brooks constructs a kind of folk tale that jokes a certain picturesqueness typical of the traditional tales of Eastern Europe, adds specific and specific visual jokes (the names of the offices of the Furniture Museum are wonderful) to build a saga that follows three characters: the aristocratic son of the old woman (Ron Moody), a tricky and clever “playboy” who finds out about the affair (a very young Frank Langella ) and the village priest (Dom DeLuise) who, upon obtaining this information via confession, abandons his habits and starts the greedy race for money.
It is true that the film has been somewhat “dated” compared to others of the time, including Brooks himself. There is a certain referential humor in her that nowadays is common in any parody type «Saturday Night Live«. But, put in context, at a time when that program did not exist, THE TWELVE CHAIRS it stands at an equidistant point between the traditional picaresque comedy and the Monty Python exercises of the same period. Brooks is not trying to deconstruct the genre as he will in his later explorations of the western, thriller, or sci-fi film, but rather to generate a ludicrous comedy about greed in an age when there should be no economic differences in the genre. Soviet Union, even if the aristocratic but poor protagonist does not like the matter too much.
Beyond the specific jokes about communism –and about the communism bureaucracy–, his clearly cynical look on religious authority (the priest is the most miserable character of all), THE TWELVE CHAIRS it ends up becoming little by little a film about solidarity (SPOILER ALERT until the end of the paragraph!) When the fate of the money hidden in the chairs is known and, in the final scene, the swindler who plays Langella and the aristocrat who comes under Moody find that, finally, they are not as different as they thought they were, Brooks finds ties that make the film something more melancholic than a series of more or less effective gags.
Regardless, those gags clearly test Brooks’s cinematic side and his handling of physical comedy. Using different tricks learned from the silent period, as well as generating smiling situations from specific camera positions, not all in THE TWELVE CHAIRS are tn old-fashioned as it seems. It is a tribute to the classic comedy that understands what the mechanisms are for its best functioning and that tries to aggiornate it with the most acid humor that time and distance give, especially with the history of the Soviet Union. In his acidic and funny way, Brooks makes it clear that he was always a filmmaker who made political humor.
The film opens the cycle “Mel Brooks: the King of Comedy” that will take place in the Sala Lugones on Tuesday the 13th at 4.30pm and 9.30pm. More info about the cycle, here.