The Twelve Chairs
April 18, 2006
Mel Brooks, Alan Johnson,
Starring: Mel Brooks, Frank Langella, Dom DeLuise, Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Sid Caesar, Bernadette Peters, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Dick Van Patten, Gregory Hines, Pamela Stephenson, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, ,
Born in 1926 in Brooklyn, New York, Mel Brooks got his start as a stand-up comedian working the resorts circuit in the Catskills. A few years later, he was working as a television writer on various shows for Sid Caesar alongside future comedy legends, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Carl Reiner. By the mid-1950s, Brooks moved on to producing plays and by the mid-1960s, he teamed up with Reiner. Together they formed a very successful comedy team. After working on the stage and T.V., the big screen was the next logical step and he started making movies in the late ‘60s but really didn’t hit his stride until the 1970s when most of his comedic masterpieces were made. 20th Century Fox’s new box set weighs in heavy on Brooks’ ‘70s output with a couple of films from the 1980s and one from the 1990s.
The Twelve Chairs (1970) was made after the box office flop of The Producers (1968) and was a comedy set in Russia in 1927. A rich aristocrat turned clerk (Ron Moody) learns from his dying mother-in-law that she sewed a fortune of family jewels into one of twelve dining chairs and so the hunt is on to find the fortune with a priest (DeLuise), the clerk’s former servant (Brooks) and a slick con man (Langella) all in pursuit.
It’s nice to see Frank Langella in a comedic role which is something that he’s not usually cast in. He has a reputation of playing heavies but shows a wonderful, deft comedic touch and good comic timing in this movie. The Twelve Chairs was not well received when it came out and to be fair it isn’t up to the lofty standards of zaniness that Brooks set with The Producers.
However, Brooks bounced back with Blazing Saddles (1974), a brilliant, tasteless parody of the western. It was considered to be a pretty outrageous comedy for its time, addressing taboo subjects and skewering racism. A scheming tycoon (Korman) wants to buy up as much land as he can but the inhabitants of a small town stand in his way. So, he sends in a pack of outlaws led by a dimwitted cowboy (Pickens). A former slave now newly appointed sheriff, Black Bart (Little), and the crazy burn out, Waco Kid (Wilder) oppose these outlaws.
There are so many classic moments in Blazing Saddles, from Black Bart’s first appearance in town as sheriff to the campfire scene. The film also features many outrageous images, for example the hanging of a man in a wheelchair only to be followed by a man on a horse! This film would see two important additions to Brooks’ informal repertory company: Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn both of whom have excellent comic timing and would put it to great effect in future Brooks’ films. Blazing Saddles was a huge success and paved the way for Brooks’ next masterpiece.
Young Frankenstein (1974) spoofs the classic Universal horror films, in particular Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Brooks even went so far as to shoot the film in black and white and, at much expense, use a lot of the same sets and props that were featured in those movies. Dr. Frankenstein (Wilder) inherits his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania and a manual on how to bring a corpse back to life. With the help of his trusty hunchback sidekick Igor (Feldman), he does just that, creating a monster (Boyle).
The attention to detail and the cinematography is excellent, creating a richly textured atmosphere and this is something that a lot of comedies of today have a tendency to overlook. Nobody plays crazy quite like Gene Wilder who is at his unhinged best as mad scientist Frankenstein and works well off of Peter Boyle as the lumbering monster. This is easily the best collaboration between Brooks and Wilder (just edging out The Producers) and is a truly inspired comedy classic.
With the success of Young Frankenstein, Brooks began casting himself as the star of his movies in addition to writing and directing them. Silent Movie (1976) concerns a troubled movie studio in danger of being bought out by a corporation. Along comes a washed up director (Brooks) who pitches an all-star silent movie to the understandably nervous studio chief (Caesar). With the help of his assistants (DeLuise and Feldman), the director signs some of the biggest Hollywood stars to appear in his movie.
In addition to skewering the way Hollywood works, Brooks ambitiously shot the entire film as silent movie (except for one word, spoken by famous mime, Marcel Marceau no less!), paying homage to past greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It’s a great idea that works brilliantly and is something you would never see attempted today where everyone seems to be playing it so safe, cranking out the same, formulaic stuff.
High Anxiety (1977) was Brooks’ take on Alfred Hitchcock in an affectionate parody of the Master of Suspense’s greatest films. Respected Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) is deathly afraid of heights (a nod to James Stewart’s character in Vertigo) and has recently become head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous. Once there, he learns that the former head died mysteriously and that he could be next. The killer might be Thorndyke’s jealous associate (Korman) or the evil head nurse (Leachman).
Brooks plays off of Hitchcock’s trademark style quite well, including the Bernard Hermann-esque score, Thorndyke as the classic wronged man protagonist and many other knowing references. The film did modestly well and has aged surprisingly well over the years.
History of the World: Part I (1981) saw Brooks lampooning various periods of history in this film, including the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. He begins by parodying the Dawn of Man sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) narrated by Orson Welles no less in mock documentary fashion. From there, he moves onto satirizing Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) and turning the Spanish Inquisition into a catchy song and dance number. The film has its funny moments and Brooks and his cast demonstrates their versatility as they play different roles in different time periods.
Brooks mixed things up behind the camera by only starring in To Be or Not to Be (1983) instead of also writing and directing. It was also a risky move because it was also remake of the famous Ernst Lubitsch movie of the same name. Brooks stars with his wife, Anne Bancroft as Polish actors, the Bronskis, who perform a stage show in Poland right when the Germans invade during World War II. Frederick (Brooks) has delusions of grandeur and suspects that his wife, Anna (Bancroft) is having an affair with a handsome American fighter pilot (Matheson). Soon, the Bronski troupe is on the run from the Germans and helping the underground resistance movement.
Brooks and Bancroft kick things off with an impressive song and dance rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish and play well off each other in vintage screwball comedy fashion. For a film not written or directed by Brooks it certainly feels and looks like one of his movies. To Be or Not to Be is also the funnyman’s last truly great movie.
The ‘90s were not kind to Brooks as his style of comedy fell out of vogue and the mantle of farcical comedy passed hands to the likes of the Farrelly brothers and Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. The less said about Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) the better. The jokes are flat and everyone is shamelessly mugging for the camera. For fans of old school Mel Brooks, this film is particularly painful to watch.
This box set is something of a mixed bag for Mel Brooks fans. On the plus side, four films in this set are enjoying their Region 1 debut: Silent Movie, High Anxiety, To Be or Not to Be and Robin Hood: Men in Tights while The Twelve Chairs was available briefly from Image Entertainment.