Saturday, January 5, 2013

On THE TWELVE CHAIRS

The Twelve Chairs -- stolen in 1970 by Dom DeLuise.  If you're up for a little comedy over the weekend, try this overlooked romp written and directed by Mel Brooks.  This movie was my introduction to Brooks, the filmmaker.  It played at a campus revival movie theater when I was in college.  Dom DeLuise had me doing the DTST (Danny Thomas Spit Take) with my soda within the first five minutes of the picture.  Only two directors richly utilized his comedy skills on film -- Burt Reynolds, director and star of The End with DeLuise, and Mel Brooks who has a bit part in The Twelve Chairs.  I vividly recall how much all of us college kids in that audience loved  Dom DeLuise as the greedy Russian priest.  He's like the 1950s Daffy Duck in a 1920s Eastern Europe.
Based on a famous Russian story, Brooks adapted the tale into a 90-minute treasure hunt.  Ron Moody, Best Actor Academy Award nominee for his great musical performance as Fagin in Oliver!, voted Best Picture of 1968, stars as the ex-aristocrat who hears that an old relative is dying and hid a fortune in family jewels in one of twelve chairs.  The set of chairs was lost during the Russian Revolution.  He races to find it.
He winds up on the chase with an intimidating con artist played by Frank Langella.
The poor hustler has a hell of lot more street smarts and survival skills than the former nobleman.  Another person who hears about the hidden treasure of jewels in a chair is a Russian Orthodox priest.  He sounds like he's from the Coney Island section of Russia.  He will go to any lengths to get those gems.  It is a slapstick performance with work that makes you wish Brooks had given DeLuise another top role like the kind he gave to Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers and, again, to Wilder in Young Frankenstein.
The Twelve Chairs followed The Producers.  Mel Brooks won the Best Original Screenplay of 1968 for that film -- the same year Moody's performance helped Oliver! win Best Picture and Best Director.  The Twelve Chairs proved that Brooks was not a one-hit wonder filmmaker.  His next two comedies would be Oscar-nominated box office hits -- bawdy Blazing Saddles and brilliant Young Frankenstein, both released in 1974.  DeLuise was a scene-stealer in the wildly irreverent and hilarious Blazing Saddles.  Remember him as the harried film director trying to direct dozens of chorus boys in a musical number called "The French Mistake"?  And as the flatulent Emperor Nero with Madeline Kahn as the Empress Nympho in Brooks' History of the World: Part One?  If only he'd have gotten that one great role that blended the comedy with drama to highlight his acting depth, like the one Peter Bogdanovich gave Madeline Kahn in Paper Moon.  Here, as the fortune-hungry priest, he starts his mad chase with a change of Russian dressing.
He can't be seen as a man of the cloth as he schemes to get those diamonds and rubies.
His main obstacle on the chase is the handsome and somewhat mean con man.
Stage actor Frank Langella had really clicked with movie critics and female moviegoers as the caustic Manhattan seducer in Diary of a Mad Housewife that same year.  He had a hot look for that time -- tall, slim, dark features and a full head o' hair.  Talented, yes, but there was something cold and smug about Langella.  He seemed to take himself way too seriously.  But, then, he was new to movie acting at the time and Brooks was new to film directing.  Initially, Mel wanted Albert Finney for that role and Peter Sellers for the part that went to Dom DeLuise.  There were scheduling conflicts with those two big stars and Brooks had the challenges of shooting the movie overseas in Yugoslavia.  Britain's Ron Moody was more well-known to the Brits than Americans even after his Oscar nomination.  DeLuise had that quality of being like some poor schnook that we knew.  There was a warmth and likability to his madness.  Moody is a musical comedy stage veteran.  It shows and he's a fine fit for a Mel Brooks comedy.  Hollywood should've tapped this multi-talented British actor after Oliver!.  Mel himself is very funny  in a small role at the beginning of the movie.  Langella was lithe. Burly DeLuise had the physical comedy gift.  He's the real oxygen in the movie.  Langella is the star.  But, in that early part of his film career, he came off like the snooty dance captain of a Broadway musical.
Casting DeLuise was an inspiration -- as was the way DeLuise played the character.
For all Fyodor's relentless bad behavior, there's a little bit of us in his portrayal.  Our college audience howled with laughter when the once-again unlucky Father Fyodor cries out "Oh, Lord!  You're so strict!"  I laughed again watching The Twelve Chairs last month.
Dom DeLuise was delightful. I think you'll agree that he stole The Twelve Chairs.




3 comments:

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  2. I have been trying to catch this movie on TV for a long time. Any i dea if they still play it?

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