Directed By: Mel Brooks
Starring: Ron Moody, Frank Langella, Dom DeLuise
Tag line: "A wild and hilarious chase for a fortune in jewels"
Trivia: This film featured the screen debut of Frank Langella
Mel Brooks’ second directorial effort is also one of his most overlooked, and differs from such later works as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety in that it’s not a direct spoof of a film genre. Shot on location in Yugoslavia and featuring a wonderfully over-the-top performance by Dom DeLuise, The Twelve Chairs is, nonetheless, a very funny movie.
Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) was once a nobleman in Czarist Russia, but lost everything he owned as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. Among his former belongings are twelve dining room chairs, which have since been packed up and scattered, far and wide, across the Soviet Union. On her deathbed, Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law makes a startling confession: fearing the loss of her beloved jewels, which are worth a small fortune, the old gal sewed them into one of the chairs just prior to the revolution. Determined to track down those jewels, Vorobyaninov teams up with Ostap (Frank Langella), an experienced con man, and spends the next several months traveling around the country, searching high and low for each of the chairs. But someone else has also joined the quest: Father Fyodor (DeLuise), the priest of Vorobyaninov’s village, who learned about the jewels during the mother-in-law’s final confession, and has set aside his spiritual duties to indulge in a little worldly greed. Who will be the first to find the chair that will make their dreams come true?
Ron Moody is hilarious as Vorobyaninov, walking a fine line between sophistication and insanity (with insanity usually winning out in the end), while Langella gets the job done as his partner, Ostap, the swindler who teaches Vorobyaninov how to survive on the streets. Yet it’s Dom DeLuise’s manic portrayal of Father Fyodor that steals the show. A Holy man who occasionally communicates directly with God (after a disappointing discovery, he looks up and wails “Oh, God…you’re so strict!”), Fyodor veers back and forth between greedy exuberance and suicidal depression. One of the film’s laugh-out-loud scenes has the good Father, upon realizing he’s once again located the wrong chair, attempting to finish himself off with a knife, only to writhe around in excruciating pain the moment the tip of the blade touches his stomach.
The Twelve Chairs was the first of six Brooks movies DeLuise would appear in, and as great as he was in some of them (his effeminate director in Blazing Saddles was a howl, as was his gluttonous Emperor in History of the World, Part 1), Father Fyodor may be his crowning achievement.