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Finding Long-Lost Treasure Among 'The Twelve Chairs'

July 06, 1997|Donald Liebenson | Donald Liebenson is an occasional contributor to Calendar

When it was released in 1970, Mel Brooks' "The Twelve Chairs" was cherished by its stars, appreciated by critics . . . and largely unnoticed by the public. Lacking the cult popularity of "The Producers" and the satirical feel of Brooks' later comedies, it was quickly relegated to back-bin obscurity upon its initial video release.

But some movie buffs consider it a hidden jewel.

"No one ever talks about it," said "Entertainment Tonight" critic Leonard Maltin, "but it's what some of us Brooks watchers call a pure Mel Brooks movie that belongs more with 'The Producers' than his subsequent work, because I think it's from the gut."

"The Twelve Chairs" gets a chance at an after-afterlife as part of a repackaging of several Brooks comedies by 20th Century Fox's home video division released last week. While it might seem to the uninitiated like a throw-in--overshadowed by other titles in the collection, such as "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," "History of the World, Part One" and "High Anxiety"--those who worked on "The Twelve Chairs" won't soon forget it.

"It is an extraordinarily sweet memory," said Frank Langella, who made his screen debut in the film. "I think it has the most heart of any film Mel has ever made. It has tremendous warmth and sweetness. Like 'The Producers,' it is very strong on character relationships."

Brooks himself ranks it with "The Producers" and "Life Stinks" as "the films I'm most proud of."

'The Twelve Chairs" is based on the satirical Soviet novel by Ilia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov. Ron Moody stars as Vorobyaninov, a deposed aristocrat, whose mother-in-law, on her deathbed, informs him that she sewed the family jewels into one of a set of dining room chairs.

Langella co-stars as con man Ostap Bender, who learns of the missing fortune and makes himself Vorobyaninov's unwelcome partner. Dom DeLuise plays Father Fyodor, a greed-stricken priest who learns of the jewels during confession and sets off on his own mad scramble across Russia for the chairs. Brooks, too, appears, as Vorobyaninov's former servant, Tikon.

Brooks credited his wife, Anne

Bancroft, for bringing the cast to his attention. She had acted onstage with Langella in such plays as an experimental version of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," directed by Arthur Penn.

Brooks originally sought for the roles Alastair Sim, Albert Finney and Peter Sellers, who was a passionate fan of "The Producers." "They all fell out, one by one," Langella recalled. "I took Mel to see the film of 'Oliver' [which starred Moody in his Oscar-nominated role as Fagin] and I said, 'There's your Vorobyaninov.' "

Langella himself was offered the part of Bender in an "offbeat" way. "We would sit around and throw out names," he said. "I was helping him. I wasn't lusting after a film career at that point. I was doing theater work and loving it. Finally, he just said, 'Oh, the hell with it. You do it,' which is not the way you get parts."

Bancroft had seen DeLuise on television and also recommended him to Brooks. It was, DeLuise recalled, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Their initial meeting lasted 4 1/2 hours. "Mr. Brooks said that Peter Sellers was supposed to play this part, but even if he did, we would be friends forever," he said by phone from his vacation home in Vermont. "I was really surprised that he was correct. It was a wonderful introduction to this man."

'The Twelve Chairs" was filmed in Yugoslavia. "We had a great below-the-line deal," Brooks recalled. "For $450,000, we got everything--cameras, soldiers and extras. There was no time limit. They wanted to keep as many of their film people busy, so we had a crew of about 1,000 milling around. I felt like David Lean filming 'Lawrence of Arabia.' "

The actors found themselves at the mercy of Brooks' passionate inspiration. "Mel is not unenthusiastic about his work," DeLuise said. "If he saw a mountain, he'd say [for my character to], 'Climb it.' If he saw a brook, he would say, 'Jump across it.' If he saw a stone wall, he would say, 'Bang your head into it.' "

"His energy was phenomenal," Langella concurred in a phone interview. "There was a tree in the way of a shot and he tried to pull the tree out of the ground. In one scene, I was supposed to row a boat through the moon's reflection on the water. But the arc kept moving so it appeared the moonlight was following us. Once, we got so far out to sea that they couldn't find us. At 3 in the morning, Mel jumped into the water to swim out to find us."

Brooks recalled throwing one of the film's chairs into the Adriatic Sea in anger, prompting the Yugoslavian crew to strike the set. "They refused to work until I apologized for throwing the people's chair into the people's sea," he said. "So I apologized, and the rest of the day we just toasted each other and got drunk."

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