Vintage Cable Box: “The Twelve Chairs, 1970”

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“I hate people I don’t like!”

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The Twelve Chairs, 1970 (Ron Moody), Universal Marion Corporation

While ostensibly labeled a “Mel Brooks comedy”, The Twelve Chairs, the under-appreciated 1970 follow up to The Producers, and essentially a lively chase across the then brand-new Soviet Union, the narrative follows devastatingly dramatic and tragic narrative beats. Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody, in a brilliant performance) was, at one time, of noble Russian blood; an aristocrat, who held vast properties, large mansions, whole swaths of acreage; acquiring treasures from around the world, but this was before the Bolshevik Revolution when all private property (for some strange reason) became public property. That is to say the “property of the People”; the people being the communist government.

When the communists came to power, they seized everything, including a garish dining room set consisting of a table and twelve chairs.  Before Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law dies, she tells him of fabulous jewels that she sewed into the cushion of one of the chairs.  She also spills the secret to Priest Fyodor (Dom DeLuise, oddly out of place in this movie), who promptly shaves his ridiculous beard and abandons the church to find the jewels.  For reasons that are never explained, thief and con-man Ostap (Frank Langella, in his film debut), gets wise to the booty and hooks up with Vorobyaninov to find the chairs before Fyodor does.  This mission sends them to bizarre places, like the hilarious “Museum of Furniture” (where the chairs were recently on display) only to find they’ve been split and sold off.  Ostap poses as a clerk, forges the sales records and sends Fyodor off on a wild-goose-chase, where he terrorizes a beleaguered couple he is convinced possess the remaining chairs.

While Vorobyaninov and Ostap bond, in my view, they are at cross-purposes.  In a telling scene near the end of The Twelve Chairs, they argue and come to blows when Ostap suggests they beg for the money to purchase the remainder of the chairs.  Ostap schemes that Vorobyaninov should pretend to suffer epilepsy and then they will take money from sympathetic pedestrians.  Vorobyaninov is adamant in his refusal.  He is nobility, he insists.  Ostap labels him a parasite, and (almost proudly) proclaims that he has begged his whole life.  Vorobyaninov relents.  Now he knows what it means to beg, and while his pride may be wounded, he knows this is the only way to survive.  While Ostap is interested only for the riches, I believe Vorobyaninov wants to simply retain his dignity.  It is an incisive revelation, and occurs in a Mel Brooks movie at a time when we don’t know if we should laugh or cry.

Even more shocking is Fyodor.  A man of the cloth transformed very quickly into a monster at the first thought of riches.  As the concept of communism crept into Russia, notions of materialism (and more importantly, god concepts) deteriorated under the ideology of labor and financial equality, thus eliminating the need for God (or, as my wife, speculated, “the promise of riches and eternal happiness in Heaven”).  Father Fyodor exists as an anomaly; something that should not exist in the Godless Soviet Union.  Once he has made the leap to the greed and inequities of Man, the surprising cynicism of Brooks’ screenplay (based upon Ilf and Petrov’s classic piece of folklore and legend) becomes more pronounced, and also, curiously satisfying.  Where Fyodor has lost his humanity because of his greed,  Vorobyaninov has found his humanity when he realizes his survival depends on his greed.

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Ron Moody as Vorobyaninov delivers what is, in my mind, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) performances in the history of cinema for the modern age. Vorobyaninov is a miserable little man desperately holding on to outdated notions of honor and imperalism. His face lights up at the prospect of taking back the jewels. He suffers embarrassments at the hands of Ostap who shames him for his lack of vision and street-smarts. He expresses violent rage at the thought of demeaning himself, and then he eventually acquiesces to the lunacy of the situation. This is an incredible rendition of a man who turns his back to the “progress” of the new socioeconomic order. While Brooks’ outstanding screenplay adaptation was nominated for the WGA Award, and Langella won a National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor, Moody was robbed of any nominations or awards, which is staggering to me.

Even more staggering is that this is a Mel Brooks movie. There are the requisite sight gags (with emphasis on stand-alone visual cues), and silly sped-up chasing and action sequences, and memorable one-liners (as well as a Mel Brooks cameo), but the emphasis of this story rests in the tragedy of the old man, not the manic machinations of the corrupted priest. This is a cynical film, but stays true to the Brooks philosophy of the corruption of power, and the overwhelming dominance of greed.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “History Of The World Part One, 1981”

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“But we Romans are rich. We’ve got a lot of gods. We’ve got a god for everything. The only thing we don’t have a god for is premature ejaculation… but I hear that’s coming quickly.”

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History Of The World Part One, 1981 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The first impression you get when you’re looking at the opening titles of History Of The World Part One with the voice of Orson Welles narrating, and “Also Spoke Zarathustra” playing on the soundtrack is that Mel Brooks has made a serious art film.  It is art, but it’s most definitely not serious.  We start with “The Stone Age”; ape-like creatures rising into frame at magic hour, and then they start dancing around like idiots, under which a caption reads, “Our Forefathers”.  It’s silly, but it does account for some of our more bizarre behaviors through millennia.  Brooks plays with a  lot of cheap gags during this segment.  The first artist.  The first critic.  The first spear.  The first funeral.

From there, we jump into a quick bit with “The Old Testament” and Mel Brooks plays Moses, who comes down from the mountain with three tablets, fifteen commandments, but he drops one of the tablets. We move into our first set-piece: “The Roman Empire”. Comicus, a stand-up philosopher, waits in line at the Unemployment Office. Secretary Bea Arthur wisely sums him up as a “bullshit artist”. His agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey), arrives with good news of a job at Caesar’s Palace (“The main room!”). Comicus defends vestal virgin, Miriam (cute Mary-Margaret Humes), against a cruel chariot master who is beating former champion horse, Miracle. They hook up with Josephus (Gregory Hines), an Ethiopian runaway slave with an uncircumcised penis and a talent for soft-shoe. They’re all about to be executed when Miriam appeals to Empress Nympho (Madeline Khan) to spare their lives.

Josephus is given a job as wine-bearer.  Comicus performs his stand-up act (“The Christians are so poor, they can only afford one god!”), which indirectly insults the hedonistic, disgusting Emperor Nero (Dom De Luise).  He orders Comicus to fight to the death with Josephus – a brother can’t ever get a  break!  They fight their way out, flee the palace and get jobs in Judea.  Comicus works as a waiter at the Last Supper of Jesus Christ (John Hurt) and seems to have provided some inspiration for Da Vinci.  It makes you wonder about all the low-level jobs in history.  Why are we always reading about kings and senators, emperors and knaves?  I’d love to read about a plumber or a book-keeper from those times, Life Of Brian-style.

We move on to another quick bit about “The Spanish Inquisition” as interpreted with a Busby Berkeley-styled musical dance number, complete with tortured Jews and swimming nuns.  I remember my 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Catherman, would sing this song all day long in school.  Next up, “The French Revolution” with Brooks casting himself as King Louis (“It’s good to be the king.”) and his double, Jacques, the lowly piss-boy (a job description that doesn’t require clarification).  Mademoiselle Rimbaud (sexy Pamela Stephenson) appeals to the king to release her lunatic father.  The king agrees, but only if the Mademoiselle were to visit him in his chambers.

Harvey Korman is the evil Count de Monet who convinces the vacuous king to flee because of the impending siege, and to pass off the piss-boy as King Louis.  For his first act, the piss-boy arranges to have the old man released from prison.  Meanwhile, Madame DeFarge (Cloris Leachman) leads the revolt of the poor against the rich, and the fake king is captured and sentenced to death by guillotine.  Jacques and Mademoiselle Rimbaud are rescued by Josephus and Miracle from the previous episode.  When Brooks asks Hines how he got here, he gives him the one of the best lines ever: “Movies is magic!”

Priceless

Proceeding, as Brooks did with Blazing Saddles, from the assumption that film is artifice, History Of The World Part One makes no argument claiming any of this is real, but there are elements of historical truth to this enterprise.  The idea of the two set-pieces (“The Roman Empire”, “The French Revolution”) is that those few in power are idiots, and the rest of us do the work to keep this crumbling earth turning, but with invention and resources, we might just cause a little anarchy.  Just a little healthy anarchy.  The winners in history are still in power, but Brooks reminds us that all power is temporary, and he throws in a catchy song to fill up the running time.  Filmed in beautiful widescreen and utilizing an oddly quaint Technicolor process, it’s astonishing to consider the majority of background imagery was accomplished with beautiful Albert Whitlock matte paintings.  This is true artistry.

Unfortunately, History Of The World Part One doesn’t work as well as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, perhaps because Brooks doesn’t have the guiding influence of the collaborators he worked with on those films, but it still is a damn funny movie on it’s own terms.  I was thinking of all the pain that went into these jokes.  Not the pain of writing the jokes, but the history of pain detailed in these narratives.  That would be a great “alterna-title” for the movie.  Mel Brooks presents History Of Pain (Part One), but seriously …  Where, in Blazing Saddles, Brooks (and his writers, among them Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman) pokes fun at racism with a sharp stick, here he uses kid-gloves to take shots at antisemitism, concepts of absolute power, and the fervor of religious fanaticism.

Wait!  Where are you going?  Coming Soon!  History Of The World Part Two!  Mel Brooks turns 90 next week, so starting today and extending through to next Wednesday, I will be reviewing some key Mel Brooks movies that played on cable television during this time.  I hope you enjoy it!  There’s a little gag here I had never noticed watching the movie many, many times in the past.  King Louis is playing a game of human chess.  He proclaims his “King’s Privilege” and has all of his pieces jump the opponent’s queen, after which he declares a “gang bang”.  His staff is made up mostly of midgets; (or the more politically correct designation: little people, which sounds worse) because of his short stature, he wants to be tallest in the group.  King Louis jumps into the fray shouting, “Whip out those little dicks!”  I wonder if this movie could be made today.

“I was sittin’ flickin’ chickens
And I’m looking through the pickins’
When suddenly these goys break down my walls
I didn’t even know them
And they grab me by the scrotum
And they started playing ping-pong with my balls
Oy the agony … Oh the shame
To make your privates public for a game!”

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.