“I hate people I don’t like!”
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.
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.