The Twelve Chairs (Mel Brooks / U.S., 1970):

The Russian material, previously essayed by Fred Allen and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, among others, in the clearest manifestation of Mel Brooks the closet scholar. Revolution cannot change human greed, but it can expose it: Bourgeois treasures are hidden in one chair in a dining-room set, the fallen aristocrat (Ron Moody), the young swindler (Frank Langella), and the corrupt priest (Dom DeLuise) seek it out from Moscow to Siberia, statues of Lenin and Dostoyevsky witness the withering farce. The drunken serf (Brooks), yearning for the beatings of old Russia, sums up the new system: "Mostly dying." The bureaucratic labyrinth (it includes the "Bureau of Bureaus" and the "Bureau of Furniture Not Listed in Other Bureaus") is a Kafka dilation, and what good are the European hills if you can't stage undercranked slapstick on them? Moody shows his Fagin dexterity by going after one of the priceless seats without letting go of the park bench he's sitting on, and brings an odd emotional intensity to the degradation of a deposed nobleman feigning epilepsy for tossed rubles; Langella is the roguish cynic better adapted to the times, together the two achieve something of the rounded crankiness of Gabin and Dalio on the road in Grand Illusion. By comparison, DeLuise is a one-man caravan of whimpers and giggles, driven by secular avarice to the rocky peak where he cries, "Oh God, you're so strict!" Andréas Voutsinas is still the theatrical queen from The Producers, given an Ivan the Terrible make-up test for the show, The Rise and Fall of the Upper Classes: A Comic Spectacle. (The opening hymn, "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst," contains a further tip-off: "The world is a stage / We're unrehearsed.") A practically forgotten work, but essential for its views of the graver side of Brooksian shtick, and as the link between Frankenheimer's The Fixer and Allen's Love and Death. With Diana Coupland, and David Lander.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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