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The Twelve Chairs

The Mel Brooks Box Set Collection

Fans of Mel Brooks' The Producers (1968) should check out his follow-up film, a madcap take on the classic treasure-hunt adventure flick. Based on a Russian novel and set in the 1920s, The Twelve Chairs (1970) is a convoluted tale of greed in which a former aristocrat named Ippolit (Ron Moody) discovers that his dying mother-in-law hid the family jewels in one of her 12 dining room chairs before the Revolution, and that the chairs are now scattered across Russia. As he races across the country to find the loot, so do two other avaricious fortune hunters — the family priest (Dom DeLuise), who heard about the gems during confession, and a scheming con man (a very young, very pretty Frank Langella) who Ippolit believes to be his ally. The Twelve Chairs is perhaps Brooks' most mainstream comedy, wacky and inventive but free of the bawdier elements that mark his later work. There are, of course, a number of Brooksian touches throughout — when DeLuise's Father Fyodor arrives via train in Siberia, he opens his window to a solid wall of frozen snow, and his frantic hysteria that builds as the film progresses is pure Brooks — but, overall, it straddles the line between '60s comedies like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World(1963) and Brooks' more popular, later films. Which isn't to say it's not hilarious, because it is — in fact, it's one of the director's very best comedies, more on par with Blazing Saddles than, say, Spaceballs.

The famed 1927 Russian novel had already been adapted for the screen twice before Brooks' version, first in 1945 as It's in the Bag with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Don Ameche, and again in 1969 by Nicolas Gessner and Luciano Lucignani as 12 + 1, starring Vittorio Gassman, Orson Welles, Vittorio De Sica, and Sharon Tate in her first screen role. Part of the story's appeal is the "wild goose chase" nature of the narrative, involving any number of red herrings and double-crosses, but also because of the brilliantly conceived characters in the story. Brooks' real genius in The Twelve Chairs lay in his faithfulness to the tale's original outline while bringing his own unique sensibility to the table. It's Brooks' most underrated comedy, featuring the best performance of DeLuise's career, and it's surprisingly family-friendly, to boot — viewers who avoid Brooks' films because of the cruder comedic elements should check it out, as it offers all of the best of the director's comedic stylings with none of the scatological humor.

Fox's DVD release, available singly or as part of their "Mel Brooks Box Set Collection," offers an outstanding anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that will thrill fans of the film — those who have only seen this marvelous comedy on VHS or as the occasional art house/repertory theater release will marvel at the beauty of this picture. The source-print isn't flawless, with a small amount of noticeable noise and a few scratches and specks, but it's very, very good given the age of the film, with gorgeous color saturation and lovely contrast. The DD 2.0 audio (English or Spanish, with optional English or Spanish subtitles) is also pleasant. The disc includes trailers for the other films in this collection. Keep-case (slimline case in the box-set).
—Dawn Taylor

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