Mel Brooks Derek Elley - Essay

Derek Elley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are frequently sound reasons, both commercial and artistic, why many films remain on the shelf, but [The Twelve Chairs] thankfully falls prey to none of them. It is a genuine discovery in every way, and provides an opportunity to see Brooks working within stricter limitations than his other forays have provided. These take the form of Ilf and Petrov's famous satire on greed and cupidity in post-Revolutionary Russia—well-known within the USSR, perhaps less so elsewhere…. Despite the limitations of working from a literary source, Brooks has nonethless produced a thoroughly personal version, as much impregnated with his brand of Jewish-American humour as anything from The Producers or Blazing Saddles. If the complete lunacy of his other films is generally missing in The Twelve Chairs, then that is no bad thing, although it no doubt accounts for the film's obscurity. Character is more to the fore and there is no small amount of sadness in much of the playing. (p. 38)

[Though] Brooks pays lipservice to the original in his main title sequence (showing the title first in Russian), he cannot resist the opportunites offered by having signs in English throughout: Marx, Engel, Lenin and Trotsky Street (with the Trotsky crossed out), or a placard advertising Hamlet and the October Revolution by William Shakespeare and Ivan Poppov. Because the overall temperature of the film is less high than in Brooks's other works, there are fewer damp squibs and a greater feeling of the film being equal to the sum of its parts. That sum is never very much, and it certainly will not make your ribs ache, but there is an unaccustomed warmth to the picture which is very winning indeed. (p. 39)

Derek Elley, in Films and Filming (© copyright Derek Elley 1976; reprinted with permission), March, 1976.