Friday, May 1, 2020

Comedy Month: The Twelve Chairs

The Twelve Chairs (1970)

The Twelve Chairs was Mel Brooks’s second film (The Producers was his first) and his last film to be based somewhat in the real world. Don’t get me wrong, I love his next film, Blazing Saddles, but it's a very meta film about Western films, just as Young Frankenstein is a film about horror films. Both depart far from reality. Though a farce, The Twelve Chairs is set in a real time and a real place: the Soviet Union in 1927. And the film, based on the novel by the writing duo of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, captures some of the pain and challenges of that moment in history.

The film opens with Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov (Russian names make me thankful for control C-V) at the death bed of his mother-in-law. Sensing the end is near, Ippolit (Ron Moody) calls for a priest to administer the last rites. The Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise with a very long beard), arrives in time to provide the rites but also hears a family secret.

“It’s in the hands of God now, all we can do is pray,” says the priest. Before dying, the old woman tells of the family jewels that were hidden by the Bolsheviks, sewn into a single chair from a set of twelve that the socialist government took away. Not surprisingly, Ippolit goes in search of the treasure in the chair. Father Fyodor decides to join the hunt as well, leaving the ministry. 

In the past, we’ve looked at films where priests abused the sanctity of the confessional to use the information they heard (as well as films where the priest kept quiet at a personal cost). A priest using information gained at a deathbed manages to be lower still.

Fyodor scours the country looking for the chairs, even dressing as a woman in his efforts to find the treasure. He often encounters Ippolit along the way, who is less than pleased with the (former) priest, “You disgusting creature, you used the sacred sacrament of confession to take advantage of an old woman,” he cries at one point. So, that doesn’t seem like much of an endorsement for Father Fyodor.

Along the way, Ippolit joins forces with a con man, Ostap Bender (Frank Langella), who disguises himself as a Socialist Official: the chair of the Department of Chairs. He tricks Father Fyodor into following a false trail for the chairs, and Fyodor heads to Siberia. He finds a duplicate set of chairs, and he pretends to be an aristocrat. While trying to bribe a local official to obtain the chairs, he grovels before the owner of the wrong chairs, who tells him, “This is a Soviet house, there is no groveling.” 

Fyodor grovels none the less, “I need those chairs!” The priest becomes violent and is thrown out. Finding himself alone in the wilderness, he calls to God, “I must count my blessings… I don’t want to live.”

But he soon encounters Ippolit and Ostap and steals a potential chair from them. They chase him up the side of a mountain. “God sees,” says the priest, “God sees all, there must be some reason He gave me the strength to climb this rock wall.”

Fyodor tears open the chair’s upholstery only to find it did doesn’t contain the jewels. And he finds he can’t get down from the sheer rock wall. He asks his rival for aid, “Get me down. We come from the same village. For 25 years I’ve been your priest.” Ippolit and Ostap are not convinced and leave Fyodor to his fate.

Fyodor looks heavenward and complains, “Oh Lord, You are so strict.” Ippolit and Ostap continue on, but that is the last we see of Fyodor. And really, the clergy are the people we're concerned about here at Movie Churches, right? Sadly, though we don’t often get to see Eastern Orthodox clergy, we must give Fyodor our lowest rating of One Steeple.

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