When you think of Mel Brooks, you probably come up with ‘The Producers’, ‘Blazing Saddles’ and ‘Young Frankenstein’ as being career highlights. But Brooks’ second film is a real surprise. Before he switched to solely making parodies, he made another film like ‘The Producers’, i.e. a film which derived comedy from character. Brooks clearly wasn’t done with the idea of acon-man and an innocent, and turned to, of all things, this previously-filmed novel by Ilf & Petrov.
Shortly after the Russian Revolution, avaricious ex-nobleman Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) learns that the family’s jewels are hidden in a set of twelve walnut and brocade chairs which were confiscated by the state and are now scattered all around the countryside. Aided by an absurdly young Frank Langella, chased by villainous priest Dom DeLuis, he locates the chairs one by one and – in the tradition of such treasure hunts – it’s a foregone conclusion that everybody loses out while gaining an insight to life.
The film has odd resonances with ‘The Producers’. There’s a key song again; ‘Look For The Best, Expect The Worst’, a terror of poverty, a strong sense of Jewish identity and an opportunistic scheme to make money that goes wrong. The tone is frequently shrill, and rather broader if anything (whereas the hysteria in ‘The Producers’ comes from the situation) with too many longuers and slapstick moments, but you come to care about Moody and Langella just as they come to depend on each other.
There’s a threadbare, underfunded look to the film, which is essentially a Russian road movie (although shot in Yugoslavia), but it has a certain unflashy charm. It also has a surprise cameo from Carmen Ghia, the queeny producer’s assistant from Brooks’ previous movie (‘I look dreadful – why didn’t you say something?’)
And this is the last time Brooks plays comedy straight until ‘To Be Or Not To Be’. As such it has a lot more integrity than the dismal embarrassments of ‘Spaceballs’ and ‘Robin Hood: Men In Tights’.