Friday, February 18, 2011

For Love of Chair: IT'S IN THE BAG! Has a Sit-Down with THE TWELVE CHAIRS

This week we of Team Bartilucci salute two relatively modern versions of The Twelve Chairs, based on the classic 1928 Russian novel by Ilf & Petrov. As you’ll see, each version puts its own zany twist on the story. Pull up a chair of your own and enjoy! J

Vinnie’s Pick: It’s In The Bag! (1945)There are a number of comedians all but forgotten by modern culture, like the Ritz Brothers or the legendary Bert Williams, first black man to headline the Ziegfeld Follies.  In the world of radio, Fred Allen was once a powerhouse, but today, only fans of the entertainment of the era know him.  He’s responsible for the oft-repeated quip about television being called a medium because “it’s neither rare nor well-done”* His radio show inspired the work of Stan Freberg, Johnny Carson, and if they were honest about it, damn near every comedian to come along since.

His forays into film were few, and his only starring role was It’s In The Bag!, the topic of today’s treatise. Allen plays Fred Floogle, a man of no fixed vector of success, barely scraping by with his flea circus.  When he discovers he’s the only heir to an unknown uncle’s twelve million dollar estate, he thinks he’s made it, and starts a spending spree worthy of Monty Brewster. Alas, Fred discovers his uncle had been wiped out, leaving assets totaling a pool table (rack and balls included) and five chairs.  He quickly sells off the chairs to an auction house…a bit too quickly. A phonograph record from his uncle reveals that he was swindled out of his fortune by persons unrevealed. Evidence of the crime, as well as three hundred thousand dollars in cash has been secreted…in one of the five chairs.

So begins a mad dash across town for the chairs, events including a sizable cameo by Allen’s on-air (and only kayfabe) foe, Jack Benny; Miss Pansy Nussbaum, a beloved character from his radio show; and eventually the hideout of gangster Bill Bendix (played by…William Bendix!).

The sequence in a wildly overpacked movie theater is a classic – Dave Willock and Walter Tetley (best known to modern cartoon fans as the narrator of the Wacky Races and the voice of Mr. Peabody’s boy, Sherman, respectively) appear as ushers who run Floogle and his wife from pillar to post in a quest for a pair of seats, finding none. A nightclub scene features Allen singing (a term used here to describe the sounds coming from his mouth, in absence of a more illustrative term) with Don Ameche, Rudy Vallee and Victor Moore. Other guest stars include Robert Benchley, Jerry Colonna, Sydney Toler and John Carradine, not to mention a small army of character actors.

A screwball comedy that still holds up today, It’s In The Bag is available via Netflix Instant Streaming.

*At least that’s how Ernie Kovacs quoted it on one of his specials; another version goes: “It’s a medium because when it’s well-done, it’s rare.”  I like Ernie’s version.

Dorian’s Pick: The Twelve Chairs (1970)
After writer/director/uberfunnyman Mel Brooks won his well-deserved Oscar in 1968 for his original screenplay for The Producers, his next film was the 1970 farce The Twelve Chairs, based on Ilf & Petrov’s 1928 novel. That’s right, Fred Allen didn’t create It’s in the Bag; he was just one of several talented people who’ve adapted it over the years. Alfred Hitchcock fans, take note: Mrs. Hitchcock, writer/editor Alma Reville, was one of It’s in the Bag’s screenwriters. How fitting, then, that the world of The Twelve Chairs skillfully blends sorrow and treachery with comedy like Hitchcock did! Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim the world is “a foul sty (full of) swine” like Joseph Cotton did as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943); life and The Twelve Chairs all have plenty of joy, satirical moments, and outright hilarity, too. When The Twelve Chairs came out in theaters, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby grumbled, “One of these days someone is going to put together a smash-hit television special called The Greedy, Fraudulent World as Seen by Mel Brooks.” In my opinion, Canby missed the point. A gleefully unapologetic comedy with a sting in the tail like The Twelve Chairs stirs me to slightly paraphrase Steve Martin: comedy isn’t always pretty. Brooks’ best work has always had a knack for showing us, through a funhouse mirror, the best and worst of people and the world we all live in. 

The film’s frantic shenanigans take place in 1927 Soviet Russia, where former nobleman Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody, two years after his Oliver! Oscar nomination) has been reduced to a desk clerk under the new regime. When he hears his mother-in-law is on her deathbed, he rushes over so fast he doesn’t even let go of his rubber stamp (leading to the one of the film’s darkest, funniest sight gags). She confesses that when the Revolution kicked in and the Bolsheviks invaded, she’d hurriedly hidden the family jewels—real jewels, you naughty-minded people—inside the upholstery of one of the titular chairs from the Vorobyaninov clan’s dining room set. Of course, those chairs have since gone all over Russia one way or another, so Vorobyaninov has his work cut out for him. Enter suave, street-smart con man Ostap Bender (Frank Langella, before Dracula made him an even brighter star of stage and screen in the late 1970s), smoothly insinuating himself into a partnership with Vorobyaninov to find the chairs. And boy, does Vorobyaninov needs the help; the remains of his entitled attitude haven’t prepared him to live by his wits or use the fine art of finesse! Our fortune hunters are also up against Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who took advantage of the Confession booth to glean info about those valuable chairs. Luckily, the not-so-good Father is as stupid and bumbling as he is greedy—and uproarious!
Even with the bittersweetness of life in the then-new Soviet Union, The Twelve Chairs is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. The theme song alone cracks me up, with lyrics like “Hope for the best, expect the worst/You could be Tolstoy, or Fannie Hurst.” One of our family’s favorite running jokes is “I am Cousin—CHAIR!” Moody and Langella are as memorable a comedy team here as Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder were in The Producers; now there’s a crossover story I’d like to see (of course, it would have to be science fiction since the stories are centuries apart; details, details! J). I must say Langella was quite the hottie. (Heck, Langella still cuts a dashing figure today!) The ending has bite to it, to be sure, but that doesn’t kill the mirth of the preceding 90 minutes. Besides, I’m intrigued by the idea of friendship trumping pride, even if it involves Dostoyevsky and faking epilepsy. According to Wikipedia, there’s another novel about the adventures of rakish Ostap Bender. I may have to look that up sometime!