The year is 1927 and in the Soviet Union former nobleman Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) cannot help but lament his former riches and the days when he had a prestigious title, as opposed to now when he works as a penpusher. Then things begin to look up: his mother-in-law calls him to her death bed with a message to give him, and as he greets the local priest Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise) who seems in an awful hurry to leave after administering last rites, he has no inkling of the information he's about to receive about the suite of dining room chairs the family used to own...
This seems like a folktale that has been around for centuries, but was written in the early twentieth century, about the time it is set, by a couple of Russians attempting to send up the old guard of Tsarist times and showing their greed had no place in the Soviet Union. Variations on this since largely left out the Communist politics, and so it was here, but it was such a gem of an idea for a comedy that filmmakers of many nations have found themelves unwilling to leave this yarn alone, from George Formby's try in the 1930s, to radio legend Fred Allen in the 1940s, even Sharon Tate in the last film she made before her death.
Here Mel Brooks, riding high after the worldwide success of his previous film The Producers (which happened to be his debut), opted to adapt a more faithful incarnation of the book than others in the West had conjured up, but being American the far left themes were not going to survive too well, so we appear to be in sympathy with the pained nostalgist Vorobyaninov who longs for the era when he was not only rich, but didn't have to hand over those riches as the people redistributed his wealth. There were still a few digs at the old system which survived as his former servant Tikon (Mel Brooks, and we could have done with more of him here) is equally sad about the new broom, but points out his old master "hardly ever beat me".
It's the hard luck story of the protagonist which makes us in a curious way want to see him get away with his scheme, which is to hunt down one of the chairs, for his mother-in-law hid her hoard of jewels in one of the seats. Unfortunately for him, Vorobyaninov had to give away those chairs at the point of the Revolution, but he thinks he knows where they are, commencing a wild goose chase around twenties Russia, but accompanied by a new ally, conman Ostap Bender (smoothie Frank Langella) who essentially blackmails him into sharing the loot when (or if) they finally get it. Meanwhile, the priest, having heard the confession, has the same idea, adding something of a race against time plot.
In these hands you're not sure whether the original's unhappy for the characters but supposedly hilarious for the readers ending will be retained, but it's not quite enough to sustain a work which really needed less faithfulness to a rather hackneyed sense of humour and more of the trademarked Brooks wit and ingenuity. In the early stages there are some good laughs, but the more they dry up the further the director instructed his cast to start yelling, as if that was amusing in itself when a little of that went a long way. This was filmed in Yugoslavia, so had enough of a Russian look for a measure of authenticity, and Moody and Langella made a fair enough double act, but while you're meant to be won over by their sad, desperate grabs for the dignity wealth can afford, they weren't much more admirable than DeLuise's corrupt holy man. Brooks could be given some leeway before he found his feet again, but his run of comedy favourites from this decade didn't get off to the best of starts here. Music by John Morris - Brooks' opening theme song is a highlight.