Comedy and music go hand in hand. Always. Mel Brooks knows how essential this is. He used to be a drummer, after all. Back in his teenage years, he was a student of the great drummer Buddy Rich. There’s a fundamental rhythm to comedy that oftentimes gets overlooked. If the timing of the musicality is off, then the comedy falls flat. That’s why, in so many of Brooks’ films, you will see elements of music. Whether the characters themselves are breaking out into song, or he has composed a title song, or the dialogue itself is particularly snappy and hits you over the head before you even realize what the hell just happened, it’s all in the same family. You cannot have good comedy without some form of music being present. That’s why Mel Brooks is, in some ways, as much a musician as he is a comedic genius.
The work of Mel Brooks is almost like a rite of passage for anyone born after 1950. Whether you know him through his films (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, The Producers, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and so on and so on), his work with the late Carl Reiner and their groundbreaking comedy partnership, The 2000 Year Old Man, his writing on Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, or even his collaboration on Get Smart with late co-creator Buck Henry, we all know Mel Brooks. You basically didn’t have a proper childhood unless Mel Brooks made you laugh until you felt numb at some point during it. However, of all the projects he’s done, there’s one that remains a personal favorite of his that nobody ever discusses: The Twelve Chairs.
The Twelve Chairs was commercially written off as an “art film” when it was released 50 years ago this month. The film, which stars Ron Moody (fresh off of Oliver!), Dom DeLuise, and a very young Frank Langella — follows two men as they scour 1927 Soviet Union Russia trying to find a dining room chair that contains a hefty fortune of jewels and assorted valuables inside. The film is a comic tour de force that combines two elements that often make for comedy fodder gold: greed and unlikely friendship. When the film was released, the reviews were tepid. Brooks may have just won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Producers the year before, but it wasn’t until Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein came along four years later that Hollywood would take notice and rightfully crown him as a comedic filmmaking genius. As for The Twelve Chairs, just like the contents of the titular chair itself, it is most definitely a forgotten gem.
Consequence of Sound recently had the pleasure of talking with Brooks about the film’s 50th anniversary, composing the title song, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”, how his wife Anne Bancroft encouraged his songwriting, why Gene Wilder turned down the film, the importance of knowing how to say “Slowly” in Serbian, and the forthcoming Mel Brooks songbook.
On First Reading the Novel The Twelve Chairs
There was a club, a gourmet society. And we would meet in Chinatown every Tuesday night, I would say basically in the ’50s and ’60s. It was a club consisting of writers, mostly. Some famous writers were part of the club. There was Joe Heller, who did Catch 22, and there was Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather. They were charter members of the club, and I was introduced to them by Speed — S-P-E-E-D, like running fast — Vogel who was a direct metal sculptor, who worked with Zero Mostel on 28th Street in a building devoted to artisans. Zero knew Speed and Speed knew Joe and Joe knew Mario. So, there was Joe Heller and Mario Puzo and Speed Vogel and Julie Green.
And we knew Julie Green because Anne [Bancroft, Brooks’ late wife] and I used to rent a house on Fire Island in the ’50s every summer. And Julie Green, a diamond merchant and wonderful reader, he read everything ever printed that was good. And it was Julie Green who had finished reading The Twelve Chairs, which was one of three novels by Ilf and Petrov. Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. They wrote three novels. The first one was The Twelve Chairs, which you know that story because you saw the picture. They also wrote The Little Golden Calf, which was another remarkably brilliant book about greed versus love, money versus love. And then Little Golden America. They spent a year in America in, I don’t know, the ’20s, and they wrote about it.
But, anyway, I loved The Twelve Chairs. Julie Green gave it to me at one of our gourmet meetings. We never had leftovers because of Mario. Mario was a great, great eater with a great appetite. And usually when you go to a Chinese restaurant, you have, you know, little cartons that you take home for leftovers. Nope. Not with Mario. He said, “Pass it here. Give it here.” Mario cleaned up everything. He was great. Anyway, Julie Green gave me this book called The Twelve Chairs. And he said, “Hey, Mel, it might even make a movie!” I said, “Eh.” And I read it, and I was really thrilled with it. I loved it. I loved the adventures. And I said, “It’s got a great plot! You’ve got to follow these 12 chairs!”
Because in one of them, the leading guy’s mother-in-law has stuffed her jewels, which were worth a fortune in rubles, and she stuffed them in the chair. I had an opening scene about it in the movie, of course. And he screams at her, “Why didn’t you give them to me? Why did you stuff them in the chair?” And she said, “You and your parties and your waste of life.” And he said, “Well, why didn’t you take them out when you knew there was a revolution?” And she said, “We had to flee.” And there goes my movie. We’re following on the trail of The Twelve Chairs. And it makes a wonderful framework for a movie.
On “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”
It needed a song. A title song. And I said, “I don’t know. I’ve got to get somebody to write it.” And my wife, Anne, said, “Wait a minute. You did The Producers. You wrote two songs. You wrote a great song called Springtime for Hitler and a wonderful song called Prisoners of Love. So, it’s there. They’re there. People know them. You’re a songwriter and a good songwriter. You could write this song.” So, I thought about it and said, “Oh, alright. I’ll give it a shot.”
And I got a title because of the kind of Russian character: “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”. I knew that. So, I wrote the song, and the melody, I think, I got it from Brahms. And I think Brahms and I both stole it from Hungarian Dance Number 4, which Brahms called it, but it was some kind of a csárdás that I heard. The csárdás was around before Brahms. So, Brahms stole it from some poor Hungarian peasant, and I stole it from Brahms. And the first eight bars or so (“Da-Da-Da-Dee, Da-Da-Da-Da”), that’s all already there. I didn’t write that. I took that. “Hope for the best/ Expect the worst/ You could be Tolstoy /Or Fannie Hurst/ No way of knowing/ No way of showing /Hope for the best/ Expect the worst.”
So, those eight bars, they are there. And I wrote the release with my own melody. Because the release I wrote. And these are very good lyrics, I’ve got to admit that. I pat myself on the back for the lyrics of “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”. “I knew a man who had a fortune that was splendid/ Then he died the day he planned to go and spend it/ Live while you’re alive/ No one will survive.” So, I wrote the music as well as the lyrics for the release, for the interlude and the release. Then I went back to the same melody and wrote some more that I was really kind of proud of.
It’s been 50 years. I think you’re one of the few people who said, “Hey, that’s a good song.” I’m glad you found it. I don’t ever get enough excitement or response or enthusiasm about “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”. And I always felt it was one of the best things I ever wrote.
On Wanting Gene Wilder to Play Vorobyaninov
I wanted Gene [Wilder to play Vorobyaninov]. But Gene said, “I’m really too young.” And he was right. He said, “You need somebody with a few lines and somebody who has gone through life a little bit, and you could see it in his face.” And I said, “You’re right.”
On Changing the Ending
I was never gonna keep that [ending where Vorobyaninov kills Ostap upon discovering the final chair]. If you’re gonna sit through two hours of a movie, you better have a satisfying ending. I’m not gonna leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, because popcorn’s bad enough. You don’t need to go out depressed after an hour or two of seeing a movie. I never was going to use that. I was always going to have Ostap see the light and come to the aid and rescue of poor Vorobyaninov. So, that was my switch on it. For me, it worked better.
On Lessons Learned from Making The Twelve Chairs
Well, I was lucky to do it. I was lucky to do it because it took me to … When you go to Europe, it’s usually on a vacation or something. And you usually go to London. You go to Paris. Sometimes, you may go to Rome. But they never go to Godforsaken places like Albania. And here was a chance, I mean, it was an incredible education, making The Twelve Chairs. It was incredible, because I met these people, these Yugoslavians. And now it’s no longer Yugoslavians. It’s become Croatians or whatever. But then, it was an incredible education. How these people thought.
For instance, one day I couldn’t get a shot. Either the camera was off or the markings were off or the lenses. I don’t know. I got crazy. I got upset. I took my director’s chair, and I threw it into the water. Actually into the Adriatic Sea. Because we were shooting in a beautiful little Croatian town called Dubrovnik. And suddenly, the crew … (Laughs). This is crazy — stopped working. And I turned to the [cinematographer], and I said, “Nikolic. What the hell’s going on? Why are they on strike? Why aren’t they working?” And he whispered in my ear, “You’ve just thrown the people’s chair into the Adriatic” (Laughs). He said, “This is a communist country. Everything belongs to the people. The cameras, the celluloid. You’re making a people’s picture.” I just told Nikolic, “Tell them I profoundly apologize for hurling the people’s chair into the Adriatic. I’ll never do that again. And I’d like to extend my profound regrets.” And so we all made up. We drank a thing called Vinjak, which is a Croatian brandy. So, Nikolic said, “We’ll all toast with Vinjak.” And that was the end of the day anyway. Who wants to work after a couple of toasts on Vinjak? So, I learned to respect the people’s chair.”
I learned to taste different foods. I learned a little bit of a different language. I learned molim, which is “please.” Which helped me terrifically for my own fun. Because I would say “Rollin’, molim.” Because when you make a movie, you say “Rollin’. And action!” So, I used to say, “Rollin, molim!” because molim meant please. And they loved that. And then the most important word I learned in Serbian was polako. Polako means “slowly.” So, every time I got into a Yugoslavian taxi cab and I gave them an address, they’d floor it. They’d be going 80 miles an hour in a tin can with tires. A little crazy tin can. So, I would say, “Polako. Molim, polako! Polako, molim!” And that saved my life. Knowing the word polako.
There was a whole incredible education about how people lived, what they believed in, how they conducted lives. You learned every aspect of their lives, which I never would’ve learned had I just been a tourist going to Rome or London or Paris. It was great. To get the heart and spirit of the people. And then I met people and got people who I used in many more of my movies, like Dom DeLuise, who was hysterically funny and wonderful. I got to use him again.
On the Forthcoming Mel Brooks Songbook
Do you know the Hal Leonard songbook? Hal Leonard is going to do a Mel Brooks songbook. The Hal Leonard people have done the Young Frankenstein songbook and The Producers. And they are coming out in a month or two [late October, I am told] with a Mel Brooks songbook. And “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” [will be in there].
You see, a lot of my movies have songs that have never really been published. I was called a little while ago because there was a young woman who wanted to audition with the Lili Von Shtupp song in Blazing Saddles, “I’m Tired”, that Madeline [Kahn] sings so brilliantly like Marlene Dietrich. So, she called me, and she said, “I need a copy of it because I want to audition with it.” I said, “There is no copy of it. The only way you’re gonna get it is to get a piano player to listen to Madeline sing it over and over again and write it down musically. And then you’ll be able to audition with it.” It’s never been published.
So knowing that, I called somebody from Hal Leonard, and they said, “Sure!” And also from Blazing Saddles, there’s the title song that John Morris and I wrote. “He rode a blazing saddle.” I said, “There’s a bunch of songs that have never really been public, never been issued. They’ve never been available.” So Hal Leonard said, “Great. We’ll do a Mel Brooks songbook.” And there’s about 20 songs from different periods of my life and movies and whatever. If it’s on Broadway, they’ve got it. It’s been published [before]. But if it isn’t on Broadway … you know, I did a lot of movies with songs, and they’ve never really been published. Like “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”.
On Writing the Score for The Producers Musical
As a matter of fact, very early on, when I was gonna go to Broadway with the movie of The Producers, I’ve got Susan Stroman, and I got very excited about doing it. We talked about it, and I said, “I’m gonna ask Jerry Herman,” who I admired tremendously, “to write the score.” And Anne [and Jerry] said, “No, you’ve got to do the score.” And I said, “That’s 8-10 songs. I can write a song once in a blue moon, but I can’t write 8-10 songs.” And they said, “Well, two of them are written. Two of them are already written: ‘Springtime for Hitler’ and ‘Prisoners of Love’. All you’ve got to do is write six or seven more songs.” And I did it. Somehow, you know. It’s a pretty good score. Anyway, Hal Leonard published [The Producers songbook], and it sold like crazy.
On the Lost Legacy of The Twelve Chairs
It never crossed the George Washington Bridge. It became like a little art film. It played New York. It played big cities like Boston, New York, LA, San Francisco. But it never really played any cities that didn’t have an art theater. So, it didn’t get any real distribution. But I got letters over the years from people who had seen it on television. And they’re always these wonderful, emotional letters of how much they loved it and “Where has this picture been?” It’s all very nice. Of all the movies I’ve made, it’s one of my top favorites.