12 Chairs (12 стульев / Dvenadtsat stulyev) is a 1971 comedy by Leonid Gaidai. Its plot is an adaptation of the 1928 satirical novel of the same name by the Soviet authors Ilf and Petrov.
Like Gaidai’s other comedy feature films, 12 Chairs was a blockbuster success. The film tells the story of a former Russian aristocrat who tries to find lost family jewels during the Soviet Union. The plot was no doubt inspiration for Eldar Ryazanov‘s 1974 comedy with a similar story line – Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia. And the film itself is just one of many adaptations of the Ilf and Petrov original novel.
An adventurous con man, Ostap-Suleiman-Berta-Bender-Bey, arrives in the town of Stargorod. There he meets the janitor, Tikhon, who tells him about his old noble master, Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov.
All of a sudden, Ippolit himself appears. He has come to town to see his mother-in-law before she dies. Right before she does, she tells him that she has hidden diamonds in one of the twelve chairs that used to be around her dining table.
However, little does Ippolit know, but his mother-in-law’s priest, Fyodor Vostrikov, overhead this as well. So now there are two people aware of the hidden treasure.
Soon there are three who know about the 12 chairs, as Ostap forces Ippolit to tell him what he’s up to and then bring him in on the deal.
Ostap and Ippolit then travel around Russia searching for all of the 12 chairs. They find the first two in Stargorod, but don’t find the diamonds. After that, they travel to Moscow, where they learn the remaining chairs were sold at auction. Their search then takes them on a river cruise down to Chebosary and Pyatigorsk.
After that, they go down to Vladikavkaz in the Caucasus mountains. There they find Father Fyodor, who has gone mad in his search for the chairs.
Eventually, Ostap and Ippoilt return to Moscow, as they have learned that the final chair is in the club for railroad workers. However, here tragedy strikes. Ippolit, worried that Ostap will screw him over, stabs him to death in his sleep. It doesn’t help him get his chair-stuffed treasure, though, as the railroad workers’ club already found the gems and sold them!
Outside of Russia, there have been a number of adaptations of 12 Chairs. Most famously, Mel Brooks created his version – The Twelve Chairs – in 1970. As such, even though there were many prior adaptations of the original novel, Gaidai probably took inspiration from Brooks’ film.
The Brooks version is well known for being a particularly faithful adaptation of the novel. Many other adaptations, like Monty Banks’ Keep Your Seats, Please (1936) and Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag! (1945) only copied the novel’s premise.
All that being said, Mel Brooks’s version did have a major departure from the original story line. He removed the Ostap’s murder from the end to give his movie a happier ending.