FROM THE ARCHIVES: A Thousand Clowns
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced and directed by Fred Coe; screenplay by Herb Gardner, based on his play; original music by Don Walker; cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz; edited by Ralph Rosenblum; set design by George DeTitta Sr. and Herbert F. Mulligan; sound by Hugh A. Robertson, Jim Shields, and Dick Vorisek; starring Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, Gene Saks, William Daniels, and Barry Gordon. DVD, B&W, 114 min., 1965. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release.

Herb Gardner’s playwriting career was built around soft-minded, though often appealing, plays about society’s gentle eccentrics and misfits. His first play, A Thousand Clowns,was turned into a film in 1965 starring the same lead, Jason Robards, Jr., and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Robards plays television writer Murray Burns, unemployed by his own choice and Gardner’s alter ego. Murray lives in a crammed, chaotic, one-room New York City apartment with his twelve-year-old, quick-witted, verbose nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon), who he never bothered to legally adopt. They have a warm, close relationship. Two social caseworkers from the Child Welfare Board, Sandra (a charming Barbara Harris in her first movie role) and Albert (William Daniels doing his usual uptight shtick), disrupt their idiosyncratic idyll, looking to remove Nick from Murray’s supposedly irresponsible care.

After meeting Murray, the slightly dizzy, tearful, and openhearted Sandy takes only a few minutes to grow besotted with his spontaneity and imagination and becomes romantically involved with him. But rigid Albert, her patronizing, now ex-boyfriend, is disturbed by Murray’s expressive, offbeat personality (“You’re maladjusted”), and refuses to veer from the board’s strictures. The film revolves around Murray facing the danger of losing Nick and predictably demonstrating that he’s a stable paternal figure and can keep Nick by taking a job that he finds repelling.

The film was directed by Fred Coe, who was best known as a television producer of quality drama on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1948-1955 (e.g., Marty andThe Trip to Bountiful) and Playhouse 90 from 1957 to 1959 (e.g., Days of Wine and Roses). A Thousand Clowns is essentially a filmed play dominated by Murray’s long, sometimes eloquent, sometimes repetitive monologs and exchanges with other characters. Murray exalts in nonconformity, which he sees as taking pleasure in life rather than turning oneself into an inanimate object. He rails against the phonies, rebels against the “reasonable and sensible,” and wants to discover life’s “wild possibilities.” The film means for us to admire Murray for his integrity—“You’ve gotta own your own days and name ’em.” And his whimsy—he flies kites on the roof of his building, sees transatlantic boats off without knowing any of the passengers, and hollers at the neighbors over the sorry state of their garbage.

Coe tries hard to add some cinematic pizzazz to this dialog-bound film. He skillfully uses a variety of camera angles to capture the bustle of crowds heading like sheep for work in Midtown Manhattan, accompanied by Sousa marches on the soundtrack, and contrasts them with scenes of Murray and Nick, accompanied by jaunty music, happily wandering around the city from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. He even adds a sequence where Murray and Sandy take a romantic ride (with a great many dissolves) through the city on a bicycle for two, accompanied by Murray’s favorite song, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” The atmospheric interludes strain for effect, unnecessarily underlining Murray’s vision that we should try to live as free a life as possible.

The film’s strength lies in its uniformly strong performances, especially Robards’ gift for embodying Murray’s life force, humor, and intelligence. A few striking scenes penetrate beyond the film’s likable, often too-cute surface. Murray’s concerned brother and successful talent agent, Arnold (Martin Balsam’s Academy Award-winning performance for Best Supporting Actor), who has tried to find work for Murray, finally explodes in frustration and tells him to “shape up.” Arnold is balanced and perceptive, and offers the film’s only critique of Murray. He sees himself as a man “who catches the wind wherever it goes”—an unexceptional person, who has a “talent for surrender,” but still a good man. Confronting Murray with the notion that he’s someone who wants to be a “hero,” and who’s just unable to cope with what is, takes Murray aback. For the first time in the film he has no quip with which to defend himself, and one can clearly see the pathos lurking beneath Murray’s irrepressible persona, though the film never goes further with this insight.

In another scene, a melancholy Murray offers to go back to write for Leo, aka “Chuckles the Chipmunk” (Gene Saks), an extremely neurotic comedian who knows his show is boring and hates the kids who make up his audience. Leo is odious, but the mixture of his blatant insecurity and the compensatory need to bully and insult make him an interesting character.

Murray’s love for Nick demands that he passively accommodate to Leo’s loathsome behavior and take the job. He has compromised himself, but the film does not treat his rejoining conventional society as a defeat, but as a necessary concession. It’s understandable, but all too neatly done.

Coe and Gardner made a smart, engaging film, but one which is too enamored with its own conceits, especially Murray’s quirkiness. It’s also a sentimental work, which, in the main, loads the deck in Murray’s favor. It affirms the kind of nonconformity that is basically harmless and draws no blood from the social order.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the just-published, fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.