Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"A Thousand Clowns” (1965) Dir: Fred Coe

What I remember:

Uhhhhhhh……thinking. Hmmmm….

OOH- here’s one!----Jason Robards screaming at his neighbors to wash their windows.
And another!---Barry Gordon being very precocious. More memories are coming in from the recesses:

New York City in the 60’s. Some funny bits. Single father or something like that and an only child. A pretty major celebration/condemnation of eccentricity. A social worker trying to make them conform to societal norms. 

Come ON, people! It’s been easily 50 years since I saw this. OK, maybe more like 47 or 48 years. Yet somehow I think about it maybe once a month or so. I could not tell you why, because I can barely remember a plot, much less any lines from the movie. But there was something about that relationship between Murray and Nick that rang true to me, and that I kind of gravitated towards. The idea that a single father and his son could live together and create their own wacky world of logic and rules was pretty compelling to young Wayne. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like my family was this Donna Reed/Leave it to Beaver kind of mainstream suburban pap. Ohhhh, far from it! But we certainly didn’t have the kind of fun, the kind of crazy Marx Brothers-like anti-establishment zaniness that Murray and Nick in “A Thousand Clowns” seemed to have. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen when there is a Mom around. Funny thing is, after my parents divorce, the times me and my sister spent with our single father (until he remarried) seemed more like episodes from “Burke’s Law” than “Duck Soup”. He played the part of the single, handsome lawyer, and for a 10 year old that was almost as boring as “Father Know’s Best”. We took some cool trips, and he had some good-looking girlfriends, but I was too young to appreciate either. 

SO…I became kind of obsessed with this movie after seeing it in the theater, and then maybe a few more times on TV.
It has been pretty hard to find, but finally while scanning the TCM playlist there it was!  
Now that I have raised my own child (but not solo, thank GOD), maybe the film will mean something entirely different to me. 

After re-watching:

“Irving R. Feldman's birthday is my own personal national holiday. I did not open it up for the public. He is proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in our neighborhood, and, as such, I hold the day of his birth in reverence.” Murray Burns


Murray Burns (Jason Robards) has been in charge of his 12 year old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon) for 7 years, since his sister dropped him off and left. Murray is an eccentric, who eschews the normal day to day life, and chooses to remain unemployed. Somehow he and Nick stay fed and sheltered, and Nick remains at a top school in New York City due to his advanced intellect. Their somewhat idyllic relationship has it’s strains, in that Nick would like for Murray to get a job. This becomes imperative when social workers sent by Nick’s school recommend that Nick be given to a foster care family, unless Murray can prove responsibility by re-joining the rat race. 


New York City in the ’60’s. What a rush of memories watching this film conjured up for me. This is much closer to how I remember things than that fluffy “How To Murder Your Wife”, or even “Mad Men”. 

I knew some adults like Murray, but they mostly spent their time at the racetrack. Those guys were not bums, but just different than the usual folks who did the 9 to 5. I also knew a lot of people in the entertainment field and the entertaining (hotel/restaurant) field. Everybody worked their asses off. Nobody spent all day like Murray; floating around town, visiting the landmarks, yelling at buildings and sending off Ocean Liners for imaginary friends. Do that, and soon you get evicted and find yourself living in a shelter or under Grand Central Station in the catacombs, eating your dinner out of a garbage can. This is New York City, and we don’t suffer lazy bums gladly.

Yet this is the person we are supposed to admire. Now give him the added responsibility of raising a child, and the tale becomes simply unbelievable. I guess we are supposed to believe he’s living off unemployment insurance and his savings. That is never made clear. At one point, Murray congratulates a female neighbor with “Wonderful..three months!” Sandy (his girlfriend) asks him if the woman is pregnant, and he goes “No…on unemployment!”

The real theme of course is the child/adult caring for the adult/child or vice versa. For that reason we can swallow the whole issue of sustenance and get on with the story. There is a wonderful charm to the relationship between Murray and Nick, and there were times I wished we saw more of it, and less of the other adult characters. When the two are together doing their bits, it feels funny and natural. 

Obviously, this can’t go on forever. At some point Murray will have to go to work. And it’s not like his work is an odious desk job at Cogswell Cogs or some other nasty worker bee drabness. For God’s sake, the man is a writer for children’s TV. OK, it may not be like being James Bond or something, but it seems like a pretty fun way to spend your time if you are a grade A cut-up and all-around loose cannon.
Awww, poor Murray. He’ll have to suffer writing dumb jokes for kids and working for an insufferable jerk like Leo Herman, aka Chuckles the Chipmunk. I know a lot of people who would kill for that job. 

Is it a real conflict, then? Is it really so awful that he change his ways and join society and earn his way in the world? The conversation he has with his brother near the end of the film is where the meat of this story can be found. It’s almost an inverse version of “Amadeus”. The man who is mediocre celebrates his mediocrity, and the eccentric balks, but eventually comes around. I think the point made is, that this world offers you multiple paths towards happiness. You must decide at some point which path is yours. Or, you might have that path forced upon you, and you might still find happiness in that direction. One thing we know, many eccentrics and iconoclasts find their way in society one way or another. And if you care for and about your family, you make the necessary compromises.


“A Thousand Clowns” is so obviously a film adaptation of a stage play. It struggles mightily with the process of expanding outside of the one room flat inhabited by Murray and Nick. Director Fred Coe and Playwright Herb Gardner were responsible for the Broadway play, and went ahead with the film adaptation together. 

The film starts with a desolate NYC street, and Murray yelling at the inhabitants as I recalled correctly. It is 7:15, and the streets are silent, but then at the snap of Murray’s fingers, the morning commute begins and so does the title sequence in a pretty cool montage of real life Manhattan shots, complete with a blaring marching band doing John Phillip Sousa.

As soon as the titles conclude, we have the messiest sequence you can imagine, with a dialogue between Murray and Nick and shots of them wandering around many recognizable city spots, the Williamsburg Bridge, Central Park, Childs Restaurant. The dialogue continues, even though the venues change abruptly, and many times you can see their mouths not moving at all. 180 degree rules are obliterated, and the sound mixing is awful. It’s all very amateurish, and reeks of people with no film pedigree whatsoever. 

Finally we return to the one room apartment and order is restored, thank goodness. The flat is filled with junk, including about 20 clocks all showing a different time. When social workers Arnold and Sandy, arrive, we have a double conflict, one between Murray and Nick, with Nick trying to impress Arnold and Sandy, and Murray antagonizing them. The secondary conflict is between Arnold and Sandy themselves, as the two try to fight through their Male dominated relationship that is both professional and personal. 
It’s a well acted, interestingly complex dynamic. 

So this is exactly how the film progresses. When inside the apartment, things are wonderful. As soon as we venture outside, not so much. It never really gets as bad as that post title montage again, but the sequence with Murray romancing Sandy gets pretty close. 

Conclusion? Folks raised in the theater need to make theatrical films. Folks known for cinema need to make image-rich, visually oriented movies. Sure there are exceptions. But even the best of them, say Hitchcock’s “Rope”, still had to have some stylistic quirks to make the director comfortable. (in the case of “Rope”, it was no cuts).  

I will say that the outside sequences, while pretty much a monstrosity, must have been influential—— I saw a lot of stuff that reminded me of similar sections of “Harold and Maude”, “The Stunt Man”, and a ton of Altman films. 

The film was shot by Hollywood and WWII veteran Arthur Ornitz, who has many wonderfully shot films to his credit, with titles like “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “Serpico”. I can only blame how “A Thousand Clowns” looks on Fred Coe. It’s not easy to watch.  
As for the music, what can I say. Blaring marches, dixieland versions of Sousa, and our two main characters doing a ragtime version of “Yessir, That’s My Baby” are about all we have. The sound editing and mixing is beyond amateurish. I guess this is what real low-budget looked like in the ’60’s. Don Walker was nominated for an Oscar for the music. What the hell?


Here is where things take a nice turn. The entire cast is phenomenal, starting with Robards. Having been a TV and Broadway actor for years, his first major film role was as Jamie Tyrone in Sidney Lumet’s version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. This was made for TV, but with stars like Kate Hepburn and Ralph Richardson was elevated to filmdom. Jason’s turn in “A Thousand Clowns” is pretty much perfect. He was recreating his Broadway role, so he knew exactly what worked, I’m sure. He goes from puerile to mature, from charming to obnoxious, from brusque to tender with confidence and ease. 
Co-star Barry Gordon was 16 years old when he played 12 year old Nick, but his pre-pubescent voice and size come across very authentic. He has one very intense scene late in the film with Leo Herman (Gene Saks) that shows just how mature an actor Gordon was at that point. Saks is hysterically funny as Herman/Chuckles, and I can see exactly why I loved the movie as an 11 year old. He makes a mockery of the TV kid’s show star, doing unfunny schtick and being insulted when Nick doesn’t get it. Nick’s monologue explaining why the Chuckles bit wasn’t funny is a powerful centerpiece of the film; he shows us exactly why Murray has been such a great father figure to him despite all of Murray’s shortcomings. 

Barbara Harris has a meaty part, and she handles it as beautifully as everything I’ve seen her in. It was her feature film debut, but she had done much theater as a member of the Actor’s Studio. She is remarkably believable as a scientific straight-laced young professional romanced by the charming nudnik. As the other social worker,  Larchmont lock-jawed William Daniels does his typical fastidious, officious routine to a tee. 

A best supporting actor Oscar was awarded to Martin Balsam for his portrayal of Arnold Burns, the talent agent brother of Murray. It’s a mostly unmemorable role, with one very important scene that I referenced earlier. I’m a huge fan of Martin’s, and always loved his role in “Little Big Man” as the huckster who keeps losing parts of his body. He should have won for THAT role, not this.
The supporting actor award really should have gone to Gene Saks, who is by far the one consistently funny thing about this film. Until I watched it, I had no idea that a phrase I say A LOT (usually in reference to an empty club I am performing at) comes from Saks’ Leo Herman; “Dead, dying, death, doornail dying death.” This is in reference to his studio audience of children unenthusiastically yelling ‘yay” at his bidding. His frantic scene with Nick is the best thing in the movie. 


Now that I understand what I loved about this movie as a kid- Chuckles The Chipmunk- I can see that it’s flawed, amateurish filmmaking way undercuts what was probably a great experience at the theater. The film tries too hard to be cinematic, but our director just didn’t have the chops to pull it off. He also probably didn’t have the budget. I don’t think I missed the depth of the message due to being 10 years old. If anything, I got it then just as clearly as I get it now:
Responsibilty sucks. Love does not. Sadly, the two go hand in hand. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭1/2

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