A Thousand Clowns (1965): Film Review

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Although many films have come to the screen via the stage, not all plays have been happily adapted to this more visual medium. The main problem faced by these kinds of projects have to do with the art form itself; while a play necessarily gets by on talk, a film needs enough action, or at least enough visual interest, to keep its audience interested. No matter how good a play’s dialogue is, it can easily transform into a stagy, talky flop unless its transference to the screen is effected with skill and care.

The makers of the 1965 comedy A Thousand Clowns seem to have been aware of the difficulties they had to overcome. The play A Thousand Clowns was written by Herb Gardner and produced on Broadway in 1962; Jason Robards (who bears a remarkable resemblance in voice and looks to Humphrey Bogart) played the main character, Murray Burns, on both stage and screen. Yet while much of the film takes place in Murray’s eccentrically-furnished one-room apartment in the middle of Manhattan, much of the film’s opening sequence, and some later sections as well, unroll in various picturesque New York City locales, ranging from Central Park to Wall Street to the Statue of Liberty. But this location shooting is not merely a way to  break up the monotony of a one-set picture; on the contrary, the decision made by scriptwriter Herb Gardner and director Fred Coe to “open up” the script by including exteriors adds immensely to the movie itself,  since it shows us Murray’s antics at first hand and provides memorable visual contrasts between his bohemian ways and the mass movements of the city crowds.

The film tells the story of the highly nonconformist Murray Burns (Robards), a former writer for a children’s TV comedy show, who has quit his job some months ago and is vigorously enjoying a life without the soul-deadening routine of work and orderly home life which he sees being lived all around him. He is attempting to instill this carefree attitude into his twelve-year-old nephew Nick (Barry Gordon), who he has raised since the child was five; Murray once describes his ward as “a middle-aged child.” Nick, who is well-acquainted with normal adult standards, puzzled by their practices, and desperately polite to outsiders, has the nervous, strained expression which one sees on the faces of children thrust too soon into the problems of adult life. But his fears are soon justified when two social workers turn up at Murray’s apartment to investigate the environment and see if Murray is qualified to  bring up the child by himself.

Although one of the social workers appears to embody all the less pleasant clichés about scientific sociologists, the other one, Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), is charmed by the child and his uncle and very rapidly becomes involved with the latter. She tries to persuade Murray to find a job so that he can convince the Child Welfare Board that he is a reliable man fully capable of bringing up his nephew, and in this task she is aided by Murray’s brother Arnold (Martin Balsam in an Academy Award-winning supporting performance), an agent.

The film’s story is nothing very unusual or original; but what elevates it is its writing and style. Murray pours forth floods of clever, vivid, amusing talk, and the other characters are also frequently witty or otherwise verbally satisfying. Nick’s talk (and sometimes Murray’s and Arnold’s as well) often has the kind of Jewish rhythms and colloquialisms which later entered mainstream culture through the films of Woody Allen; it’s possible that the play was more explicitly “Jewish” than the film, but the wonderful flexibility and vivacity of expression remains.

The movie to a certain extent presents Murray as a comic, humane figure, one of those non-conforming artistic types which film has always loved. There are echoes of Chaplin and Fellini here and there in theme, image and technique, as the absurdity of commercial life and the joys of the chronically undomesticated are recorded; there’s something refreshingly un-typical about the whole thing, and that’s largely due to the camerawork and the location shooting, as well as the slow dissolves, intercutting, and deliberately unsynchronized editing which are interspersed throughout. A visit to a junkyard in the first minutes of the film, with broken lamps hanging down the frame against the open sky above; a wordless but eloquent montage of people and animals eating, providing a sharp commentary on the existence of crowd routine, the struggle for existence, and the nature of business life all the same time; and a lovely use of banjo music, a bicycle built for two, and New York City to communicate the development of a romance are only a few examples of the remarkable use of film as storytelling medium and art form within the movie.

Joined to the visual excellences of the film is the textual element already mentioned, which is done justice to by a range of universally fine performances. Gene Saks has two memorable, hectic scenes as Leo Herman, the host of a horrifying children’s TV show and Murray’s former employer. The breadth of the play itself is further demonstrated by the quality of the “bad” characters, such as Herman and social worker Albert Amundson (William Daniels). The dangers of stories about non-conformists and enemies of convention are many, chief of which is the tendency to write all regular wage-earners as soulless and money-grubbing entities. But Amundson, Herman, and especially Arnold Burns are far more than one-dimensional characters, and that fact turns the film into something that approaches greatness, since it acknowledges the complexity even of those it posits as “other” to its philosophical compass.

The script’s biggest remaining problem is its ultimately rather weak answer to the question it posed at the start. Murray finally chooses to embrace a traditional, conventional, somewhat dignity-eroding life in order to preserve the human relationships which he comes to value even more highly than his personal freedom; but the closing scene implies that doing so destroys or abolishes much of his fundamental personality. That seems a trifle condescending, as well as rather simplistic. A truly artistic person will make an effort to pursue his “dreams” by writing, composing, painting, at all costs, in his spare time if he can find no other. Choosing a decently-paying job does not necessarily mean rejecting one’s creative ambitions for all time, yet that seems to be the conclusion here. Furthermore, a writer of such caliber as Murray could surely choose a more fulfilling job, or work towards one more in line with his talents.

Another possibility, however, is that Murray is not really meant to be seen as an admirable–or at least wholly admirable–character. This is hinted at several times during the film–during Amundson’s second visit and Arnold’s final speech, for instance–but again, the question is never satisfactorily addressed. Although Murray’s joie de vivre is unmistakable, his chief amusements are either physical or remarkably childish–bicycling, flying kites, waving at departing ships, making fun of others or playing verbal games. Is there an element of irresponsibility, of laziness, of escapism, of rampant immaturity in this rebellious attitude towards life that is fundamentally untenable as well as unfruitful? Once more the film weakens itself by never seeming to be quite sure or willing to commit to one particular answer. The same question also arises in the presentation of Sandra, who embraces life and love in the person of Murray with remarkable rapidity, but then becomes infected with domesticity and swamps Murray’s apartment with flowered drapery and artificial plants, even discarding his cherished and clearly symbolic metal eagles to increase the homey atmosphere.

But even with these thematic issues, A Thousand Clowns remains a visual and intellectual delight. The conflict between happiness as freedom, and the compromises and deadening qualities of a typical working-class life, is still pondered, debated, and bewailed. Meanwhile, we can all take 114 minutes on some weekend and forget our weekly travails–or reexamine and rethink them–by watching a chapter in the life of Murray Burns and taking to heart his injunction to appreciate “the subtle, sneaky, important reason why…[one is] born a human being and not a chair.”

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