A Thousand Clowns
(American, 1965, 118 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
For 12 year-old Nick, of course, Murray's decision to be a free spirit is the best deal imaginable. The two gorge themselves on the delights of a great city.
Their semi-cruddy apartment is the base camp for their forays into a city of delights. Sometimes, we see the city through Murray's eyes, as when a group of New Yorkers on the way to their office jobs are transformed into a procession of medieval penitents. Nick shows us the city from a true child's perspective, with speedy zoom shots, and playfully vertiginous glances at Manhattan's towers.
But all is not well in Nick and Murray's hideout from the world. Reform has arrived, in the persons of two social workers who want to place Nick in more respectable setting. Murray fights for Nick, using his weapon of choice: love.
The film's director was the remarkable Fred Coe. Coe had been one of live television's great impresarios, producing and supervising such great shows as the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse in the "Golden Age of Television." By the mid 1960's, the era of "quality television" was already just a memory, and Coe had turned to producing and directing the occasional film. Most of his film work was adapted from plays, or from teleplays dating back to his years in live television. Herb Gardner's play, with its sniping at the crass commercialism of `60's television, must have appealed instantly to Coe. While Coe was known as a kind and good man, still, the opportunity for revenge on the generation of bean-counters and advertising agency executives who had colonized his beloved medium was clearly just too good to pass up. The film's most spectacular character is Gene Saks' "Chuckles," a television kids-show clown of the type that had become ubiquitous by 1965, and which, for Coe, was a symptom of the cancer of lowbrow taste that was attacking television. Murray's patent disdain for the mind-rotting drivel that television had become - he is sent on some duty interviews by the young reformers - was certainly Coe's, as well.
Coe's television and film work had always been stylish, and A Thousand Clowns is skillfully and thoughtfully executed. The performances are extravagant but affecting. Jason Robards brings a touch of the bitter poetry of his Eugene O'Neill characters to Murray. Martin Balsam is sympathetic if frustrated at his brother's intransigent idealism. And Gene Saks is as deranged as a man who has to dress like a chipmunk every day has every right to be. New York is the setting for a dozen truly unique personalities in A Thousand Clowns. Coe's own romance with the city of his live television triumphs is evident at every turn.
From the title tune (by baritone saxist Gerry Mulligan and actress-singer Judy Holliday), to Arthur Ornitz' surprisingly experimental photography, to Ralph Rosenblum's expressive editing, Coe finds a cinematic language to articulate Murray's combination of dissatisfaction with the 9-5 world others are trying to shoehorn him into, and the bottomless fund of affection he's ready to dispense to those who deserve it.
A Thousand Clowns is a comedy, but its anti-establishment point remains pungent and influential. Films as different as Office Space and Joe vs. the Volcano owe a great debt to Fred Coe and Herb Gardner's gentle inquiry into what we pay for a paycheck.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.