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A Thousand Clowns

(American, 1965, 118 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
Directed by Fred Coe

Jason Robards . . . . . . . . . . Murray Burns
Barbara Harris . . . . . . . . . . Sandra Markowitz
Martin Balsam . . . . . . . . . .Arnold Burns
Gene Saks . . . . . . . . . . Leo "Chuckles the Chipmunk" Herman
William Daniels . . . . . . . . . . Albert Amundson

The 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:

A Thousand Clowns makes a fine case for the life of the eccentric. The film peers over the edge of orthodoxy into a world of neighborhood characters, free spirits, and warmhearted screwballs. Its hero, the iconoclastic Murray Burns (Jason Robards, in one of his most offbeat performances), serves as guardian, best friend, and partner-in-hijinks to "Nick" (Barry Gordon), his young orphaned nephew and now his accidental roommate. Murray had been a well-paid television writer for a kid's show, but has thrown over his career as a hired intellect to find his better self. No Walden Pond, though, for Murray; he prefers the IRT and Greenwich Village as the settings for his musings on independence and individualism. His city is a noisy, bustling, clattering place, and he loves every concrete inch of it. Eking it out in the city seems a daunting prospect, but in 1965, it was plausible to imagine living in New York on friendly handouts and an occasional basket of fruit brought to him by his brother "Arnold" (Martin Balsam). In any case, it's not a rational choice for Murray. He fears life as a man in a gray flannel suit far more than he fears destitution, and the film agrees with him in quiet but insistent terms. He's easily managed to eschew a salary check. Instead, his comforts are his ukulele, and diversions like his cruises on the bounding main off Staten Island, where he bids farewell to ocean-going travelers who probably think he's nuts. He is, and happily so.

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

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