A Thousand Clowns

(USA - 1965)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jason Robards, Barry Gordon, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, Gene Saks, William Daniels
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Director: Fred Coe
Screenplay: Herb Gardner from his play
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Composer: Don Walker & Gerry Mulligan
Runtime: 118 minutes

If the subject is cinema’s most misunderstood characters, Murray Burns is likely to quickly come to the mind of anyone who has been lucky enough to see A Thousand Clowns. Murray is a 40-year-old nonconformist who drops out of the working world because it robs him of his dignity, spirit, and ability to have fun. Unfortunately, you can’t be guardian of your nephew unless you’re a slave to the grind. Faced with this dilemma, Murray must reaffirm the purpose of his life. Perhaps this clash between the principle of freedom and the responsibility of providing for your loved ones is an easy question for most people, but anyone who ever had “complete control” of his own life isn’t likely to want to go back to negotiating the usual tradeoffs between individual and establishment.

The entire film is shown from Murray’s point of view, but none of the characters can read him, perhaps because it takes too long but more likely because they try to plug him into their own formula. Our perception of him changes over the two days. At first, like the social worker Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), we see the hilarious, fun loving, highly intelligent man. Later, like her stuffed shirt coworker Albert Amundson (William Daniels), we see him as a selfish child. The film probably leans too much in the direction of conformity, but we do see that getting a job will turn Murray into a combination of the joyless and unfeeling Albert and Murray’s successful brother Arnold (Martin Balsam), a master of accomplishing what needs to be done by kissing ass. Murray knows how to play everyone to get the result that amuses him, but since he can’t tolerate people and doesn’t really want to work, rather than influencing people into his corner his antics burn bridges and dig himself a deeper whole.

Murray’s nephew (Barry Gordon) is really important to him; he’s Murray’s only friend and equal. A middle-aged 12-year-old, the nephew is the more responsible of the two, but he also winds up screwing things up for himself because he’s so used to Murray’s highly individualistic ways he can’t bring himself to give in to these people too much either.

The concerns from Murray are at first entirely selfish, but as time goes on we realize the importance to him of not losing the love and respect of his nephew by going against his principles. When a decision is forced on you, it’s not likely to be one that doesn’t have serious consequences. The tragedy here is there doesn’t seem to be a way to continue the life they want together.

The principles of the 1962-63 Tony award winning Broadway play brought it to the screen. In order to make it look like cinema, Fred Coe utilizes several new wave handheld shots of the Manhattan streets, with Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders seeming to be a particular influence. This works, but the tactic of breaking into interludes of Murray’s activities and dreams that look like music videos grows tiresome and seems amateurish after the fifth time, even if the editing is superb. All in all, you can see that Coe wasn’t really a film director, yet the film still looks better than most and he does succeed in leading the acting in the right direction for the medium.

The acting is great with the lively due of Robards and Gordon doing great jobs of putting over the juvenile and mature aspects of their characters. Balsam is the perfect opposite of Robards doing the straight arrow master of compromise who succumbs to the idea business is supposed to rob you of your self-esteem. Gene Saks is purposely the least funny clown in history, and he knows it. Still, he tries to convince others who refuse to laugh with him that he really is funny based on audience test reactions. If the acting, particularly from Robards and Balsam, weren’t so good it would be obvious how scripted and calculated it all is. Many aspects of the film aren’t particularly realistic, such as a 12-year-old with no legal name, but like most comedies you just have to try to enjoy for what it is. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s certainly different.


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