A THOUSAND CLOWNS: Blu-ray (UA, 1965) Kino Lorber
A Thousand Clowns (1965) is the sort of movie to have had a far more sober impact on the social fabric of America, casting, as it does, a very jaundice view on ‘then’ thriving capitalism, with exceptionally nuanced performances from Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, William Daniels, Martin Balsam and Barry Gordon who, age 17 (rather convincingly to play 12 in the movie), as the multi-moniker adult, trapped in a pubescent boy’s body, is more capable in assessing the collateral damage self-inflicted by another man’s life. Gordon was already a seasoned pro of stage, screen and TV by the time he made this movie, having been in the biz some 9-years. Most definitely, A Thousand Clowns had the pedigree to be a ground-breaking masterpiece of existentialism. Its pseudo-New Wave look is thanks to cinematographer, Arthur J. Ornitz. Herb Gardner reprises his role as the writer and there is some marvelous set decoration – uncredited – but owed to George DeTitta Sr. and Herbert F. Mulligan. Alas, for the picture to truly excel, what it desperately needed was a progressive humanist like Stanley Kramer in the director’s chair. What it received instead was Fred Coe, who, having toiled in the rather claustrophobic and budget-strapped medium of television, could find no effective way to maintain the play’s carefully concocted efficiency without the whole enterprise turning into a stilted cinematic gumbo from which a great many ‘great’ plays are often transmitted onto the movie screen, made less so by their inability to precisely mine the right moments and ‘open up’ what, on stage, was essentially a series of monologues and soliloquies, loosely strung together to prove a point.
Rumor has it, Coe’s first rough cut assembly of the material ran a whopping 3-hrs. for a sneak peak in Westwood, soliciting snores and the sort of dreaded forced applause from the audience at the end, definitely to signal something was decidedly remiss. Remanded to editor, Ralph Rosenblum, roughly an hour was pruned – or rather – paired down, with inserts shot on location in New York, montages (interminably set to John Phillip Sousa’s ‘Stars and Stripes’ herein made tinny and grating – presumably, to prove another point about how modern-age capitalism had deprived the average American of the bombast of his/her rights and freedoms, never-endingly anchored to the 9 to 5), and, a series of dissolves establishing, though never to evolve, the burgeoning romance between Jason Robards’ Peter Pan-esque Murray Burns, who refuses to get a job – but must, to keep his nephew, Nick (Gordon) from falling through the cracks of the child welfare system – and, Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), who genuinely feels Murray’s pain, and, offers him love in exchange…but with a certain built-in level of expectation. Much of the cast, including Robards, Gene Saks (who played Leo Herman, a.k.a. Chuckles the chipmunk, the reviled Saturday morning host of a kiddie program and Murray’s ex-employer), Gordon and Daniels, were directly imported from the Broadway show, ostensibly to lend the picture its cache and expertise, with only Sandy Dennis and Larry Haines overlooked to reprise their roles as Dr. Markowitz and Arnold Burns respectively. And while New York actor, Martin Balsam effectively fills Arnold’s shoes in the movie – winning the Best Supporting Actor’s Oscar for his efforts – Barbara Harris, another seasoned Broadway star, soon to appear more readily in the movies – founders as the feather-weight psychologist.
Viewed today, Saks performance grates on the acoustic nerve, while Gordon’s remains the most appealingly abstemious – Gordon, decidedly a middle-aged sage trapped in a teenager’s body, his uncanny delivery of this intellectually scripted ‘out of the mouths of babes’ logic, effectively to derail Murray’s self-destructive flights into fancy. A Thousand Clowns’ Broadway premiere at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 4, 1962 was met with enthusiasm by both audiences and critics. It ran for 468 performances. Indeed, on the stage there was something quite appallingly distinct and heartrending about Murray Burn’s declaration that, in a few minutes, Nick would witness the most colossal tragedy ever to befall mankind: its daily submission to the grind of going to work, mostly in meaningless and soul-sucking careers, designed to keep us ‘honest’, but prematurely aged and, ostensibly, stripped of our life’s passions, being starved to eventual deterioration, and, emotional desecration. From a purely altruistic perspective, Murray Burns’ heart is in the right place, declaring his aspirations for Nick as an adult, inculcating the child with good, clear-eyed honesty. “I just want him to stay with me until I can be sure he won't turn into Norman Nothing,” Murray tells Sandra, “I want to be sure he'll know when he's chickening out on himself…to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won't notice it when it starts to go… to stay awake and know who the phonies are…to know how to holler and put up an argument… to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities…and I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”
Throughout, A Thousand Clowns is imbued with such affecting soliloquies about the dying condition in humanity’s spark of interest for its own self-preservation; hard-hitting reminders that life itself should always remain an experience, more heavily influenced on matters of personal reflection and taste than the rudimentary series of tasks imposed on us by ‘the system’. These have taken over with thought-numbing precision to become the ‘new norm’ and swamp each day with vacant odes to the hypocrisy of mere existence, without actually being allowed to live. One of the most solemn exchanges, a confrontation between brothers, Murray and Arnold, comes too late in the picture to make much of a difference, though, excised, and, on its own merits, it serves as an epoch-inducing indictment of how potent the stagecraft must have been; Arnold, accusing Murray of being ‘George God’ to whom all peons, already disregarded by Murray as untouchable minions in full support of their own ever-lasting detriment, must first audition to be judged and classified by him as human beings. It is a scene played with exquisite panache by Balsam in particular, and likely the reason he won the Academy Award. “Murray, I finally figured out your problem,” Arnold explains, “There is only one thing that really bothers you – people!” When challenged by Murray to take his stand, as at ‘thirty-thousand a year’ (a king’s ransom in 1965’s dollars) Arnold can certainly afford it, Arnold lays down the law. “Oh, I get it…if I’m so smart why am I not poor. Well, you better get a damn good act of your own, buddy, before you start giving mine the raspberry.”
The argument then shifts to the art of practicality – a means to subsist in a culture that presents man’s life cycle as one on-going ‘dental appointment’ in which, occasionally, something exciting ‘like waiting or falling asleep’ happens to make the insufferable hours pass. Accusing Arnold of having adopted ‘that wide stare people put in their eyes so no one will know that their heads are asleep’, Murray offers the most devastating assessment of life as, unfortunately, we have all come to know it – numbed by the passivity of falling into line with the status quo, “with an empty head…arms folded, not feeling great, not feeling rotten, just not feeling. And for a minute I couldn't remember…whether it was a Tuesday or a Thursday,” Murray admits, “I gotta know what day it is. I gotta know what's the name of the game and what the rules are without anyone else telling me. You gotta own your own days and name 'em, each one of 'em, every one of 'em, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you. And that ain't just for weekends, kiddo.” And while Murray appears to be getting through to his brother, it is really Arnold who lowers the most devastating boom, suggesting Murray still wants to be ‘the hero’ in a world where heroics are rare and more distinctly cheapened by the rank publicity to follow their selfless act. “I’m willing to live with the available world,” Arnold reasons, “I’m not an exceptional man so it’s possible for me to live with things as they are. I’m lucky. I’m gifted. I have a talent for surrender. I’m at peace. But you? You’re cursed and I like you. And it makes me sad. You don’t have the gift and I can see the torture of it.”
Truly, this is the most solemn and thought-provoking moment in A Thousand Clowns, almost immediately to be followed by Murray’s acquiescence to what he previously perceived as man’s majestic failing – an acceptance of things as they are, rather than to withstanding the onslaught of mediocrity with his own particular brand of self-reliance. Surely this is to breed, if not happiness, then at least one original human thought to be added to the ages for posterity, hopefully to stir in others who hunger for the wellspring in our otherwise intellectually parched wasteland of ‘follow the leader’. Regrettably, this forcefully felt, and even more intensely played moment is preceded by nearly 2-hrs. of heavy-handed hypothesizing on the human condition. Rather loosely, director, Coe frames Murray’s struggles to keep tight to Nick’s welfare and upbringing. He also intermittently derails to cutaways and montages of Murray’s burgeoning affections for Sandra. Finally, we get clumsily hammered by a truncated first act, needlessly to introduce us to the character of social worker, and Sandra’s fiancée, Albert Amundson (William Daniels), only to jettison his influence by poking holes in his models of efficiency, thus making ‘the other side’s’ argument appear superficial and silly by comparison. This is a miscalculation because it diffuses the overall impact of the piece. Jason Robards gives a very fine and subtly nuanced performance, as does Martin Balsam, as his morally indignant brother. And Barry Gordon damn near steals the show – certainly, every scene in which he appears as the forthright/pint-sized prognosticator of Murray’s future – the man he most sincerely admires, yet quietly fears is gradually turning into a bum.
But the picture waffles, somehow losing the trajectory of both its potency and poignancy with each monologue becoming just one more of the same – at best – and a lot of heavy-handed harping on a one-note premise at its worst. Two-hours plus of pseudo-avant garde existentialism on the stage can be a riveting experience, held together with mesmerizing illustrations conjured in the audiences’ mind by a skilled actor, holding his own with only a single spotlight to command our attention. On celluloid, however, the exercise demands something more – something different – if not altogether better, to get these same points across without appearing to beat the audience over the head with its educational silly stick. Sadly, Coe’s direction never rises to this occasion. What we are left with is a semi-literal translation of the stagecraft, encapsulated in the vacuum of its own artistic integrity, irreverently steadfast to ‘the show’ while offering virtually nothing to re-freshen its message. I really wanted to like A Thousand Clowns because its ‘memorandum on life’ so incredibly speaks to my own ideals and long-brewing thoughts about what life is, and, what it might be if only more had the courage to speak up, collectively to be heard, as opposed to herded into the milieu, like the sheep most of us – yours truly included – shamelessly are, settled in with principles sacrificed, scruples bartered away, and, the passion for living, distilled as mere existence – barely to fill the waking hours with menial distractions to bar us from ever even aspiring to that ever-lasting contentment, otherwise ours for the asking here on earth.
A Thousand Clowns arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber’s alliance with MGM/Fox, the current custodians of this independently produced picture. The results are more than adequate, if slightly underwhelming. Much of the image supports a relatively crisp quality, free of age-related artifacts, allowing the gritty realism in Arthur Ornitz’s cinematography to shine through. Film grain is present, but is slightly clumpy rather than indigenous to its source. While close-ups reveal a startling amount of razor-sharp clarity, long shots occasionally devolve into a soft and slightly out of focus texturing that makes fine detail virtually vanish and background information, unintentionally blurry. The gray scale offers good solid tonality throughout, and shadow delineation is mostly satisfying, with no black crush. The 1.0 DTS audio is problematic. While dialogue sounds natural enough within the limitations of mono recording, the music cues are exceptionally strident and very grating on the ear. I found myself toggling down the sound just to wade through these explosive moments of underscore and other non-diegetic music as they screeched and scraped like fingernails across a chalkboard. Extras are limited to an interview with Barry Gordon who, in just under 15-mins. manages to offer some astute observations about his participation in both the play and movie while spending the bulk of his interview expounding on his varied experiences elsewhere in the entertainment profession. Bottom line: A Thousand Clowns, while offering a very important nonconformist view about the sanctity of human life, and how we humans have managed to bungle it all out of proportion, is a little too preachy to be considered a populist entertainment. It could have been better. It should have been better. Ditto for the Blu-ray. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)