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Thousand Clowns, A (DVD Review)

2 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, Barry Gordon.

Stagebound and patched together with the cinematic equivalent of chewing gum, the low-budget screen version of Herb Gardner’s play breaks most of the rules for constituting a movie that grabbed me from the duration, but sometimes a single performance can be infatuating. However, the performance in question is not Oscared Martin Balsam’s — which gets remarkably little screen time — but Jason Robards’ re-creation of his role from the stage original: as TV kids’-show writer Murray Burns.

Well, ex-kids’-show writer, anyway. In a story that goes against the grain of just about every U.S. social attitude since hippie-dom faded away (especially in this economy), Murray will do anything but get up, put on a suit and pound the cement (with briefcase) on the way to work. Or to put it another way, the movie examines the Manhattan sub-culture that apparently existed while the cast of “Mad Men” was doing its ‘60s Rat Race number — with the Murray’s of the world apparently not doing much of anything. In fact, I’ve often wondered if Clowns had anything to do with fostering the later ‘60s hippie mindset — though the picture’s grosses (notwithstanding its best picture Oscar nomination) probably weren’t hefty enough to shake up cultural attitudes. That said, it seems to me as if almost every guy friend of mine at the time saw this movie three or four times theatrically.

Simultaneously semi-bohemian and show biz savvy, Murray has spent most of his life raising his sister’s out-of-wedlock son (Barry Gordon), who has finally elected to call himself “Nick” after considering alternatives like Raphael Sabatini and Dr. Morris Fishbein. Now 12, Nick is precocious enough to do a killer imitation of Peter Lorre in Casablanca (“Reeek, Reeek,” he screams as if Bogart’s heroically noble Rick Blaine were in Uncle Murray’s flat). But keen mimicry skills aren’t enough to impress New York City’s Child Welfare Board, which sends a couple representatives to assess the situation. One (William Daniels) is a noodge — though judging by one scene later in the film, at least seems to know it. The other (Barbara Harris) falls for Murray.

If it wasn’t really necessary for me to be working for a TV kids’ show host at the time to appreciate Robards’ performance, the fact that I did throughout late high school and college obviously didn’t hurt. But whereas my own local TV station host was an irreverent prince of a fellow beloved by all, Murray has the misfortune to be employed by “Chuckles the Chipmunk” (Gene Saks), a sociopath or close. Chuckles hates children (Nick included) and can’t understand why these little shlumps in the studio audience are sitting on their hands at his studio patter. Especially given that the ad agency took a reading and predicted “62% outright prolonged laughter.”

Clowns marked the first time I ever saw Robards (then still billed as Jason Robards, Jr.) on screen, and it was love at first sight — so expert was he (always) at reading sardonic dialogue that took a machete to all pretense. This said, there was something even then about the character that rang falsely; in the end, society is unforgiving if you don’t at least try to contribute something. This is probably why Murray’s older agent/brother (Balsam) is given a big speech in which he explains why he’s motivated to be the best Arnold Burns he can be. Even so, I’m still amazed that Balsam (a fine actor) got the year’s supporting actor award. This must rank with Beatrice Straight (Network) and Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful) as one of the most abbreviated performances ever to win an Oscar.

There’s also a sweet performance by Harris — who, despite her stage successes, never really caught on in terms of the big screen (despite her forgotten Oscar nomination for the equally forgotten Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? — also written by Gardner). But even at the time young Gordon had a little currency with savvy Boomer moviegoers. A decade earlier, he’d appeared as a newsboy in Frank Tashlin’s rock-‘n’-roll royalty The Girl Can’t Help It (or, as a friend of mine put it, the only movie where you can see Little Richard photographed by Leon Shamroy). And Gordon had scored a No. 6 chart buster with "Nuttin’ for Christmas in ’55," almost stealing some Billboard pop thunder from “Sixteen Tons” and “Memories Are Made of This.”

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