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Friday, 24 July 2015

A Thousand Clowns (1965)

Occasionally in the past I have written how movies that I have yearned to see for years turned out to be little short of disappointing when I eventually tracked them down. Therefore I am more than pleased to write that the above film, which has eluded me forever (as far as I can trace it has never been shown on television in Britain nor released here on VHS or DVD), is a literate, wondrous, and joyous view. I can not begin to understand why it is so seldom screened.

Written by Herb Gardner from his successful Broadway play, it provides Jason Robards Jr. with one of his very rare leading roles. His very long screen career began with television work in the l950s, moved into screen roles in the early 1960s, and ended with "Magnolia" in 1999. While he was always an intriguing presence, his only other film lead was in the elegiac "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970); but he was always difficult to ignore, from his slimy Nixon-ish president in "Washington Behind Closed Doors" (1977) through a showy host of supporting characters.

Here he is definitely centre-stage as Murray, a free spirit, constantly pursuing life's little pleasures, and disdainful of those poor mortals who rush off to clock into work each morning. For the past seven years he has been nurturing the nephew dumped on him as a five-year old by his feckless sister. Since the child -- a remarkable turn by Barry Gordon who was actually 16 when he played the part -- was born out of wedlock with no patriarchal surname, his mother never bothered to give him a forename. Murray tells him to use whatever name strikes his fancy, as long as he makes a decision by the time he turns thirteen. He has variously called himself Raphael Sabatini and Dr Morris Fishbein; today he calls himself Nick and skives off school to pursue adventures with his uncle.

Enter Social Services on a witch-hunt looking to remove the boy to a more stable environment, threatening to take him away if Murray doesn't clean up his act and find regular employment. These jobsworths are played by prissy William Daniels and his new assistant and fiancĂ©e Barbara Harris, but her Sandy soon succumbs to Murray's quirky charms. She looks around the cluttered one bedroom flat (the kid's 'room' is an alcove) full of miscellaneous bric-a-brac and concludes 'No wonder Nick loves it here, I'd love to live here myself if I was eleven years old'. Daniels is appalled by her unprofessional approach and leaves in a huff; Sandy ends up spending the night.

Thinking she can reform Murray and safeguard Nick's future, she sends Robards off to find work while she tarts up the apartment like something out of Ladies' Home Journal. Murray turns to his more successful and fruit-fetishist brother (played by Martin Balsam) who arranges various interviews for him including one with previous employer Chuckles the Chipmunk (!) -- for whose obnoxious children's television 'personality' he was a scriptwriter --  but Murray ducks out of each interview, not accepting that his relationship with Nick is at stake. Balsam, Sandy, and even Nick are beginning to lose patience with his fecklessness. Although he may be a child, Nick is the more sensible, a 'middle-aged kid' vs. a carefree character who refuses to grow up.

The film's title comes from Sandy's saying that after meeting Murray she hasn't the faintest idea who she really is. He replies that life is like a circus where a small car, big enough for a midget, pulls up and a thousand clowns jump out -- there are infinite possibilities for each of us. However, as likeable as the Murray we first meets seems and as much as we wish he could maintain his irresponsible outlook, by the film's end he (and we) come to accept that sacrifices are part of life's rich pageant. Murray agrees to go back to work for Gene Saks' Chuckles, if only for Nick's sake. He explains, 'I want him to stay with me until I can be sure that he won't turn into Norman Nothing, to know why he was born a human being and not a chair'. In the final scenes Murray joins those 'clowns' dashing off to their morning responsibilities.

An acting Oscar was awarded to this film, but it was given to Martin Balsam; Robards was not even nominated. While Balsam gives a fine performance, as he has always done since we first noticed him tumbling down the stairs in 1960's "Psycho",  his is a relatively small part here with only one short 'moving' speech. Strangely, the movie was also nominated for best picture, with additional nods for its writing and music, but it should have been Robards' day in the sun. It would also have been nice if the Academy had acknowledged the fine black and white cinematography of New York City, where the film was shot on location.
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