A Thousand Clowns is now open for discussion

Our October 2007 film selection, A Thousand Clowns, is now open for discussion. Members who would like to Post an Official Commentary about this film are welcome to do so (Contact Ron or Roger if you would like to have posting privileges to this blogsite). Anyone, member or not, can place brief comments here by simply clicking on the comments button.


2 thoughts on “A Thousand Clowns is now open for discussion



    Murray Burns liked to holler –as did Jason Robards, who could bray and bellow with the best of them; like Burton and O’Toole. When Robards yelled at empty streets, shaded stoops and windows, and an indifferent sky midst the metropolis, we could hear a uniquely American timbre. He was used to emoting those magnificently tragic lines from his Broadway roles in Eugene O’Neills THE ICEMAN COMETH, MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, and LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. Robards was an original, who could lace his deep voice with pain, anger, and anguish as well as devilishness, sarcasm, and joy in equal measure. On top of being one of this country’s best dramatic actors, the man could do comedy. As Murray Burns he played the true non-conformist, a recent drop-out from the “rat race” –long before Timothy Leary urged most of us to do so.

    Jason Robards, who died in 2000, had appeared in 122 films since 1954, including filmed versions of all his Eugene O’Neill plum roles –although it is unforgivable that when they remade THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973), Director John Frankenheimer cast Lee Marvin as “Hickey”. Marvin got lost in the turgid rapid-fire O’Neill 1930’s dialogue. Jason Robards had become a star in 1956 when he played Hickey in a Broadway revival. For purists, there is a DVD of a 1960 kinescope of THE ICEMAN COMETH that starred Robards. Robert Redford played the kid in the piece; later played in the film by Jeff Bridges. Another lost and magnificent performance of Robards was playing Henry Drummond on TV in INHERIT THE WIND (1988), working opposite Kirk Douglas as Matthew Harrison Brady. Douglas was a bit brittle as Brady, but Robards had Drummond down cold. INHERIT THE WIND has a colorful history of being filmed, starting with Stanley Kramer’s 1960 film, with Spencer Tracy as Drummond sparing with Fredric March as Brady. There was a 1965 television version with Melvyn Douglas as Drummond, and Ed Begley as Brady. Many recalled the Showtime TV version in 1988 with Jack Lemmon as Drummond and George C. Scott as Brady. In my estimation, Jason Robards gave Spencer Tracy a run for his rubles; and that is saying something.

    One day on the subway, while on his way to work as a script-writer for kiddy show host, “Chuckles the Chipmunk” –suddenly Murray could not remember what day it was, finding himself leaden-eyed and dead from the neck up. He promptly quit his job, and actively “owned each day” since then. He became a collector of useless knick-knacks, eagle symbols and statues (“A man never can own too many eagles”) , a kite flyer, a cyclist, an unpaid tourist guide and recreation director for the masses, and a creator of holidays that no one else has ever heard of (Irving Feldman’s Birthday) –a luxuriant loafer, a malcontent, wholly miscreant and yet still a philosopher –a boorish clown who would brook no insult from anyone, standing tall and ready to “tell off” the minions of morons, and the gaggle of bosses, constabulary, and ingrates that peopled NYC.

    This extended period of unemployment began to baffle Nick, the live-in nephew who had been “dropped off” by his mother seven years earlier. Nick was very intelligent, a student enrolled in a school for the gifted, whose administrators had begun to realize that his “home environment was unorthodox”. The school dispatched a duo of social workers from CPS to ferret out the truth. They found Nick and Murray living in a messy one-room bachelor apartment. They found Murray unrepentant and more ready to crack wise than to fully comprehend or appreciate the trouble he was in, and they found his present state of unemployment “unacceptable”. Somehow in the midst of the interview, Murray charmed the young female psychologist, Sandra, who quit her job and decided to try and help the pair.

    The Broadway play by Herb Gardner, a modest success in 1963, was adapted for the screen by Gardner, and the dialogue remained essentially intact. Gardner was also a producer, a director, and a sometimes actor. He had the distinction of playing Rabbi Pierce in one of the oddest and worst movies ever, Elaine May’s ISHTAR (1987), with lest we forget Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. He won a Tony for his play I’M NOT RAPPAPORT in 1986. He made it into a fine, but seldom seen film in 1996, starring Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis. He also wrote the play, and adapted the screenplay for WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN…. (1971).

    Fred Coe, who had directed the play, took over as producer and director of this film. He added several outdoor scenes to add texture and flavor to the urban story, but his strange choice of military marching music and 1920’s ballads diminished the effectiveness of his “opening up” of the tale. Coe was mostly active as a director and producer in television from 1946-1954. He did a lot of theater, and he did direct Patty Duke in ME, NATALIE (1969).

    Barry Gordon, who had been in the play with Robards, reprised his role as Nick; leaving intact his intelligence and sensitivity, his adolescent wisdom and charm. Gordon was a child actor who landed the Broadway role when he was only 14. He was 17 playing 13 for the film. He has appeared in 82 films since 1956, about 98% of them television roles. He is still working today, and he was the President of SAG from 1988-1995.

    Gene Saks, a tick-ridden comedic actor also reprised his role from Broadway, playing Leo Herman –our man in chipmunk’s ears. His twitchy rapid-fire delivery brought to mind both burlesque and Gene Wilder. A real stage, TV, and film veteran, he did dozens of TV roles from 1951-1963, when he was in A THOUSAND CLOWNS on Broadway. He was married to Beatrice Arthur. He has appeared in cameos in 11 films from 1965 to 1998, many of them Neil Simon adaptations. Actually he is better known as a director in both stage and film. He had more than a two decade association with Neil Simon on Broadway and in films, directing four of the film adaptations and several of the Broadway plays, directing films like BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967), THE ODD COUPLE (1969), LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS (1972) both the Broadway play and the film of MAME (1974), and the film of BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS (1986).

    A young Barbara Harris played Sandra, filling in for Sandy Dennis who had done the play. Her perkiness punctuated by constant weeping and vacuous vulnerability was quite a challenge –and she was more than up for it. An excellent actress, she appeared in only 29 films between the years 1961-1988. She has had a great career in live theater, doing Broadway and regional theater. She was in WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN…(1971), and played Albuquerque in Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE (1975). She was very funny with George C. Scott in MOVIE, MOVIE (1978). She was very memorable as Alan Alda’s wife in THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN (1979), with Meryl Streep. I remember her as well working with John Cusack and Minnie Driver in GROSSE POINT BLANK (1997).

    Martin Balsam played Arnold, Murray’s brother and business agent –earning a much deserved Oscar for his supporting role. His “I have a gift for surrender.” Speech was inspired. This tremendously fine character actor has appeared in 168 films since 1949. Who can forget him in films like PSYCHO (1960), HOMBRE (1967), and CATCH—22 (1970)?

    Like countless Neil Simon plays that have been adapted for the screen, A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965), never really lost its “stagy” quality –and yet for most of us, to watch a good comedic play is always a treat, worth its weight in pastrami sandwiches. This film is clever, never pedantic, heart-warming, humorous yet not quite hilarious, and joyful. It was a welcome departure for Robards, who had specialized in tragic roles. His Murray was a man who came face to face with love and reality, who discovered that his feeling for others had to transcend his own depression and selfishness –that somehow he needed to suck it up and take a distasteful job for a man he did not respect to salve the wrong, the problems that had occurred secondary to his non-conformity, his one-man assault on the system –that his actions had cost those he loved much too high a price. Let’s hear a thousand cheers for Murray, and welcome to our world.

    Glenn Buttkus 2007

  2. So Murray decides to “suck it up” and return to an unfulfilling job for altruistic reasons. Admirable, on a surface level.

    The question the movie leaves unanswered (though a soul-crushing answer seems to be loudly hinted at) is whether Murray is able, thereafter, to remain a non-conformist in the real sense – inwardly/spiritually.

    In the final scene of the movie we see Murray, as was his idiosyncratic habit, loudly and publicly chiding the anonymous denizens of his New York City neighbourhood for their conformist ways, the “dead” lives they live. But, in the midst of his gentle rant, he is suddenly stopped cold by the realization that he “has nothing more to say” to them. And this because he has become one of them – a conformist, both on the outside and the inside?

    We last see Murray, respectable business suit and briefcase in hand, hurrying to work down the busy street – blending in with the faceless, lifeless masses of the City.

    Murray, I pray that you managed to keep your “Self”.

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