Directed By: Fred Coe
Written By: Herb Gardner (Based on his own play)
Starring: Jason Robards, Bary Gordon, Martin Balsam, Barbara Harris
The very beginning of A Thousand Clowns offers a brilliant encapsulation of the tonal complexity of the film. A box kite hangs hopefully in the air accompanied only by the haunting, melancholic voice of Rita Gardner. The sombreness is soon shattered by a military-like, march inspiring outburst of percussion and horns echoing Stars and Stripes Forever as our protagonist Murray watches a parade of indiscernible, pitiful working stiffs pile in the streets, in his eyes no closer to humans in their conformity than they are chairs.
Herb Gardner adapts his own stage play from three years prior and Fred Coe directs this story of a quirky, sharp-tongued, ex-T.V writer Murray (only a tourist in reality) who in his recent unemployment has Child Welfare threaten to remove his nephew Nick from his custody, whom he’s been caring for. Faced with this, becoming a drop in the murky puddle of working stiff America looks like an unpleasant reality for Murray if he’s to keep Nick, and so begins his wrestle between spiritual freedom and the compromise demanded by the working world.
Jason Robards as Murray and Barry Gordon as Nick both reprise their roles from the play and both are awesome as they brim with affection for one another but remain brutally honest, uniquely quirky and laugh-out-loud funny throughout the film. But the great character work doesn’t stop there. Gardner has crafted a menagerie of fascinating characters for the cast to sink their teeth into and everyone is up for the challenge. Barbara Harris as the oxymoronic psychologist, vulnerable and seemingly weak-minded, Martin Balsam as Murray’s brother, also affectionate but a brutal realist, and Gene Saks as the desperate, insecure former employer of our hero.
The writing in this film might be the MVP if you had to pick one. The dialogue is hilarious, eminently quotable and resounding. Gardner has brought together a plethora of fascinating characters and infused them with thought-provoking discussions of conformity, what it means to be alive, and the conflict of being free-spirited and having obligations. And admittedly, whilst all these ideas sound like a disposition to pretentiousness, the film resists temptation thanks to the affectionate and humane central performances and the witty direction. Coe is sure to never have a heavy-hand in presenting all these ideas, which he does with such a unique humour, originality and deftness that they are never jammed down your throat but you can feel their heft. Coe uses an intelligent marriage of editing and music to create both witty juxtaposition and a map to the personality of Murray. We get shots of Murray bustling through the streets with hopefulness and hot jazz blaring, spliced with hushed scenes of only the diegetic dialogue, as though Murray’s happy-go-lucky free spirit is quashed by the suddenness of reality. We get snappy cuts of indulgence on the part of the conformists that Murray pities so vehemently, going about their day-to-day lives with the Hallelujah Chorus sardonically blasting, and we get longer takes with gentle ukulele as Murray indulges his free spirit. We are taken beautifully into Murray’s head and his wrestling with reality and the effects of those around him are quirkily yet poignantly noted. We can see the ideas that forge the film take shape within our hero. We can see what needs to be done, rather than just be told, and when this is coupled with some captivating Paddy Chayefysky-like monologues the film is sure to resist that dreaded heavy handed pretentiousness, its dramatic reach never exceeding its grasp.
A Thousand Clowns has such life. Clever in every way, packed with intricate personas and witty dialogue, each character is given appropriate life by the performers and the moments are given great depth by the director. It’s loaded with intriguing and worthwhile ideology and all these ideas are presented in a way which deftly blends humour and drama in a way so original you’ll happily stand to attention. Just like Murray himself, it is impossible not to be enamoured with the personality of this film, even if it is straddling the tightrope of pretentiousness and lunacy.