A Thousand Clowns (MGM LE Collection) Review

A Thousand Clowns was a successful, Tony-nominated play on Broadway prior to becoming a successful, Oscar-nominated film and there are times when the screen version shows its roots a bit too much. The acting by, really the whole cast but especially, Jason Robards is the most compelling reason to forgive these stage origins. He plays an interesting character named Murray Burns. Murray quit his job five months ago as a writer for a children's television program. Another person in the film, a child welfare worker (William Daniels), calls Murray maladjusted. Alternative descriptions might include alienated, disenchanted, even divorced from reality. His stance against being a part of the rat race could also be described as heroic by the right persons. Others might simply see him as a bum. This need not be a significant problem except that Murray also looks after his 12-year-old nephew (Barry Gordon), who has no set name but is currently calling himself Nick. The child welfare people, also including a psychologist (Barbara Harris) fresh out of graduate school, need some assurance that Murray is providing a stable environment for young Nick or he will be removed.

The scene where Daniels and Harris' characters visit Murray's apartment is easily the most theatrical in the film, though it's also a quite long one. It comes early on and, even if you don't know what happens next, it's somewhat easy to guess how things will go based on the previous introduction of Murray and Nick. Harris is particularly good here, as she is throughout the film. Her character is the most obviously removed from the expectations of reality but she pulls it off nicely with a mixture of innocence and idealism. She wants to do what her job ideally calls for rather than what it actually does, a common complaint among those newly entering the workforce and disappointed by the discrepancy between what they learned and what they must do. Though the film is from 1965, and very much attached to its time period and setting, the themes of A Thousand Clowns, of the compromises necessary in adulthood, ring as loudly or even louder now as they would have back then.

The difficulty must have been in regaling an audience to spend time, and ultimately sympathize, with Robards' character. Not just any actor could make a middle-aged man with no job and little apparent desire to get a job be a viable protagonist. I personally enjoy layabouts so perhaps I'm an easy sell, but the key, and Robards does it here, seems to be to convey a disenchantment with society, either in part or in whole, and to also establish a reasonable degree of common sense in the character, so that he doesn't come across as simply a bum. Class issues unavoidably rear their ugly heads in any such consideration since rich people generally can get away with being degenerate loafers while less financially secure ones are instead pelted with verbal tomatoes and contempt. Though Murray is neither living it up nor scouring dumpsters, he'd probably be viewed more in the direction of the lower end of the class spectrum.

There are two characters in film who come to mind that sort of share Murray's philosophy, though in much different ways. One is Tyrone Power in The Razor's Edge, who has some of the most remarkable lines (taken from W. Somerset Maugham's novel, I'm sure) to be found in a Hollywood film during the 1940s. This character is far more ambitious than Murray but the resolve to be different and achieve a form of personal success rather than adhere to society's idea of it is similar. Another take on this type would be Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. He drowns his dissatisfactions in alcohol and carries along a pooka, a large invisible rabbit, as his best friend. Dowd's justification comes at one point in the film when he says that he's "struggled with reality for 25 years" and happy to have now won out over it. While these two men do not have to make do in a one bedroom apartment in New York City, they do, rather bravely, face several parts of society's perceived wisdom head-on and reject it nicely, as Murray tries to do.

The struggle that Murray faces, and the reality that cannot help but weasel its way in, becomes the most intriguing theme of A Thousand Clowns. He's initially cavalier about Nick being removed. His brother and agent (Oscar winner Martin Balsam) tries to talk some sense into Murray during one key scene but the conflict between being true to one's self and being practical enough to avoid catastrophe persists. The film, which was directed by Fred Coe and adapted by Herb Gardner from his play, eases Murray into the transition of accepting responsibility for being the boy's caretaker but it doesn't do so painlessly. The show Murray had worked for, starring a performer who bills himself as Chuckles the Chipmunk (Gene Saks, future director of films like The Odd Couple and married, at the time, to Bea Arthur), is set up, correctly it seems, as a point of ridicule. This makes Murray's eventual decision about whether he should return a bit more difficult, and the scene where Saks as Chuckles/Leo visits Murray is, in so many ways, the spine of all of Murray's discontent. It's done very well and gives the film a touch of pathos amid the often hectic comedy.


The Disc

How a Best Picture nominee became a burned DVD-R in R1 is beyond me but here we have just that with the digital debut of A Thousand Clowns. The MGM Limited Edition Collection release is single-layered.

The image quality is mediocre, at best. The picture begins in 1.33:1 but soon enough goes to 1.66:1 after the opening titles (only to revert back to fullscreen for the closing credits). The black and white image is consistent, with damage mostly limited to the first reel. A vertical scratch or two can be seen later on. Contrast and detail are particularly imperfect. Black levels fail to impress and the lack of sharp, defined images is somewhat disappointing. All very watchable but tough to justify the price tag.

English mono audio avoids any hiss or crackle. The two-channel track nonetheless reaches the bare minimum of expectations by presenting little more than acceptable measures of dialogue. It's flat and dull. The very early sections of the movie, shot on location throughout New York City, seem to have been dubbed. No subtitles have been included.

A trailer (3:00) tries to sell what is a tough movie to pigeonhole in such a short amount of time.


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