A Thousand Clowns (1965)


(director: Fred Coe; screenwriter: based on the play by Herb Gardner/Herb Gardner; cinematographer: Arthur J. Ornitz; editor: Ralph Rosenblum; music: Gerry Mulligan/Don Walker; cast: Jason Robards (Murray Burns), Barbara Harris (Sandra Markowitz), Barry Gordon (Nick), Martin Balsam (Arnold Burns), Gene Saks (Leo ‘Chuckles the Chipmunk’ Herman), William Daniels (Albert Amundson); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Fred Coe; United Artists; 1965)

“Patchy nonconformist comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Fred Coe (“Me, Natalie”) nearly completely destroys this topical urban comedy with his mechanical direction; it’s given some new life in the cutting room by editor Ralph Rosenblum, but not enough to save it from its smugness, flat visuals and staginess. The patchy nonconformist comedy is based on the Broadway play by Herb Gardner, that also starred Jason Robards.

The carefree comical Manhattanite Murray Burns (Jason Robards) quit his job five months ago as head writer on the children’s TV show Chuckles the Chipmunk and has been unemployed since, choosing not to enter the rat race again. The bachelor Murray, who for the last seven years has been caring for his sister’s born out of wedlock brainy twelve year old son Nick (Barry Gordon), whom he has never legally adopted after the child was dumped on his doorsteps, has bonded with the kid in a warm way. Nick attends a special school for the gifted, and his curiosity is encouraged by his lively uncle.

Not answering letters sent by the New York City Child Welfare Board prompts a home visit one day from the officious social worker case team of the psychologist Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris) and senior case worker Albert Amundson (William Daniels). The team has a differing opinion on Murray as a caretaker–Albert takes a negative view of Murray as a parent and walks out in disgust when Sandy disagrees and continues the visit alone. It culminates in Sandy and Murray falling in love, and Albert getting Murray declared an unfit parent. Murray, under the urging of Nick, asks his responsible brother Arnold (Martin Balsam), a theater agent, for a job. When Murray can’t get work, he decides to swallow his pride to see his former boss, Leo (Gene Saks), who plays Chuckles the Chipmunk. Leo is patronizing to Murray and treats Nick with contempt, but Murray still takes the job in order to keep Nick. The kid feels rotten that his lovable uncle compromised his principles and urges him not to take the job. It ends on the defeatist note of Murray joining the work force and rushing off to work with the crowds of people he recently mocked. The film’s message is that compromise is sometimes necessary on the way to maturity. At least, Robard’s exuberant performance helps keep the flavor of the play intact.