For decades before, it was a breeding ground for future film projects. Today, not so much. Back then, the Great White Way and its various collections of plays, revues, and musicals would be fodder for any number of studio adaptations and bidding wars. In 2011, those product pickings are much, much slimmer (or sought after, for that matter). In fact, things have been trending backwards, many major Hollywood productions finding their way back to Broad via all new song and dance redefinitions. The straight drama or comedy, however, rarely finds its roots beyond the cinematic flavor of the moment. Maybe that's why A Thousand Clowns feels so antiquated...and so fresh...and so odd...and so inviting. On the one hand, it's a standard stage to screen transformation of Herb Gardner's 1962 hit. It offers fantastic performances, smart and sassy dialogue, and the kind of critical social and human commentary that only theater seems to thrive on. On the other hand, it's also a stagey, talky, slightly off kilter experience that makes one question the work's beloved nature and the sanity of Oscar voters (more on this in a moment).
Murray Burns (Jason Robards) is an unemployed television writer. His last job was for the godawful kiddie host Chuckles the Chipmunk, aka the depressive Leo Herman (Gene Saks). Far more content to spend his days idling around Manhattan, he also enjoys spending time with his precocious nephew Nick (Barry Gordon). Abandoned by Murray's sister when he was just a baby, the boy loves his unusual and eccentric relative. One day, New York City Child Services show up in the guise of the bureaucratic Albert Amundson (William Daniels) and his partner/girlfriend/recent graduate Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris). Unless Murray can illustrate a sense of responsibility - and more importantly, once again become gainfully employed - the now 12 year old Nick will be placed in foster care. With the help of his talent agent brother Arnold (Martin Balsam), our hero plans to pound the pavement to prove his worth. Changing his carefree and non-conformist nature? That's another challenge all together.
There is something supremely satisfying about watching a well written and realized work. As the ideas bounce around on carefully constructed sentences and scenes, as perfectly in sync actors make the verbal volleys come to life, you can't imagine anything better. It's everything any medium should be. There is also something supremely frustrating about the experience as well. Real life is not "scripted." It doesn't come with pithy one liners, accurate single paragraph pronouncements, or participants in perfect control of their 'character.' Thus we have the main dilemma in A Thousand Clowns. Herb Gardner may not be Neil Simon, but he does write a damn fine dramatic comedy. He has the nuances and the nuttiness of these early '60s oddballs down pat. He also has a lot of interesting things to say about the human condition. They are wise without losing their wit, warning and warming at the same time. But Gardner is also a writer first. These people talk like - well, as one character says to another at one point - like everything was put on paper down for them before hand. Granted, the words are exciting and electrifying, but too often than not, they feel like pages in a playbook, not actual thoughts.
Another problem with A Thousand Clowns is director Fred Coe. Never heard of him? That's not a big surprise. Getting his start in episodic and omnibus TV during the '50s and '60s, Clowns was only one of two major motion pictures he ever directed (the second being the Patty Duke vehicle Me, Natalie). He was much more famous for his work on Broadway, having won a Tony for The Miracle Worker. He also produced The Trip to Bountiful (onstage), Two for the Seesaw and, later, Wait Until Dark. A Thousand Clowns was his first play as a director, just like it would be his first feature film, and you can tell. Like a kid in a cinematic candy store, Coe wrecks havoc here visually. He either lets scenes play out in long, static takes or edits incongruous material together like he just learned about the Movieola. He stages one important sequence in the incredibly dark and shadowy bowels of an abandoned Chinese restaurant, the entire confrontation between Murray and Arnold looking like a 12 year olds irritating interpretation of film noir. For no reason, loud marching band music will drown out everything while weird close-ups make the actors look lost.
Luckily, they are all excellent - with one exception. Clearly, 1965 was not a good year for supporting performances. Balsam is barely onscreen and yet he walked away with Academy gold. In his one and only nomination, he is a winner - and yet the rest of the cast (Robards, Daniels, and especially young Gordon) got nothing. No nod. No recognition. All are exceptional, really understanding how to sell the incredibly talky tenets here. The true weak link here, however, is Harris. Whether she interpreted the character of mousy Sandra Markowitz as a freaked out proto-flower child or that's just how she decided to play it, she is unnerving and unsympathetic. She comes across as whiny and weak willed, incapable of standing up to almost everything and yet eager and willing to toss her ample education to the side to play Good Housekeeping. Even as the movie sizzles all around her (this is especially true of Saks terrific turn as the typical paranoid TV star, Leo Herman), she's a lox. While it doesn't undermine the magic inherent in A Thousand Clowns, it proves that even the most well written piece can have problems. In this case, the brilliant words can't overcome the ditzy direction.
As part of the MGM Limited Edition DVD on Demand Collection, A Thousand Clowns has its issues. First, the odd decision to include full screen opening credits before turning widescreen seems surreal. Maybe that was how the movie was made, but it looks weird. Secondly, the 1.66:1 image is relatively clean and crisp, but lacks the real contrasts that highlight a great black and white experience. The transfer is more a study in grays that true monochrome.
Whenever the marching band music blares into being, the Dolby Digital Mono mix goes into conniptions. Everything becomes overmodulated and the speakers struggle not to distort. The dialogue also suffers at times, a slave to Coe's complicated desire to offer up loud ambient noise during the outdoor sequences. Instead of opening up the play, the exteriors practically drown it out.
A trailer...that's it.
As one of those shows you always heard about but never got a chance to see, the original A Thousand Clowns argues for its moment in the celebrated sun. It's a fine work, carefully constructed and, for the most part, expertly acted. Had someone other than Fred Coe been put in charge of bringing the project to the big screen, it would probably be a much beloved mini-masterwork. Instead, it an unusual creative curio that still earns a Recommended rating. All qualms about actors and approach aside, this is a fine, fascinating joyride. Nothing beats an excellent Broadway play brought vividly to life on the silver screen. A Thousand Clowns, however, suffers from a couple of clear clunkers.