July 20, 2020
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Barry Gordon, Martin Balsam, William Daniels.
If there can be such a thing as a pro-hippie dropout movie geared for white guys, it has to be 1965’s A Thousand Clowns, which in its own ragged way, almost by accident, also nearly comes off as “European” in its approach to 1960s cinema.
In the movie that sealed my lifelong fandom, Jason Robards re-creates his stage role as a purposely unemployed writer for Chuckles the Chipmunk, a nutcase upset that he’s getting blank stares instead of the “62% outright prolonged laughter” that the agency has predicted. He lives in a New York studio apartment so cluttered with bizarre knickknacks from second-hand stores that have stroked his fancy over the years that his 12-year-old nephew (Barry Gordon) generally enters by fire-escape window. The son of Robards’ long vanished sister, they have been together seven years. One day, the kid writes an essay celebrating unemployment insurance, which becomes enough of a red flag to attract a hopelessly starchy rep of the child welfare board (William Daniels) and his far more empathetic subordinate (Barbara Harris).
Unless Robards (as Murray Burns) can go back to Chuckles, or anywhere else gainfully employing pronto, he will lose his nephew — limited time he uses to instead romance Harris in a series of around-the-city set pieces on two-seater bikes and the like that recall the time a friend of mine once asked: “Was this movie directed (Fred Coe is credited) or patched?” It may well have been because I see the editor was Ralph Rosenblum, though I can’t recall if this is one of his salvation jobs chronicled in a book that’s became an instant film-editing staple: When the Shooting Stopped. In its own weird way, the film is both structurally haphazard but also, somehow, unexpectedly offbeat-fresh in then conventional ways.
Working its way into all this is Martin Balsam’s supporting Oscar-winning performance as Robards’ more responsible, nose-to-the-grindstone brother — one of those turns based on relatively few scenes and is thus a debatable choice, though certainly he is fine, no question. Much more eye-opening to me at the time were my first screen exposures to both Daniels and Harris, who at the time was knocking them dead on Broadway with On a Clear Day You Can See Forever — still, imo, the greatest score ever attached to a lousy book. (It was still true of the 1970 Streisand-Minnelli film version, too.) In its own way, Harris’s character is as eccentric as Robards’; they are not your everyday matchup.
Gordon, who’d already enjoyed a varied childhood career — for just one thing, he’d scored a huge December 1955 hit with the novelty tune “I’m Gettin Nuttin for Christmas” — is also more than memorable as a) one who tries to be a disciplinary figure; and b) yet also idolizes his uncle and wants to stay with him. Unrecognizable, Gordon is on the main bonus extra here covering the basics of his career and offering opinions on how the movie evolved into an offbeat mess, though in nothing like such brutal terminology.
Some of Robards’ cruel barbs toward Daniels (Dustin Hoffman’s future screen father in The Graduate) are puerile or juvenile. But others to this open target — as well as all the Chuckles material and his routines with Gordon — are on-the-floor funny, which is why the picture struck a nerve with college arthouse audiences at the time for whom The Maltese Bippie just didn’t cut it. I know a lot of people who get a panoramic grin on their faces over Clown’s mere mention and know of one person (former boyfriend of a favorite editor) who rates it as his favorite movie of all time.
Here’s another Kino Classics release in which that ever-resourceful company has chosen to pluck another cult item that never even got a VHS release and (pretty sure) was only issued on an on-demand DVD. It should also be noted that Coe, Herb Gardner’s script (adapted from his own stage version) and the score all got nominations as well. But not Robards when I was certain he had.