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A Thousand Clowns DVD Review

A Thousand Clowns (1965) movie poster A Thousand Clowns

Theatrical Release: December 13, 1965 / Running Time: 118 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Fred Coe / Writer: Herb Gardner (play & screenplay)

Cast: Jason Robards (Murray N. Burns), Barbara Harris (Dr. Sandra Markowitz), Martin Balsam (Arnold Burns), Gene Saks (Leo Herman, a.k.a. Chuckles the Chipmunk), William Daniels (Albert Amundson), Phil Bruns (The Man in the Restaurant), John MacMartin (The Man in the Office), Barry Gordon (Nick Burns/Wilbur Malcome Burns/Theodore Burns/Raphael Sabatini/Dr. Morris Fishbein/Woodrow Burns/Chevrolet Burns/Big Sam Burns/Lefty Burns)

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It's taken fourteen years, but almost every film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in the 1960s has now been released on DVD. The only holdout among the fifty movies that competed for the industry's top prize in that transitional decade is Sons and Lovers, a forgotten filming of a D.H. Lawrence novel. Its final companion in unavailability from that class, A Thousand Clowns, came to DVD last month in MGM's manufactured-on-demand Limited Edition Collection. This black & white 1965 comedy received four Academy Award nominations, losing for Picture, Adapted Score, and Adapted Screenplay, but winning Best Supporting Actor for classic film fixture Martin Balsam (Psycho, 12 Angry Men, and both versions of Cape Fear).

A Thousand Clowns was adapted from the Broadway play of the same name that ran in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre for a year beginning in April 1962. Four leading cast members, playwright Herb Gardner, and producer/director Fred Coe all hail from the original production and perform the same duties for this New York film.

Nick Burns' (Barry Gordon) days in the custody of his carefree, eccentric, kite-flying uncle Murray (Jason Robards) may be numbered in the 1965 film "A Thousand Clowns."

Manhattan's Murray Burns (Jason Robards) is a playful nonconformist. He has been out of work for five months and has no desire to return to the rat race. Murray is content to indulge his eccentricities in the company of his 12-year-old nephew Nick (Barry Gordon), with whom he shares a one-room apartment over an abandoned Chinese restaurant. Murray shudders at the sight of New Yorkers going to work in the morning.
He'd rather live in the moment, "observing" the birthday of a local delicatessen owner he respects with an impulsive visit to the Statue of Liberty.

Threatening this carefree lifestyle is the child welfare board, whose letters and phone calls Murray has been ignoring. On the deli owner's birthday on which the film opens, Murray and Nick are paid a visit by no-nonsense case worker Albert Amundson (William Daniels) and psychologist Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris in her film debut, replacing a Tony-winning Sandy Dennis). Murray puts on no airs to embellish or defend his arrangement, which has seen him caring for the precocious, name-changing boy for the seven years since his unmarried mother, Murray's sister, left him there. Amundson is not amused by the disarray and indiscipline that Murray shrugs off, putting the ukulele-playing joker's guardianship of Nick in jeopardy.

Sandra, meanwhile, is more sympathetic to the situation. Rather than accompanying Albert on their next scheduled house call, she sticks around and decides to clean up Murray's messy pad, which is decorated with the likes of junky street-bought eagle sculptures. She encourages Murray to take action in the few days he has before Nick is to be removed from his custody. It seems Murray must do the inevitable: find employment. He buys a new suit and his brother/agent Arnold (Balsam) sets up a couple of meetings with executives from the television industry where Murray used to make his living as a writer. But challenges remain, most of them self-imposed, for Murray to trade in his comforts and return to the working world.

Murray (Jason Robards) shares the results of his social experiment with Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), the social worker who's taken a quick liking to him. All-business child welfare case worker Albert Amundson (William Daniels, a.k.a. Mr. Feeny) is not amused by the treasured bosom-blinking novelty lamp Nick shows him.

A Thousand Clowns is chockfull of dialogue. A fair amount of it is pithy and thought-provoking, but there are just so many words uttered with so few breaks that one can't help but deem the film verbose. That is not entirely unexpected, since this comes from the stage, where words are the main and nearly only course. Gardner and Coe were probably too close to the play and too accustomed to theatre to translate it to film without any outside help. Gardner had no prior film experience, and aside from producing The Miracle Worker (which he had also followed from stage to screen), Coe had only been behind the camera on television movies and series. Neither the scribe nor the helmer seem entirely comfortable with the pacing and visual demands of feature films. Though just under two hours, the movie feels much longer than that. It doesn't help that the production is bit scrappy and sloppy, with dialogue that doesn't match medium-shot mouth movement, some awkward editing, and one glaringly bungled cut.

Coe does, however, make some decent efforts to cinematize the play, doing things that could never be done on stage. He follows Murray and Sandy on a joyous tandem bicycle ride through the city with wistful dissolves and uses quick insert shots to convey Murray's emotions while looking for work and finding himself among all the other dressed-up pedestrians briskly walking to or from another work day. With mixed but mostly favorable results, the film prominently employs Dixieland arrangements of John Philip Sousa's patriotic "The Stars and Stripes Forever" to enliven, punctuate, and contrast Murray's feelings of detachment. It's sort of gimmicky, but also quite likable.

So too is the film, which though flabby and not terribly funny (typically the fatal flaw of a comedy) still manages to entertain and endear to a great degree. A Thousand Clowns was made at the cusp of change in American cinema, and had it been adapted just a few years later or perhaps by less traditional or less rigid filmmakers, it might have been an extraordinary achievement. As is, it's still pretty good, speaking poignantly of the human condition and captivating with great performances all around.

In his Oscar-winning turn as stable brother/agent Arnold, Martin Balsam appreciates a fresh pineapple and a story about his brother's ways. In front of a cardboard standee of himself, Murray's former boss Leo Herman (Gene Saks) goes into character as Chuckles the Chipmunk to give a preview of tomorrow's show to an unamused Nick.

Of those performances, Balsam's limited turn, which would earn him the only Oscar nomination and win of his 50-year acting career, does not stand head and shoulders above his cast mates. It does hit its marks, making a strong case for the satisfaction of a conventional life. But everyone in the cast is on task, no matter how limited their feature film experience prior to this may have been.
It's kind of surprising that the Academy would recognize the film and not Robards' performance, since it drives so much of it. At age 43, though, Robards was just getting started in film and his more natural work in supporting roles would come to be regularly acknowledged in movies and television of the 1970s and '80s.

Reprising his role from the stage like Robards, Daniels too was laying the groundwork for an admirable career in multiple mediums. Since enjoying his work as the sage Mr. Feeny of "Boy Meets World", I relish discovering his always reliable efforts in some very good movies. Coincidentally, Daniels is one of two future Screen Actors Guild presidents to appear in this film. Young Barry Gordon (who isn't young enough for the part, having originated it on Broadway) would preside over SAG for a record seven years beginning in 1988. He has had a full career in animation voiceover and live-action work. The fourth and final actor retained from the play is Gene Saks, who at the same time was getting into directing. That profession would earn him three Tony Awards in the '70s and '80s, as well as four additional nominations. But no one can dispute his acting prowess here, playing Murray's former (and, potentially, future) boss Leo Herman, the hack who hosts a children's TV show as potato chip-shilling Chuckles the Chipmunk. His moving portrayal of desperation elevates the film's closing moments, at last making real sense of Murray's resistance and demonstrating the sacrifices to be made for the kid he unquestionably loves.

Reportedly, Gardner based the character of Murray Burns on his close friend, Jean Shepherd, the radio humorist best known as the writer and narrator of A Christmas Story. Not flattered, Shepherd ended his friendship with the writer not long after the play opened.

A Thousand Clowns DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: April 20, 2011
Single-sided, single-layered DVD-R (DVD-5)
List Price: $19.98
Black Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

In the opposite of what happens to most modern films on VHS and television broadcasts, A Thousand Clowns opens in 1.33:1, pillarboxed to ensure its opening credits are readable. From there, it widens to 1.66:1, the aspect ratio of its presumably matted original theatrical release. For a nearly 50-year-old movie, this looks pretty good. The picture is kind of drab and noticeably less sharp than better-known movies more extensively restored for general retail.
You'll spot small scratches and scuffs on the element. But still, considering the expectation-lowering warning that precedes the film and the limited time and resources devoted to manufactured on demand catalog titles, one can't help but be content with this adequate 16:9-enhanced presentation, which utilizes the full capacity of a single layer DVD-R.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is a little more disappointing. I rarely have a disparaging word regarding audio, but the track here is clearly dated and slightly distorted. Being familiar with several of these actors' later work, it's easy to tell they don't sound like younger versions of themselves. While clarity is lacking, the dialogue that makes up the vast majority of the track remains sufficiently intelligible. The dialogue doesn't always reflect the environment in which it is supposedly uttered, but I'd pin that on the original production, which I've already mentioned is a tad rough around the edges. Unfortunately but not unusually, neither closed captions nor subtitles are provided. Those who caught the film in its original theatrical run as a teenager are either in their sixties or approaching them. Needless to say, I think some of that crowd would have appreciated whatever effort was needed to acquire at least the closed captioning that has surely been done for modern TV airings and the film's 1998 VHS release.

The one and only Harrell, Inc. film is promoted in this 3-minute, 16:9 original theatrical trailer. You aren't likely to spend much time admiring or navigating the DVD's streamlined menu screen

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The only bonus feature included here is the film's 3-minute original theatrical trailer. As I see it, if you're going to get just one bonus feature, this is the right one, an easy and fitting inclusion that adds nostalgic/historic value.

As basic as they come, the silent, static, predominantly black main menu offers just two choices ("Play Movie" and "Trailer") next to a reproduction of the cover art. Though there are no scene selection pages, chapter stops are placed at every ten minutes.

The DVD-R is housed in a standard black Eco-Box keepcase, whose ordinarily missing portions remain intact. Because of the nature of its design, fittingly taken from the original poster art, there is no way to tell from the front cover that this is a made-to-order product. The plain rear, spine, and disc label artwork, however, all reveal the modest effort that went into this.

Supplying some romance alongside the comedy, Murray (Jason Robards) and Sandy (Barbara Harris) enjoy a tandem bicycle ride around New York City. A changed man? Murray Burns (Jason Robards) takes a look up at the neighborhood he's often shouted at in one of the film's closing shots.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

A Thousand Clowns does not meet its full cinematic potential, but it holds up fairly well as a pleasing picture made in between what most people would consider the divide between old and modern films. Great performances and timeless sentiments make up for a lack of focus, a dated sense of humor, and some technical sloppiness. MGM's no-frills DVD-R is undoubtedly less than what you'd expect of a regular DVD released even ten years ago. It is odd that a relatively well-known film like this, boasting acclaim, recognizable actors, an Oscar win, and an inspiration that continues to be revived here and there, was not considered viable for general release in the format's heyday. If you like the film or think you would, there is no reason not to check out this disc, whose shortcomings are modest and whose asking price isn't too unreasonable.

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Reviewed May 20, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1965 Harrell, Inc., United Artists and 2011 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.