Thousand Clowns, A (1965)

Thousand Clowns, A (1965)

“You know, you are not a person, Mr. Burns — you are an experience!”

An unemployed writer (Jason Robards, Jr.) caring for his 12-year-old nephew (Barry Gordon) refuses to settle down and get a job, even when two social workers (William Daniels and Barbara Harris) come to warn him he’s under supervision. Will an affair with Harris — or cajoling by his responsible brother Arnold (Martin Balsam) — finally convince Murray (Robards, Jr.) to accept a job as a writer for an unfunny children’s performer (Gene Saks)?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Harris Films
  • Jason Robards Films
  • Martin Balsam Films
  • Nonconformists
  • Play Adaptation
  • Raising Kids

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the “cult following has nearly disappeared for Herb Gardner’s adaptation of his Broadway play,” which “was one of the first films that dealt with the theme of nonconformity, rather than merely having a nonconformist lead character.” Peary argues that “its sellout conclusion” “doesn’t sit well” and this “dated film is predictable, too chatty, and no longer funny… But it’s still a pleasure to watch the acting by Robards, Harris, and Gordon, an excellent child actor” who GFTFF fans will likely recognize from his starring role in Out of It (1969). I agree with Peary that this film hasn’t aged all that well, though I disagree that the ending is a sellout; instead, I’m relieved that Robards, Jr. cares enough for someone other than himself to finally look beyond his narcissistic desire for freedom and rebellion at all costs (that’s the responsible adult/parent in me speaking). Harris is delightful in her screen debut, and the supporting cast is all excellent — including Saks as “Chuckles the Chipmunk”, Daniels as Harris’s no-nonsense colleague, and Oscar-nominated Balsam in a rather thankless role as Robards, Jr.’s always-supportive brother.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jason Robards, Jr. as Murray
  • Barbara Harris as Sandra
  • Barry Gordon as “Nick”
  • Gene Saks as Leo (a.k.a. “Chuckles the Chipmunk”)
  • Martin Balsam as Arnold
  • William Daniels as Albert
  • Fine cinematography by Arthur Ornitz

Must See?
No, but it’s definitely worth a one-time look.


One thought on “Thousand Clowns, A (1965)

  1. First viewing. Skip it.

    When this play opened on Broadway in 1962 (with Sandy Dennis in the Harris role), it accumulated 428 performances (!). (Decades later – both in 1996 and 2001 – it was revived for brief runs.) That’s rather remarkable, considering that it’s an unfunny play.

    It seems to have grown out of a desire to respond to the staid 1950s – with its tendency toward ‘punching that clock’ and bland personalities. ‘ATC’ would not be the only play or film to focus on a rebel in that atmosphere – there were some others even in the ’50s (usually in dramas), and the eccentric ‘outlaw’ would thrive on-screen throughout the ’60s.

    But Gardner’s script is over-written and it tries too hard. Ironically, the best-written characters are the subordinate ones played convincingly by Daniels and Balsam. Everybody else (even poor Harris, alas) is forced to push for effect and the film becomes progressively tiresome.

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