“In a moment you are going to see a horrible thing. People going to work.” With his hat pushed back optimistically, a low angle closeup captures Jason Robards’ impish face looking just off into the distance; he’s impossibly pleased with himself as he issues this warning to his twelve year old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon). In its first few moments of A Thousand Clowns, it’s clear that though Murray (Robards) is broke, he’s got plenty of conviction. It’s this strong personal code that makes Murray both a perfect and terrible guardian to Nick, precocious beyond his years, and frames this charmingly truthful tale of growing up.
Nick and Murray’s day off unfolds in a romantic montage with a tenderness for New York City that echoes the awe and wonder of The Little Fugitive. The audio track captures their witty banter, it’s clear that these two really like each other. Time stretches on as they take the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and mess around, moving against the commuter rush, and ending up in exhausted fits of laughter, hands stuffed with cracker jacks, back at their apartment where reality and consequence is waiting to burst their bubble.
Two child services agents, Albert and Sandra, are waiting at the door threatening to take Nick away from his irresponsible uncle. These two, played by William Daniels (Mr. Feeny!) and Sandy Dennis, could be easily positioned as the primary villains in this story. Their goals are directly at odds with those of our protagonists. But what we have here is a multidimensional film. Sandra ends up being the flawed love interest (she’s really terribly at decorating), and Albert finds absolution in his monologue to Murray, backing him up into a corner, pleading for him to understand his point of view. Murray may be an expert at being alive, but he isn’t providing much structure for Nick. Like Murray, he just wants the best for the kid. He may be no fun, but someone’s got to be. It seems he could be right. Instead of the anticipated intervention, Murray’s carefree attitude reveals the cracks in Al and Sandy’s solidity. Albert leaves in a huff, promising to return with bad news but Sandy, suffering an existential crisis, stays to finish up her weeping. She’s aroused Murray’s interest and never finds her way back to her old, organized life.
Murray has made a living not making a living. He he’s figured out the best way to spend a day in New York without spending any money. What to yell, which busses to take, the bums who sell the best junk… etc. To impress Sandra, he takes her on a date that is eerily similar to Murray’s perfect day with Nick that opens the film. He sweeps her off her feet. But when someone asks him, “Let’s return to reality for a moment.” He is quick to reply, “I only go as a tourist.” And despite Murray’s ability to make the kid laugh, it’s clear Nick, always the responsible one, is worried about his uncle. At one point he confesses that he’s concerned that Murray is “developing into a bum.” Despite being the most suitable guardian Nick has in this world – a vivacious guy, full of life and life lessons – he’s a talented comedy writer who could still find work if he wanted it, it seems Murray is severely allergic to taking care of business of any kind. It’s Nick who’s the adult, keeping the household together and making sure the Murray doesn’t go completely off the rails. In every person’s life they face a choice: Either avoid those things that are the marks of a responsible adult human, and in doing so, lose the ability to continue to live their life like every day is an adventure, or stay on the spirited path and risk losing everything; become a bum who yells at the windows.
A Thousand Clowns is based on a play of the same name, and its roots are evident from the structure of the film, which takes place over just a few days comprised of a handful of key scenes. But the film does something the stage production never could and provides a truly candid look at New York as a big, over crowded neighborhood, taking full advantage of on-location cinematography, close-ups of commuters’ stoic faces, New York is truly their playground.
The score, a compendium of familiar marches from John Philip Sousa and George Frederick Root, stirs up the motivation to seize the day. As with Murray’s passion for bidding the steam ships farewell, these marches instill a sense of new beginnings. It seems he has a passion for the promising but balks when faced with any real ‘prospects’. The marches, like new beginnings, when all lined up one after another, become gratingly repetitive and never reach any kind of fruition.
All the monologues don’t make for a particularly subtle point of view and Murray’s message comes through loud and clear. And eventually writer Herb Gardner’s does as well. What he has to say hits at the core of what is so basically human that all of the grandstanding never impedes the tugging at our heartstrings: How does someone grow up and live in this world as a functional adult without giving up their individualism? They don’t. And when Murray is ultimately forced into this crossroads, he chooses stability and family over convictions, because what good are convictions if you have no one with whom to share them? While this isn’t a film with a clear cut happy ending, just like the impossibly well rounded characterizations that keep every character relatable, the ambivalence of the ending is an optimistic one. Ultimately, Murray’s choice is the right one, and the one most of us make in order to avoid being trampled by blind progress and letting down the ones we love, but in throwing away his stated value system, Murray has managed to achieve real value, despite the terrible tedium it may represent.