Posted: 05/31/2011


A Thousand Clowns

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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A Thousand Clowns is a MGM DVD release of a 1965 movie starring Jason Robards, who plays the ultimate slacker named Murray who has been taking care of his 12-year-old nephew named Nick. Well, Nick is the young boy’s name for the moment, because when he turns 13, he’s allowed to pick whichever name he desires.

Robards is great in this movie about a man who lost his job as a children’s television host and is so committed to NOT finding another job but instead teaching young Nick the ropes. Murray gets up every morning taking Nick with him while he yells at his New York City neighbors to be quiet as they go about their daily adult responsibilities. Murray values the importance of a good 24-hour-day, and he doesn’t believe he should waste eight hours of it working.

He’s teaching Nick—who reminds me of a young Woody Allen—similar values, but he does make up for it by taking him to experience the sights and sounds of the city. This works fine for a couple of months after Murray is out of work, until the social workers knock on the door of his one-room apartment.

But the two turn the tables on the social workers, Sandra, played by Barbara Harris, and Albert, played by William Daniels. Nick entertains them with his impersonations of famous actors and the constant rambling on about things that sound as if they mean something.
Murray senses sexual tension between the two, and he is right in pointing out that they are dating and that Albert is too overbearing and critical of Sandra. The couple split right there on the scene, with Albert leaving, while warning Murray that he is subject to a hearing in three days. Sandra stays around, and she and Murray impress each other with each other’s intellect. Sandra implores Murray to deal in reality, and he replies he will if he could do it only as a tourist.

On the other hand, Murray wishes that Sandra would open up like a circus car that is hardly big enough but a bunch of little people are crammed inside. When the doors open they rush out like a thousand clowns, raising hell and whoopering and hollering and having fun.
Finally, Sandra does impress upon Murray the importance of finding a job, lest he loses his nephew. He goes back to his old job, but he still can’t wrap his head around working again. He also goes to his brother, played by Martin Balsam, and after the two have a conversation about how Murray doesn’t want to be “spit upon” by bosses and lost in the rat race that swallows up people as they work day in and day out for the majority of their lives, Murray sees the light. In the end, Nick wins; Murray takes a job working with the kids again and Nick finally chooses a permanent name.

A Thousand Clowns is a good old fashioned character study about a man who is forced to conform, but who discovers that when he does conform it will help his nephew much more than it will help him. Visit for more information.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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