Sunday, January 18, 2009

THOUSAND CLOWNS -- my movie pick of the month

Several readers have informed me that there is no DVD yet for this film, thus it can't be an official Netflix pick. But there are VHS copies and it shows up on TV so if you can't get it, watch for it. What does it say when GIGLI is out on DVD and THOUSAND CLOWNS is not? It was 1965 in the San Fernando Valley. I had gone to the nearby Baronet theater to see THE LOVED ONE, billed as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone!” Who wouldn’t rush to see that?

Art houses were hard to find in LA suburbia because there were so few, they were wedged into shopping centers, and they were all the size of shoe boxes. The vacuum cleaner repair shop next door was always larger. There was not a very big demand for movies that didn’t star Julie Andrews or James Bond.

Art houses like the Baronet always showed double features. It’s not like anyone went to two art houses a month. So when I arrived early I had no choice but to watch the other film on the bill, something called A THOUSAND CLOWNS. Jason Robards Jr. was an eccentric TV writer man/child raising his precocious nephew (Barry Gordon) in Manhattan. Barbara Harris was the young inexperienced social worker sent to investigate. I was enthralled. I had never seen a comedy so funny and yet so real. The laughs came out of the characters and not THAT DARN CAT. The story was about something – nonconformity and its consequences in society. He was in danger of having his kid taken away. Not exactly a MAD MAD WORLDLY premise but funny just the same. There is comedy in truth – something you don’t generally get from HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI.

I became a huge fan of the author, Herb Gardner, bought the play, and almost memorized it. If I was going to write comedy someday, I vowed, this was the kind of stuff I would write. I later vowed that about Neil Simon plays, Woody Allen movies, and Mel Brooks movies, but at the time (and for the most part still) Herb Gardner was the man. Rent A THOUSAND CLOWNS. Then read A THOUSAND CLOWNS. And if you’re going to write a comedy, shoot for A THOUSAND CLOWNS.

45 comments:

Papageiena said...

Sounds a bit like 'Auntie Mame'. I'll check it out. :)

chicken said...

I love A THOUSAND CLOWNS. Caught a revival on Broadway a few seasons back with Tom Selleck. Actually he wasn't bad, but you gotta love Jason Robards. BTW, what ever happened to Barbara Harris? She was wonderful in everything I'd ever seen her in, and then just disapeared! TCM shows the film often,

D. McEwan said...

It's nothing like AUNTIE MAME, but both are great movies.

It's been 40 years since I last saw A THOUSAND CLOWNS, and yeah, I think it's time I watched it again. Thanks for the suggestion. It goes onto the Netflix queue today. I still remember Marty Balsam winning his Oscar for basically giving that one great speech.

Of course, AUNTIE MAME I did bascally memorise, I have the novel (a first edition), the play script, and the Broadway cast album of MAME. (But NOT the DVD of the Godawful piece-of-crap Lucille Ball movie of same.)

A THOUSAND CLOWNS might, I suppose, be AUNTIE MAME for straight people.

DiggerD said...

Yes, this is a great and funny film. I, too, attended the Baronet Theater during the late days of its run. Funny, but the place was so small that they the had to have the aisle running up the middle of the the theater, taking up all of the best seats. My dad, a camera buff, was sure they used an 8 mm projector.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

It's been 40 years since I last saw A THOUSAND CLOWNS, and yeah, I think it's time I watched it again. Thanks for the suggestion. It goes onto the Netflix queue today.

This would be perfect...IF THE FILM WAS AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX! Warner Bros. hasn't released it on DVD yet.

No, that's no Comic Book Guy condescension at you, rest assured. Just always was ticked about that. If you find it on TCM, Tivo it and keep it always.

D. McEwan said...

Yeah, I just made the same discovery. As a Netflix pic of the month, it doesn't work. It's not released on DVD. It's a Netflix pic of some unspecified future month.

The Good news is REPO: A GENETIC OPERA comes out on DVD this week.

A. Buck Short said...

Thanks. Really. After, "Hello," "Yalloooo," and "suicide hotline," my favorite way to answer the phone is still, "Good news...or money?"
But it never occurred to me to read it.

Rinaldo said...

What's great about the movie is right out of the stage script, which is pretty much intact. But I've always been annoyed by the interludes which apparently were supposed to make it "cinematic": Robards riding around on his bicycle and such (at least that's how I remember it, decades later).

Barbara Harris. Last I heard of her (though friends who knew her), she was living quietly in Chicago, teaching. She made occasional movie appearances up through Grosse Pointe Blank in 1997 and was of course always wonderful. (She was announced to play one of the strippers in the Midler Gypsy, but then something happened and Christine Ebersole took over.) I hope she's well.

jbryant said...

Yes, fantastic movie (even if it is more of a writing triumph than a filmmaking one). The first celebrity encounter I had when I moved to Burbank from Kentucky in 1993 was at my work. The bespectacled little guy on the elevator with me was clearly the all-grown-up Barry Gordon. I told him how great he was in A Thousand Clowns, and he said he was an attorney now, as well as an actor. I subsequently saw him playing a lawyer on NYPD Blue.

Dave said...

1) At last report, Barbara Harris just got tired of acting (and always had issues about acting on stage). I read a recent quote from her that said that something to the effect that, if someone offered her a ton of money to play a role, she'd be happy to do it, but that it wasn't going to happen.

2) Speaking of revival houses jammed into tiny spaces, did anyone else ever go to The Old Movie Theatre and Motion Picture Hall of Fame that lived in, like, two rooms of the Saga Motel across Harbor Blvd. from Disneyland in the 70s?

It was a great place, run by one guy who really loved movies. He'd sell you your ticket, yell information about the movie over the partition that separated the theatre from the "museum" (which was actually kinda cool, complete with a King Kong skeleton and a popcorn machine [not Chick Hearn's] that you'd put a dime into, hold a bag under a spout and get reasonably fresh popcorn), and then start up the projector.

The movie I remember the most there was a screening of "Animal Crackers" when it was still held up in litigation. (The run was announced with a no-title flier that made it obvious what the movie was without giving anything away.) It wasn't too long after that Universal re-released it, which led me to believe it was a test run to see if there was any interest.

It was a great place and unique as far as I know.

Christina said...

It may not be on DVD, but it's on laserdisc. My Psychology of Film teacher showed it as an example of someone who refuses to grow up. (Robards.) I remember loving it - I saw it like 10 years ago.

A_Homer said...

I loved that film, it was one of those I could catch by rare chance on tv and be thankful. And they didn't turn it into a broadway musical? I haven't seen it for a while, I recall the script great and acting excellent (but isn't it the same role Barry Gordon always plays?) and respect for Jason Robards, although sometimes it feels he's acting for the stage rather than cinema. But there are some "artful" filmic touches that date it considerably. 1964-65 seemed to be about deciding what kind of style for film comedy, a bit of Richard Lester here, etc..

The same problem that affects the preceding years "The World of Henry Orient" in fact...

my verification word was "color" - that takes all the fun out.

Joe said...

FWIW,

It's available on eBay on VHS and on LD; at exhorbitant prices, natch.

sephim said...

When writing a comedy, I always shoot for SCHINDLER'S LIST, but you know, only the funny parts.

Brian Phillips said...

"Everyone on stage for the Hawaiian number!"

rms said...

"The Good news is REPO: A GENETIC OPERA comes out on DVD this week."

Hooray! Who can't love Anthony Stewart Head dismembering people? That's great fun!

Nat G said...

"And if you’re going to write a comedy, shoot for A THOUSAND CLOWNS."

Also good advice if you're going to be a serial killer.

The Minstrel Boy said...

i love that show. especially the part where murray is explaining to the social worker about how he came to drop the kid off...

her philosophy of life is something to the left of whoopie.

or, the part where he explains why he quit the gig with chuckles...

i always take an onion in my martini...

great stuff. and, as you said, real stuff.

i've done the shouting from the fire escape thing. it's a blast.

Mark Martino said...

"A Thousand Clowns" is so funny and inspirational that I watch it almost every time I get laid off so I guess I've seen it at least a half dozen times. If I were going to give a seminar on careers and job hunting, I would include it, "Office Space," "The Great Imposter," and "Catch Me If You Can" as required viewing.

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff said...

Not scheduled on TCM for the next couple of months, but you can vote for it to be released on DVD on their site.

Jon Weisman said...

Great movie, one that I'm proud to own and a reason to make sure I still have a working VHS. When I had to give my oral presentation for my Master's, this was a significant part.

Stoic said...

Blood Simple, the first Coen Bros. effort is, apparently, on DVD but not on Netflix (although it can be selected as a "save" whatever that is).

Get that, too.

D. McEwan said...

"Dave said...
2) Speaking of revival houses jammed into tiny spaces, did anyone else ever go to The Old Movie Theatre and Motion Picture Hall of Fame that lived in, like, two rooms of the Saga Motel across Harbor Blvd. from Disneyland in the 70s?

The movie I remember the most there was a screening of "Animal Crackers" when it was still held up in litigation. (The run was announced with a no-title flier that made it obvious what the movie was without giving anything away.) It wasn't too long after that Universal re-released it, which led me to believe it was a test run to see if there was any interest.

It was a great place and unique as far as I know."

Hello? Were YOU the guy I was sitting behind? I remember the so-called "Motion Picture Hall of Fame" in Anaheim, and spent many an evening sitting on the metal folding chairs watching 16mm prints projected, as I recall it, on a sheet, in that little room in that hotel east of Disneyland and north of Melodyland. And yes, it was the first place I ever saw ANIMAL CRACKERS, as I recall, juts a few months before Universal got the rights problems ironed out, and it was released for real. The guy who ran it was named Douglas something-or-other, a fact I only remember because my name is Douglas also, so I tend to remember Douglases. He also ran the occasional autograph conventions that prefigured the Has-Been Conventions we have these days. (My memory is trying to tell me that his name was Douglas Wright, but I could be wrong about "Wright".)

I seem to recall a double-feature there one night of THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES with Basil Rathbone & THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.

There was no projection booth of course. It was a small hotel showroom, not a theater, so Doug was in the room with you, running the 16mm projector himself. He had no staff at all. And after the show, he always encouraged audiences to suggest films for him to book.

Man, I hadn't given Doug (Wright?) and "The Motion Picture Hall of Fame" a thought in 35 years.

scottmc said...

'A Thousand Clowns' may be my favorite movie/play of all time. As noted, it is not currently on DVD. However, it is scheduled to be telecast on a number of PBS stations later this month/early next month. Among the many priceless lines/scenes: when picking up a ringing telephone Murray(Robards) says "Is this someone with good news or money? No, goodbye" and he hangs up.
When explaining why he doesn't want his nephew to leave he says " ... and I want him to know the subtle,sneaky,important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair'.
The film was edited by legendary editor Ralph Rosenbloom. In his book 'When The Shooting Stops...the cutting begins' Rosenblum details the post production work Gardner and he did on the film. It is a wonderful book. (The book also details the behind the scenes story of 'The Producers'-the film, not the musical.) A THOUSAND CLOWNS was running on Broadway on September 11th. For the first performance after 9/11 Gardner wrote a curtain call speech that was read by Tom Selleck(the revival's 'Murray'). It was as marvelous an expression of theatre, freedom and the magic of an audience that I have ever heard. (Gardner also wrote the play 'I'm Not Rappaport' and the film 'Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me'.)

Anonymous said...

Ken- certain PBS stations (not all of them) may be airing A Thousand Clowns in February and March.
WTTW in Chicago has A Thousand Clowns scheduled on February 1 at 12:25pm.
If you want to see it, check your local PBS listings. They may have acquired the rights to air this film this winter.

Anonymous said...

if you know how to operate a bittorrent client, search the usual places, it's there.

Ron said...

A THOUSAND CLOWNS was released by United Artists, which should mean that rights are currently held by MGM, in which case, good luck ever getting a DVD of the movie out of them.

Anonymous said...

One of the things you might want to note about this film is that there is really no villain in it. The screenplay sets people up in that role, and then reveals them to be as human and as vulnerable as anyone else. I think part of the message of the film is that the need to paint oneself as a kind of shallow hero is itself a problem of immaturity. The main character grows up when he is forced to recognize and accept the human qualities of those around him.

KateC said...

Copyright problems, thus no DVD release. MGM does release its back catalogue, but this film has problems.

Didn't like 1000 Clowns said...

God, is that soundtrack annoying.

Word=angst. Who knew?

Anonymous said...

Is anyone in NYC who knows when it might air again? My video store closed and it had a VHS copy. I bought a copy years ago, loaned it out and never saw it again. It's in my top 10 of all time. Is this the only Best Picture nominee to not be released on DVD????

scottmc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scottmc said...

Channel 13-the PBS station in New York City-will broadcast A THOUSAND CLOWNS this Saturday, February 21st-at 9PM.

Robert of San Francisco said...

Wow -- two other people who remember Doug Wright's Motion Picture Hall of Fame, right behind the Saga Motel in Anaheim, and directly across the street from Disneyland. When I was in high school and living in Newport Beach, a friend and I would drive up there every Wednesday night, when the program changed. Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, King Kong, Chandu the Magician -- stuff you couldn't see anywhere else, in those pre-cable, pre-VHS/DVD days. I wonder what happened to Doug?

Phil said...

A Thousand Clowns is, without a doubt, my favorite movie of all time. It kind of bothers me when people tag Murray as simply being "immature" and/or "refusing to grow up". Murray does NOT merely refuse to grow up, he refuses to give in, he refuses to allow himself to be depersonalized, and he is struggling with the many ugly, soul-killing side effects of life in the working world. We all struggle with these issues and no other film deals with them as thoroughly and successfully as A Thousand Clowns. It happens to be a truly major issue in our lives that seldom, if EVER, is dealt with in fiction. We NEED A Thousand Clowns, and films like it. And the debate is not one-sided, Albert, the social worker, gives Murray a fairly accurate and deserved dressing down and so does his brother, who states the position of those who accept the burdens of working life just as accurately as Murray states the position of those who resist it and find it deadly. Like most of us, I work a job, but find it challenging in the same ways Murray does, so where do you turn when you feel the bastards are winning? A Thousand Clowns, that's where! Everyone I show it to loves it and find much to identify with. I used to work with a guy named Charlie who was an engineer on a nuclear sub in the sixties, and he once told me that they somehow owned a print of this film and it was their favorite, they watched it over and over again. A Thousand Clown... on a nuclear sub... fathoms beneath the ocean surface! That speaks to the universal nature of this great film. And malarkey to people who don't like the filmic bits - they work wonderfully! Rosenblum did a fantastic job editing this movie! He opened it up. And Robards is a truly GREAT film actor, whoever expressed doubts here was talking out the side of their neck.

Anonymous said...

I picked up on this discussion by googling "old movie theatre." The guy's name was indeed Douglas Wright. I used to ride my bike from east Anaheim frequently to go to his theater. He used to be in an even smaller venue at the Saga Motel. I remember the expansion was a big deal. He had the original Brontosaurus model from King Kong. I thought that was the coolest thing going.

I seem to remember he went off to continue the business in Hollywood. For a while in the early 70's, that was the place to be.

Dave

JFS in IL said...

Douglas Wright and the Old Movie Theater - I started going their as a 11-yr-old Lon Chaney fan when Wright showed Phantom of the Opera. This was before he "expanded". One weekend I showed up to see a Little Rascals set and NO ONE ELSE CAME so he ran all the shorts just for me. I loved that place! I wonder if Peter Jackson scored that brontosaurus form King Kong?

MICHAEL said...

I saw the original play on Broadway as a teen. Sandy Dennis had the lead female role but apparently Harris was thought to have a better movie name... l Loved the play (as I remember). My parents took me to many plays back then: Come Blow Your Horn; The Subject Was Roses, and many more I cannot remember. Michael Yagoda

jasper said...

what does "1000Clowns" mean?

Anonymous said...

More than a year after The Old Movie Theater thread began, I'm wondering aloud too what happened to Doug Wright and the Motion Picture Hall of Fame. Just to prove how little we've all grown since then, I even remember Doug's sole employee's name - Jay Mandir. Jay did all the outgoing phone announcements for the theater and - are you ready for this? - I can STILL do an impression of the guy! Ah, memories.

Anonymous said...

My favorite movie of all times. I only wish that it would come out on DVD.

JFS in IL said...

Checking back in to see if anyone and anymore info on Doug Wright and the Old Movie Theater. Remember the heavily lacquered (?) collage of posters he put out front?

I spent a year in the early 80's (grad school) assisting Bob Gitte at UCLA film archives. The archive folks were after some guy in O.C. who was supposed to have an original print of House of Wax. I kept wondering if they meant Wright.

Kate said...

I, too, am a huge fan of this gem of a movie. I remember when I first saw it - I was a sophomore at Occidental College in L.A. I recall being devastated by the ending at the time - so sad that he was forced back into the faceless crowd - crushed by society's demand that he conform. I was so moved that I encouraged my parents to see the movie. When we got together to discuss it, I was shocked to discover that my parents thought it was a happy ending - how wonderful it was that he "found himself" and "grew up". One of the true tests of a great movie is that it elicits a broad range of emotions and differing viewpoints depending on the viewer. Thousand Clowns is a classic. I still use lines from the movie - "We commnicate by rumor only." and "Is this good news or money?"

Randy Skretvedt said...

JFS is not alone. I also (mis?)spent much of my adolescence at the Old Movie Theater and Motion Picture Hall of Fame, which was really two upstairs rooms of the Saga Motel on Harbor Boulevard with a wall knocked out. Half of the "theater" was a kitschy museum filled with dubious old movie props (a lamp table from Laurel & Hardy's "Great Guns," a skeleton of a figurine used in "King Kong"). The other half was a 16mm theater--had a shower curtain with pictures of old movie stars at the entrance. Doug's outgoing phone message still plays in my mind's ear. "We offer five cent candy, ten cent popcorn, and lots of fun! Bring a friend who likes to laugh! Starting Monday and continuing for seven full days, the Marx Brothers in 'Animal Crackers'" (Doug had somehow scored a 16mm print of this when it was otherwise impossible to see, and it paid the rent many times.)