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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 6. 1967.

"A Thousand Clowns" — wistful

page 9

"A Thousand Clowns" — wistful

Rex Benson

The Tedium of vacation film-going was relieved only occasionally during the recent holidays. One return season of note was provided by the suburban theatre (long may they thrive!) which screened The Crimson Pirate. This film is an excellent send-up of the genre, made by Robert Siodmak in the days when Burt Lancaster was still in his acrobatic prime. Here Lancaster and his former circus partner, the deaf mute Nick Cravat, prance about with obvious enjoyment, and the pace lags only when Burt's eye falls on sultry Eva Bartok. Cravat, who also appeared in the companion romp. The Flame And The Arrow, proves himself a natural clown, while Lancaster, who can act but doesn't have to in this film, is content to show off his body beautiful. Siodmak directs with an eye for comic potential, and the humour in some of the scenes is quite goonish. The combination of a good idea, more than competent direction, editing and photography, and an enthusiastic cast, proves irresistible. I recommend this film to addicts as a thoroughly enjoyable excursion into rarely-seen territory.

The outstanding new release was A Thousand Clowns, a film which apparently did not receive the support it deserved. At the session I attended there must have been all of 10 people present, and I understand that the evening screening on that day was patronised almost wholly by members of the Vic Film Society. I found this wistful "comedy" every bit as effective (and affect-ing) as Morgan, a film with which it has an affinity of theme and attitude. Both deal in their own way with the oddball in con-temporary society, and both show the fate that awaits this breed There are. however, important differences. A Thousand Clowns is a more wordy film (which is not to say that it is any the less cinematic), but the dialogue, written by Herb Gardner, is tough, intelligent and superbly delivered. Furthermore, whereas Morgan has that sophisti-cated-cum-zany quality that one normally associates with the British new wave." A Thousand Clowns is imbued with an appealing charm that is peculiarly American.

Apart from the tart, literate script, there are two aspects of this film that stand out. Director Fred Coe (about whom I know nothing) gives us something which is good to look at without Interfering in any way with the unfolding of the story or the developments of relationship and character. Although the director's style is not noticeably subdued, the camera flourishes are never obtrusive, and even the extensive use of dissolves in one sequence does not seem excessive. Aided by some fine photography from Arthur Ornitz, Coe makes the most of the New York locations. I liked specially the shots of the streets in early morning, and the "hidden camera" views of the crowds rushing to work Coe has a fine eye for visual effects, and some of his compositions, like the shot of the tandem riding between rows of seats, are most pleasing. Don Walker's music, what there is of it, serves its purpose admirably. The dreamy repetition of "Yes. Sir That's My Baby" provides a psychological link between the different phases and moods of the film.

Perhaps the best thing about A Thousand Clowns, and that aspect of it which is most compelling, is the uniform excellence of the acting. Group efforts of this high quality are comparatively rare in the cinema. Long Day's Journey Into Night, On The Waterfront (a triumph for the method boys), Bad Day At Black Rock and Compulsion are the only comparable examples that come to my mind while writing. Jason Robards, last seen here in Long Day's Journey, is totally convincing as Murray Burns. His rich, melancholy voice and raw-boned face (a cross between Henry Fonda and Boris Karloff, 1931 vintage) are perfectly suited to the part. Robards has made few films, but the camera treats him more kindly than it does most other actors from the theatre. Quite simply, his; is a talent that transcends the boundaries between the media. He is ably comple-mented by Barbara Harris, also, unless I am mistaken, a comparative newcomer to the screen. I can hear the film buffs crying now: "Where has this woman been all our lives?" Although Miss Harris demonstrates a heartfelt depth and a wide range, what impressed me most in her ability to appear sweet and tremulous without making a sick show of it.

The ubiquitous Martin Balsam won an academy award for his role in this film, but I suspect the award was less for his playing in this instance, good though it is, than for his long service to the cinema as a bit-part actor of exceptional talent. Next to Robards Balsam has the most interesting part in the film, and he makes the character arresting and alive by giving his best performance since Twelve Angry Men. There is one highlight of the film where he reveals to his brother how he preserves his dignity while "surrendering" to the system. Balsam does this superbly. Barry Gordon as the nephew is streets ahead of the other screen moppets. His worldly-wise attitude and confident acting style suggest that he might be a 40-year-old midget after all. Those who find this last remark incomprehensible should have done themselves a favour by seeing the film. There are interesting pseudo-comic performances from William Daniels (the dyspeptic social worker who "lacks warmth"' and Gene Saks, who plays the role of Chuckles of the children's Chipmunk programme with much relish. To add spice to the mixture the film provides two caricatures (?) of tv producers, both of them trenchant as well as amusing.

If I appear to dwell on the strength of the performances in A Thousand Clowns, it is because the film is a "talkie" (in the best sense of the word), derived from a Broadway success, and much of the impact depends on the ability of the actors to handle their lines in the most effective manner. Cinephiles should not be put off by this description of the film. A Thousand Clowns is never static, despite the tact that most of it consists of dialogue scenes. Some of the best episodes in the film deserve to be mentioned. I liked the way Robards handles his omnipresent binoculars, whether gazing down an empty street waiting for a "horrible sight" (i.e., people scurrying off to regular jobs or examining Harris and Daniels as they stand a few feet away in his flat. These two combine well in the scene where they interview Murray Burns and his nephew. The introduction at this point of the nephew's favourite toy, a model of a nude woman with Sabrina-sized breasts that light up, is a delightful touch. Robards and Gordon playing "spies" in mock-German accents is an inspired piece of childlike camaraderie, and there is a marvellous bit on the docks where Robards and Harris vigorously farewell a departing liner, even though they know no one on board, because the act signifies "the beginning of something." I could rave on at length about some of the other attractions of the film, but there are simply too many to be considered.

I began this review by mentioning some similarities and differences between A Thousand Clowns and Morgan. I think I prefer the American film, and find it ultimately the more moving and convincing of the two. This is not to say that I reject the fantasy of Morgan or the particular view it presents, but the fact that the people in A Thousand Clowns are more recognisably human (and this strikes closer to home) elicits a stronger response. I find myself drawn to the warmth and quiet sadness of this film, and a feeling in this kind is reflected in the respect that one can feel for a person like Arnold Burns, who accepts the system but does his best to maintain his individuality in spite of it. The point seems to be a conflict between practicability and idealism, but Murray Burns does not return to the fold through any faltering of his vision of things; he does so because of love and concern and this is an eminently attractive quality. It might be said that the nephew retains his individuality to the last, this being implied by his rejection of Chuckles the Chipmunk and. presumably the job for his uncle that goes with him. But the ending is equivocal on this point, for we see him enthusiastically helping in the disposal of the bric-a-brac and useless junk that clutter up the flat—those last remaining symbols of his uncle's independence. Thus, at the end, Murray Burns, complete with new suit and briefcase, joins his fellows in the rat race. His struggle and eventual inability to give forth his usual "holler" provides a poignant and telling conclusion to this altogether superior film