A Thousand Clowns

A Thousand Clowns. I saw this in a hippie movie theater when I was maybe 17 or 18 and it ruined my life. Jason Robards as worthless bum writer Martin Burns is great, as always. So is Martin Balsam as his brother (and won an Oscar for it). William Daniels. Barbara Harris. The thing oozes and crackles with smartassery and stagecraft. Barry Gordon won the best supporting kid ever award, or should have anyway, he is beyond terrific. And Gene Saks does a monologue wearing chipmunk ears that is to monologues in chipmunk ears what Charlie Parker was to the Great American Songbook. He’s flying so high and so fast that Jason Robards retreats to the window sill mid-monologue and looks offstage, laughing, so not to blow the take. And you know that was one take, had to be. One glorious take. If I had to pick one scene and one scene only in all of filmdom that was my favorite scene ever, it would be Gene Saks in chipmunk ears, raving. It’s not on YouTube. It’s not in the IMDB quotes. It exists only in the last twenty minutes of this flick. I sit here watching and waiting.

Herb Gardner wrote this thing. It was a play, on or off Broadway, one of those early sixties thing, a hit with bohos, jazzbos (Gerry Mulligan and Judy Holliday wrote the number under the credits), folkies, beatniks and New York intellectuals. Gardner wrote this screen adaptation, too, when they filmed it in 1965. The screenplay has that pre-hippie pacing, sharp, twisting, ironic, bitter, funny as hell. Lots of ultra loud John Philip Sousa and crazy cuts, segues shattered like shards of glass. It’s not surreal so much as bent. The script anyway. But Gene Saks takes it to another planet in his big scene, like a Catskills comedy club in a galaxy far away. Dialog and trialog and quadrilog, even, all follow the script. It’s Gene Saks’ monologues I worry about, they are so crazed. The other players scatter out of the way. Some of his lines, surely, were written. But they’re the bare melody, the head arrangement, as he must have winged (wung?) most of those monologues with Rod Steiger abandon, if Steiger were funny and Jewish and had body language like Dick Van Dyke in a nuthouse. Sometimes Saks’ schtick is demented Yiddish stand up compressed into a rant. Other times it’s jazz baby, riffing on words, alliterative triplets and quatrains going on and on till dropping back into the head arrangement, goofy and breathless. Damn. Like I said I was sixteen, or seventeen, something, when I first saw this, tucked into a Depression era seat in a beat up hippie art house theater. I’d gone to see some Woody Allen flicks, I think. In between was this. A bunch of it went over my idiot head, the rest left an indelible impression, like the brown acid they warned about, and I think it damaged my chromosomes. Hell, just look at this essay. If things aren’t funny then they’re exactly what they are, Murray says at some point, and then they’re like a long dental appointment.



Gene Saks and Gene Saks.


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