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.


Thoughts on a few seconds of The Third Man

Interesting bit in The Third Man that few probably pick upon anymore…after Holley Martins (Joseph Cotten) first meets Baron Kurtz, they go walking down the sidewalk together. Kurtz has vaguely Mediterranean features and it dawned on me that the character might be Jewish. It had never occurred to me before because Austria had been thoroughly Judenrein by an especially efficient Nazi administration. Apparently this Kurtz would have been one of those who had either survived the death camps or been in hiding in Vienna for six long years. Now he was making his living in a vaguely Fagin sort of way, Graham Greene falling back on an old and cringeworthy English literary trope. Then again, perhaps I was imagining all this. Perhaps Kurtz represented some sort of Austro-Hungarian Balkan-Mediterranean blend. After all the Hapsburg empire, though officially German speaking (outside of Hungary, but that’s another story), had been a swirl of ethnicities, never been even close to the Germanic stereotype. If you listen you can even hear bits of Italian in the German dialogue, unthinkable in Berlin. Now we watch Baron Kurtz and the Joseph Cotten character walk down the street. An Austrian policeman on his beat walks toward them, still with a Gestapo-ish hint of a Hitler mustache. The cop pays no attention to either of them, nor does Holley, with his American film noir disrespect for cops (I hate coppers, as Cagney seemed to always say), pay attention to the cop. Kurtz does, however. He looks up, sees the cop, and with the alacrity of experience steps out into the street. The cop passes and Kurtz gets back on the sidewalk. What might be taken for a little common sense courtesy had, I’m sure, a much darker meaning. Nazi law forbade Jews to walk on sidewalks. Jews on sidewalks were beaten. In Riga they were killed on the spot. I saw that microcosmic scene within a scene, those few steps, and knew that Kurtz was Jewish. Sometimes a few seconds of film illuminate vast crimes and unspeakable tragedies, throwing shadows you never noticed before.

About me

TCM is weirding me out. First there were giant ants in the river behind me. Now there’s a guy named Brick bossing John Wayne around. Next up is the Thin Man, which I haven’t been in a long time. Then a loser writer in the Third Man, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and I do little enough as it is, and finally A Thousand Clowns, about a do little writer. What is Robert Osborne trying to tell me? If this is narcissism, you can have it.

Lou Christie

I don’t recommend it, especially if you used to do a lot of acid or are prone to bouts of schizophrenia or maybe just missed a dose of your epilepsy meds, but it turns out that if you play Lightning Strikes five times simultaneously, beginning each about five seconds into the one before, it will build into this high pitched polyrhythmic cacophony somewhat reminiscent of the Shaggs backing the Four Seasons with Rashied Ali on drums. For maybe ten seconds it is out there heaven. Then it just gets stupid and you take your epilepsy meds and swear you’ll never mention this to anyone.

Great song, though.

Yes L.A.

I loved this album and somehow never bought it and it disappeared from the stores quickly. Believe it or not, there was no internet then, and no way to get a record once it was gone from the stores. Life was brutal, cave men like. We lived in holes in the ground and ate meat raw and listened to punk rock. And of all my favorite albums I never owned, this was probably my favoritest.

New Lows

Any fans of heavy, raw Aussie old school punk rock like X (aka the Australian X), etc, need to check out the cd by the San Francisco trio called the New Lows. Chris Guttmacher on drums. It’s maybe twenty years old with a power trio stripped down all to fuck kinda sound as the defrocked jazz critics say and I have no idea where you can find it besides Blue Bag Records in Cambridge. No, Massachusetts. If punk rock this past twenty years were a clarinet solo then the New Lows would be Pee Wee Russell to everyone else’s Benny Goodman. I’ve been switching off between jazz and the New Lows today, which while probably not healthy, has been bonecrackingly eclectic. In fact, as Joe Henderson just did His Thing, I think I’ll listen to the New Lows and listen to the bones crack again.

Pete Christlieb


On Friday Henri’s in Canoga Park was cooking.  The John Hammond Trio–with Jim Hughart on bass, Ralph Penland drums—has been together a helluva long time, and they play like a real unit…to top it off, tenor sax ace Pete Christlieb has been playing with them for a long time now, probably for hundreds of hours.  They come together for some pretty intricate ensemble like arrangements that you just won’t see in most clubs.  It’s an older, more relaxed style of jazz, some classic Blue Note feeling, and then sometimes it reminds me of even older sessions, like the feeling that is on that Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio record.  Reaching back, these guys, to Prez and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  Christlieb is just a superb saxophonist…he sits there on a stool between solos grinning and bouncing about like an oversized cherub,  and then he picks up his horn again and blows these long, bluesy cadenzas just packed with ideas, and then suddenly sails into an effortless–my vocabulary is failing me here–an effortless flight that just fills the room with so much energy.  And he makes it seem so easy.  I had been listening to that record he did with Warne Marsh, Apogee, on the way out there and damn if he didn’t quote it once or twice.  Christlieb with Hammond and his trio is yet another absurdly underrated jazz experience that this city offers, and they seem to play at least weekly.