A Thousand Clowns is one of those movies that praise nonconformity, making the case that it is wonderful to be a free spirit, defying convention, and living life to the full. Other movies in this nonconformist genre are You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Auntie Mame (1958), and Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970). I can’t speak for everyone, of course, since there are undoubtedly many people who love such movies, but I find them all to be quite irritating. In fact, each one of these movies makes me say to myself, “Thank God for conformity! Otherwise, life on this planet would be unbearable.”
Jason Robards plays Murray Burns, the nonconformist of this film. His nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) lives with him in an apartment. Murray glories in not making much sense, but the fact is, the world he lives in does not make much sense either, because it is a fake world, written to suit the purposes of the story. When the movie opens, Murray and Nick are out on the street, where Murray is making fun of people who go to work. He used to have a job writing jokes for a children’s show called Chuckles the Chipmunk, but he quit and has been receiving unemployment checks for five months. Nick mentions that in school he wrote an essay on the benefits of living on unemployment insurance, which has precipitated an investigation to see if Murray is fit to have custody of Nick.
Let’s stop right there. First of all, people who get laid off can receive unemployment checks, but most states do not allow claims in which the person simply got tired of working and quit. But we’ll assume Murray got away with it. Second, social workers do not take children away from their homes because the person taking care of them is receiving unemployment checks. The whole point of unemployment insurance is to allow people to have something to live on, which includes taking care of their children, until they find another job.
Nevertheless, two social workers, Albert Amundson (William Daniels) and Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), come calling on Murray to see whether or not Nick should be taken away from him and put in a foster home. Amundson is a typical character in a nonconformist movie, someone who is anal, who thinks everything must be in its place and that everyone must act in strict accordance with his sense of propriety. And as the world never manages to live up to his rigid standards, he always seems to be on the verge of losing control of himself. The movie needs such a character to convince us that conformity is bad and nonconformity, by default, must be good. In other words, if Amundson were your typical social worker, a fairly normal person, we would conclude that Murray was wrong to act the way he does. By making Amundson so ridiculously uptight, the movie hopes to persuade us that Murray’s way must be the right way. William Daniels, who plays Amundson, is perfect for this kind of role, if such a role is required, which is the case here, unfortunately.
Dr. Markowitz, on the other hand, is a normal person and thus more like a typical social worker. She quickly becomes Sandra, Murray’s love interest. And as his love interest, she becomes a reason why Murray should give up his nonconformist ways and get a job. But the principal reason why Murray should do this is emphasized over and over again, that only by getting a job can he retain custody of Nick.
And that leads us to another aspect of this unrealistic world that has been written into existence for Murray’s character. After Murray talks loud and acts crazy in front of the two social workers for about ten minutes, with Nick doing the same, we eventually get the serious reason why Nick is with Murray. It seems that Nick’s father abandoned his mother, and then, when Nick was five, she abandoned Nick herself, after bringing him to Murray to take care of. Normal social workers would be glad that a relative is taking care of Nick and would probably want him to have legal custody, because that is preferable to putting Nick in a foster home. But not so in this movie. And then, just to add to the absurdity of it all, Nick does not have an official name. Apparently, there is no birth certificate. What did his mother do, have him under a bridge?
The most reasonable spokesman for conformity is Murray’s brother, Arnold (Martin Balsam). He tries to explain to Murray the virtues of conformity, with special emphasis on the fact that the state will take Nick away from him if he does not get a job. But while he goes on at length trying to persuade Murray to go back to work, the one argument that never seems to occur to him or anyone else in the movie is the one that is the most obvious: eventually the unemployment checks will stop, and with no source of income, Murray will be evicted from his apartment and he and Nick will have to live under that bridge where presumably Nick was born. It is almost as if the steady drumbeat of how the state will take Nick away from Murray if he does not get a job is supposed to distract us from the main reason people have jobs even if they do not have a child to take care of, which is that they need a paycheck to put a roof over their heads and put food on the table.
This movie’s obliviousness to the need for a job for the simple reason you need money to live reminds me of a guy I knew in my senior year of college. When I mentioned something about having to find work after I graduated, he dismissed my concerns with disdain, saying, “You don’t have to work. That’s just what you’ve been brainwashed to believe by the establishment.” He said this without irony, as if the fact that he had been sleeping on his friend’s couch for the last six months was an option available to us all.
Auntie Mame is similar to A Thousand Clowns in that both movies involve someone’s having custody of a nephew, but at least Mame has enough money to live independently when the movie starts. It’s a whole lot easier to be a nonconformist when you’re rich. The family members in You Can’t Take It with You, on the other hand, are not rich, but they are contemptuous of ordinary work just as Murray is. They have the philosophy that everyone should just do what he wants to do and somehow enough money can be made doing whatever that is to get by. But they are like that guy I knew who slept on his friend’s couch, for they are largely supported by Jean Arthur’s character, the one person in the family with a real job.
Just as Amundson is supposed to make conformity look repulsive in this movie so that we will side with Murray’s refusal to conform, so too are the jobs Murray is offered so repulsive that we are supposed to side with Murray’s refusal to go back to work. But he lives in New York, and there are more jobs in that city than just writing jokes for Chuckles the Chipmunk. Nevertheless, Murray eventually takes that job again, is able to retain custody of Nick, and will apparently marry Sandra.
In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary remarks that the movie, once a cult hit, no longer holds up: “Today its sellout conclusion, in which the nonconformist lead character willingly sacrifices his way of life because of familial responsibility, doesn’t sit well.” He suggests that the movie The Kid with Charlie Chaplin had a better resolution. But for this movie to have an ending like that in The Kid, that would have required that Nick’s mother turn up, having become a wealthy woman somehow, ready to regain custody of Nick and, presumably, to let Murray sleep on her couch.
But more to the point, the movie is no longer the cult hit it once was, not because of the sellout conclusion, but because people no longer buy the premise. I’m sure that guy I knew in college, who was contemptuous of the notion of having to work for a living, wore out his welcome, sleeping on his friend’s couch, and eventually had to face the cold, cruel world that expected him to get off his butt and get a job. Society no longer puts up with nonsense like that once you turn thirty. He and a lot of other idealistic hippies may have loved A Thousand Clowns while being supported by their parents or managing to sponge off others, but found that it lost its charm when they ended up having to go to work to pay the bills.