I saw A Thousand Clowns when it was released in 1965, while I was in my second year of college. It 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 well-known movies in this nonconformist genre are You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Auntie Mame (1958). These movies make 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 in New York City, early in the morning. Murray starts hollering at the people in the apartment buildings that they need to clean their windows. Later in the movie, Nick says that Murray hollers all the time:
He hollers. Like, we were on Park Avenue last Sunday, and it’s very early in the morning. There’s no one in the streets, see, just all these big, quiet apartment houses, and he hollers, “Rich people, I want to see you all out on the street for volleyball. Let’s snap it up!”
And Nick is right. Murray talks loud and hollers throughout the movie. He is not content merely to be a nonconformist in his own quiet way, but feels compelled to put his nonconformity on full display for the benefit of the whole world.
Murray makes fun of the people who are going to work in the morning, which he refers to as a “horrible thing.” He used to have a job working for a guy named Leo, 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, and so can those that quit for a good cause, such as a medical condition. But you don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if you simply got tired of working and quit. 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, so 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.
After Murray talks loud and acts crazy in front of Amundson and Markowitz for fifteen minutes, with Nick doing the same, we eventually get the serious reason why Nick is with Murray. When Nick was five, his mother abandoned Nick, leaving him at Murray’s apartment. No one knows who the father was. 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. The explanation given is that since Nick was a bastard, his mother decided not to give him a last name. And since she didn’t give him a last name, she didn’t want to give him a first name either. As I mentioned above, this is a fake world. If an unwed mother refuses to name a child, the name will be assigned by the state, typically giving the child the mother’s maiden name, and picking a common first name to complete the process. The only way her child could avoid having an official name would be if there were no birth certificate. So, what did his mother do, have him under a bridge?
Dr. Markowitz is a fairly normal person and thus more like a typical social worker. However, she was engaged to Amundson, and they quarrel while at Murray’s apartment. He leaves without her, and she becomes hysterical. But soon it is that she and Murray fall in love. And you know what that means. She wants him to give up his nonconformist ways and get a job. And the principal reason why Murray should do this, according to the movie, is emphasized over and over again, that only by getting a job can he retain custody of Nick.
Amundson returns the next day to explain the situation to Murray:
Late yesterday afternoon, the Child Welfare Board made a decision on your case. Now, uh, the decision they’ve reached is based on three months of a thorough study.
Since Murray has been receiving unemployment checks for five months, the investigation apparently started two months after he quit his job. Boy, that Child Welfare Board is really on top of things! Amundson continues:
Our interview yesterday was only a small part of that. Quite thorough. I want you to understand that I am not responsible personally for the decision they’ve reached…. Months of research by the board and reports by the Revere School show a severe domestic instability, a libertine self indulgence, a whole range of circumstances severely detrimental to the child’s welfare.
Amundson informs Murray that it is the board’s decision to remove Nick from his home and find a place for him where he can lead a normal, wholesome life, even though he admits that Murray loves Nick:
Now, I believe that you are a danger to this child. … I wish this were not true, because it is obvious you have considerable affection for your nephew. It shows in your face, this feeling. Well, I admire you for your warmth, Mr. Burns, and for the affection the child feels for you.
Meanwhile, all over the city, children are being physically and sexually abused, but it appears the Child Welfare Board won’t have time to get to them. They’re too busy worrying about Murray’s bohemian life style.
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 this 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. 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.
The way this movie is oblivious to the need for a job, for the simple reason you need money to live on, 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 a permanent option, and one available to us all.
Auntie Mame is similar to A Thousand Clowns in that both movies involve someone who has 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 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 in his refusal to conform, so too are the jobs Murray is offered so repulsive that we are supposed to side with Murray in his refusal to go back to work. But he lives in New York, and there are more jobs in that city than those that have something to do with producing a television show. Nevertheless, Murray agrees to go back to work for Leo, writing material for Chuckles, the Chipmunk. But Arnold warns him that he won’t be home free just because he has a job:
Now, my agency lawyer gave me all the facts. The most the board will allow you is a probationary year with Nick, a trial period, and the board’s investigators are going to be checking up on you every week, regularly: checking to see that you still have your job, checking with Leo on your stability, checking up on the improvements in your home environment.
They will be watching his every move!
So, there is little for Murray to do but take that job and marry Sandra, allowing him to retain custody of Nick.
In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, which was published in 1986, 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 (1921), a Charlie Chaplin movie, had a better resolution. But for this movie to have an ending like the one 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 just like everyone else.