film feature: a human being and not a chair

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[re-posting of a 2009 set of musings, inspired by today’s showing of this film during 2014’s Turner Classic Movie’s “31 Days of Oscar”]

A Thousand Clowns1962 play into 1965 movie and into our hearts.

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(L-R) Barry Gordon, Jason Robards Jr., Sandy Dennis. Photo: Life Magazine.

This image is from the original stage production (featuring left to right Barry Gordon as Nick, Jason Robards Jr. as Murray, Sandy Dennis as Sandra). While I know this work of art on screen and as a play script rather than on stage, the movie was the cinematic translation of the entire original Broadway cast, save our Sandra (on stage played by the mysteriously wounded and lovely Sandy Dennis and on film by the similarly gifted Barbara Harris). So it all feels of a piece, this theatrical artistry.

I have many reasons to consider this movie as a personal story. No, I didn’t grow up in New York City, but I have lived only in cities since my western Michigan suburban upbringing and now live a short train ride from Manhattan. [2014 update: Manhattan residence finally achieved.]  I have studied theatre and literature and history and political science and social work. While I was never a case-carrying social worker, I understand the policies and practices of child welfare at play in this plot. My mother played the uke and in particular “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” played often in this film and perhaps what inspired my Mom’s frequent uke performances of the same tune during my childhood. I knew the words to this joyous and loving tune before I was in kindergarten. I believe that the sense of humor I now have, that I hope I have, was fostered by parents who also loved and understood this story and these characters and their intelligence and their humor.

And I remember watching this movie with a college friend on the May day in 1977 before I left on a plane ride home for my mother’s funeral, at the end of my freshman year. In a bizarrely yet appropriately timed bit of programming at the Harvard Square Theatre, we both watched A Thousand Clowns that day, and cried and laughed in tribute to Mom and to her beloved askew view of conventional life. A wildly passionate and funny and well-read and fascinating woman who died at age 47. My personal Murray Burns. And I (and my siblings and a raft of friends and relatives) were often her Nick.

From the playscript — a scene between Sandra and Murray talking about 12-year-old Nick, who has been living with his uncle Murray since his mother left him there seven years before.  The city child welfare authorities have gotten wind of Nick’s unconventional lifestyle. Uncle Murray is an unemployed (for the moment) comedy writer and single and both live in a one room apartment, taking holidays on a whim and living life by their own rules.  Sandra comes into their life as one of a pair of visiting social workers, and ends up leaving her employer and falling for the charming Murray.  Murray understands the concerns of the child welfare authority, yet is most concerned about setting Nick up for a future life, with the right priorities.  (In this speech I hear my mother throughout.)

“I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won’t turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he’ll know when he’s chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are, I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want  a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it’s worth all the trouble to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

A Thousand Clowns (1962).  Murray Burns to Sandra Markowitz.

a final treat: “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” from the movie

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 4, 2009, reposted with slight modifications February 2, 2014)

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