Jerry Lewis’ unreleased 1972 film The Day The Clown Cried continues to fascinate movie fans.
It’s not the interest that is surprising. Lewis is a popular star, had a long career and has millions of devoted fans. So it’s not shocking people would be curious about a movie that he made and was never released.
The interest starts to build up because of the subject matter of the movie. A film that takes place during WWII with Lewis playing a circus clown tossed into a concentration camp. The Nazi’s see the children prisoners are entertained by his antics and decide to use him as pied piper of sorts to lead the unsuspecting children to their deaths.
Way before Robert Benigni became a sensation with his 1997 film Life Is Beautiful and Robin Williams played a concentration DJ in Jakob The Liar, Lewis tried to tackle a similar story using the most tragic of settings.
Now things are really getting fascinating. This idea could be the epitome of bad taste and be one of the largest train wrecks in the land of cinema. But perhaps the most amazing thing to me is that over forty years after starring and directing The Day The Clown Cried, the film truly has never been seen.
Clips and behind-the-scenes footage have come out, but the film itself remains a mystery. It has taken on somewhat mythic proportions. ‘The Lost Jerry Lewis Film’ that he vowed will never be shown. The film might haunt Lewis, but it’s become one of the most notorious curiosities in film that hasn’t wavered since it was shelved.
There’s more to the story of why The Day The Clown Cried got locked away, allegedly now sitting in Lewis’s safe. Financing that fell through, rights not obtained, writers unhappy and Lewis himself who has stated he “just screwed up the movie” when it could have been something great and he was “embarrassed by the work”. I wrote about the movie once before and suspicions that some of the ideas from the movie carried over into Lewis’1980 comedy Hardly Working.
Through the years there have been stories of a handful of people who got to watch the rough edit that Lewis has of the movie. The most famous and forthright one was Harry Shearer who claimed to witness it one night. Not too long ago there was some behind-the-scenes footage of Lewis at work on the set that was featured in a recently discovered documentary that was made. The BBC released a 30-minute documentary report about the film. Some have used the script of the film (which is available) and filmed their own versions of it.
It wasn’t a lot, just glimpses into the mystery that are contained on those dusty film reels locked away or probably it’s a VHS copy. So curiosity seekers didn’t have a lot to help paint the picture of what the film is.
In 2015 Lewis donated his entire body of work to the Library of Congress, which includes a copy of The Day The Clown Cried. So folks conceivably will be able to watch the film. The catch is that Lewis demanded it would not be shown until 2025.
After already waiting such a long time, fans can’t wait until then and fortunately the most comprehensive assembly of footage from The Day The Clown Cried surfaced on Youtube. A good amount of unreleased footage from the film was discovered in a German documentary that was made about it. I tell you, this movie must have had more documentaries made about it than any other film!
With excerpts from the script, some re-enactments and subtitles, since the existing footage is dubbed in German, to fill in the gaps, it’s a rough assemblage of footage and tells the movie’s story from start to finish. It’s the most footage of the film that has ever leaked out. The video runs for about thirty minutes and gives the best impression of what the final film is.
And I have to say – I didn’t think it looked all that bad.
Maybe my vision of The Day The Clown Cried was so dire anything remotely good was going to redeem it somewhat. Like if you’re planning on seeing a disaster and it’s not an outright bomb it kind of surpasses your expectations, so you can’t really say it’s as bad as you thought. But really from the video that was put together I don’t think there’s much for Lewis to be embarrassed about.
It is somewhat odd to see. But I thought most of the actors looked like they were pretty good. Obviously this is not a typical ‘Jerry Movie’ so he plays scenes much straighter than his usual persona and I thought he was decent. There’s scenes of him depressed with his wife and in the bar at the beginning and he seemed alright. Actually I thought his comedic clown bits were the worst part of the whole thing. He’s supposed to be entertaining the kids and they’re meant to become enamored by him, but I didn’t buy that at all.
A lot of Jerry’s comedy has always been hit or miss for me. The wacky clown stuff was a miss in this. So the children laughing and loving Jerry were the most awkward parts for me. There’s a group hug they all do while locked in a cattle car and it’s very heavy-handed.
The camp set itself is nothing special. It’s somewhat compact, but maybe that had to do with the limited budget. It almost looks like a holdover set from Hogan’s Heroes. This was 1972 so I wasn’t expecting the more realistic portrayal of Nazi concentration camps like we get in The Pianist or Schindler’s List. The barren set with the barracks and wire fences gets the point across I suppose.
I like when the Commandant asks who this clown is and is told by an officer “His name is Helmut Doork” and the Commandant screams, “Not his name his identification number!”. It would be nice to hear the actual actors voices. Oddly enough though I think the footage plays just fine without the dialogue. I could picture it being a silent film. Maybe music would add much more to this.
Maybe I’m crazy, but it doesn’t look like it’s the legendary train wreck that we suspected all these years. Yes an unusual project, but maybe a more admirable effort than what everyone pegged Lewis’ film to be. If I was given a chance I would certainly like to watch it in its entirety.
I suspect this video won’t be available for very long, so check it out while you can.