Script Review: Jerry Lewis’s Infamous THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED

Posted on 07 August 2005 by Rich Drees

Original Screenplay by
Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton

Making a film is a substantial financial investment and no matter how bad the final product is it will still get at least a cursory release in an attempt to at least recoup a small fraction of its cost. But there are still a few films that, for whatever reasons, never see the light of a projector bulb and Jerry Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried is certainly the most famous and if not the most infamous.

Let’s face it, for better or worse, the description “Jerry Lewis is a clown in a Nazi concentration camp” is an attention getter.

Harry Shearer, one of the very small handful of people who has actually seen the film in rough cut form described it in an interview on radio’s The Howard Stern Show as, “If you say ‘Jerry Lewis is a clown in a concentration camp’ and you make that movie up in your head, it’s so much better than that. And by better I mean worse. You’re stunned.”

How did such an audacious sounding project ever come about?

Well, here’s what the Official Jerry Lewis Comedy Museum and Store has to say about the film-

In 1971, producer Nate Wachsberger asked Jerry to direct and star in The Day the Clown Cried, based on Joan O’Brien’s book by the same name, about a German clown who was arrested by the Gestapo, interred in a concentration camp, and used to march Jewish children into the ovens. Jerry lost close to 40 pounds to play the role. The shooting began in Stockholm, but Wachsberger not only ran out of money to complete the film, but he failed to pay Joan O’Brien the money she was owed for the rights to the story. Jerry was forced to finish the picture with his own money. The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation.

Maybe that’s how Jerry remembers it, but a little research will reveal a much larger picture.

The Day The Clown Cried had its origin with publicity agent Joan O’Brien who conceived the story while working for famous sad-eyed clown Emmett Kelly and spending her free time reading about the Holocaust. Teaming with TV critic Charles Denton, O’Brien penned a screenplay about an unlikable gentile circus clown named Karl Schmidt who, after being caught satirizing Hitler by members of the SS, is sent to Auschwitz and forced to lead unsuspecting Jewish children to the gas chamber.

The script made the usual Hollywood rounds and at various points had reportedly been considered by such names as Dick Van Dyke, Milton Berle and Austrian-born Joseph Schildkraut.

In 1966, Jerry Lewis’ long time sound engineer Jim Wright signed onto the project as a co-producer. The film was set to film in Europe that spring with director Loel Minardi (Sinderella and the Golden Bra) and producer Paul Mart (Sinderella and the Golden Bra, For Men Only). But for unknown reasons, the production fell through.

By the spring of 1971, Belgian producer Nathan Wachsberger (The Sea Pirate (1966), Starcrash) had picked up an option on the screenplay and approached Lewis to star and direct. Wachsberger had a long, if undistinguished career first as an importer of European films to the United States in the `30s and as a partner in comedian George Jessel’s production company before directing several forgettable features in Europe.

Wachsberger convinced Lewis that he had met with O’Brien and the two agreed that he would be perfect for the lead. Since he had no other projects in development, Lewis agreed to look over the script. As Lewis recalled saying to Wachsberger in his 1982 autobiography –

Why don’t you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn’t find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet. My bag is comedy, Mr. Wachsberger, and you’re asking me if I’m prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber. Ho-ho. That’s some laugh—how do I pull it off?

Wachsberg sweetened the deal by telling Lewis that he had secured financing from French and Swedish backers and the filming would use the resources of Europa Studios in Stockholm, where Ingmar Bergman had shot several films. Lewis finally agreed and the August 1st, 1971 issue of Variety announced that Jerry Lewis Productions and Wachsberg were joining forces to produce The Day The Clown Cried with a start date of sometime later in the year.

It was an ambitious schedule that Lewis would not be able to meet. Jerry was at the end of a three-year contract with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas stipulating he had to appear for four weeks a year. He would renew the contract for an additional year that winter, obligating him to get his entire month in before leaving for filming. Lewis also took advantage of the delay in the production start to work on a rewrite of the script.

By February 1972, pre-production had started up with Lewis and his new publicist Fred Skidmore heading to Stockholm. Lewis put himself on a grapefruit diet in an effort to drop some of the weight he had been putting on over the past few years. Ultimately he would drop 35 pounds for the role. The two also toured concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Lewis also assembled his cast, which was to feature Bergman veteran Harriet Andersson as Helmut’s wife Ada Doork, French comic Pierre Etaix, Ulf Palme and Sven Lindberg.

Reportedly Lewis also shot some footage for the film while performing with the Bouglione Cirque d’Hiver in Paris.

With a production set a $1.5 million, principal photography for the film began on April 5th at Studio Europa. But it was obvious that within the first couple weeks that something was wrong. Lewis was starting to get reports that film and equipment suppliers hadn’t been paid and the paychecks issued to the crew were bouncing. Lewis made some calls to Wachsberger in the south of France, who assured his director that money was on its way.

However, Wachsberger wasn’t being honest with Lewis. At the time that production started Wachsberger’s option on the script had already expired. He had paid O’Brien the initial five thousand dollar fee, but not the fifty thousand dollars due her once production commenced. Lewis was producing a film that he had no legal right to make. Whether Lewis knew of this turn of events is unknown, though O’Brien believed that he did. As she was quoted in Shawn Levy’s Lewis biography King Of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, “Jerry knew that the option had expired, but he decided to go ahead.”

When it began to appear that money was not forthcoming from Wachsberger, Lewis began to pay for the production out of his own pocket. This exacerbated the strain that Lewis would place upon himself when directing a film. Reportedly this took a toll on his performance. Lewis saw it another way, as he is immodestly quoted in Levy’s book-

The suffering, the hell I went through with Wachsberger had one advantage. I put all the pain on the screen. If it had been my first picture, the suffering would have destroyed me. But I have the experience to know how to use suffering… I was terrified of directing the last scene. I had been 113 days on the picture, with only three hours of sleep a night. I had been without my family. I was exhausted, beaten. When I thought of doing that scene, I was paralyzed; I couldn’t move. I stood there in my clown’s costume, with the cameras ready. Suddenly the children were all around me, unasked, undirected and they clung to my arms and legs, they looked up at me so trustingly. I felt love pouring out of me. I thought, ‘This is what my whole life has been leading up to.’ I thought what the clown thought. I forgot about trying to direct. I had the cameras turn and I began to walk, with the children clinging to me, singing, into the gas ovens. And the door closed behind us.

By June, principal photography had wrapped and Lewis had already voiced his dissatisfaction with Wachsberger to the Swedish press. Wachsberger in turn instructed his lawyers in London to sue Lewis for breach of contract, feeling that he had could finish the film without Lewis’ services.

Lewis continued working on the film, editing throughout the following winter and spring with editor Rusty Wiles. Reportedly, Lewis was in a foul temper for most of that time. When viewing footage where one young Swedish extra made the mistake of looking directly into the camera, he is reported to have let loose a string of foul invectives and raged “She pulled that same thing in another sequence, remember? I told her to keep her ****** eyes to the front. That it wasn’t a beauty pageant… There’s no room for Shirley Temple in a concentration camp.”

Ultimately, all of Lewis’ work would be for nothing. Claiming that the production still owed them over six hundred thousand dollars, Europa Studios refused to release the negative, though Lewis did have duplicates of most of the footage, including all the elements from the last three days of filming. O’Brien and Denton refused to renew their option with either Wachsberger or Lewis, even after Lewis showed them selected scenes. This was a move that would ultimately backfire on the director. “It was a disaster,” O’Brien was quoted in Levy’s book. Denton added, “In one scene, Jerry is lying in his bunk wearing a pair of brand-new shoes after theoretically having been in a concentration camp for four or five years.”

And so the film has languished, edited without a soundtrack or credits, in several film canisters in a safe owned by Lewis. Following the European success of Lewis’s Hardly Working in 1980, Europa Studios announced their intention to shop the negative around for a studio willing to finance its completion and distribution. O’Brien quickly put a stop to it.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to make a new version of the story. In 1980, Wright announced that he was still developing a screenplay with the possibility of Richard Burton in the lead, but the project went no further. In 1991 one of Wright’s original partners Tex Rudloff and Michael Barclay announced plans to film the story in the Soviet Union in conjunction with the Russian production company Lenfilm, but the plan fell through. Robin Williams was touted to star in a production directed by Jeremy Kagan (The Chosen) the following year, but again no film ever materialized. Williams would go on to star in his own concentration camp drama, Jakob The Liar, in 1999.

As time passed, Jerry Lewis became increasingly reticent about talking about the project, oft times greeting interviews questions on the subject with silence and a withering stare. Very few of Lewis’s inner circle have seen the film. Among those who have include comedian Harry Shearer and 1979 Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon director Joshua White and Rolling Stone writer Lynn Hirschberg, who interviewed the comic in 1982.

When approaching the script, one has to remain in the frame of mind that this will not be The Nutty Professor Goes To Auschwitz. This was not an attempt to do a comedy set against the backdrop of the horrors of war, something that was adroitly handled on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. Instead, Lewis was definitely trying for pathos, the way that many comics long to show the world that they are capable of delivering a serious performance. Unfortunately, even though Lewis himself reportedly heavily reworked the latter half of the script, it still just fails miserably.

Lewis is Helmut Doork, a struggling clown in a German circus. Once a great star, he has been reduced to second banana status by his current employer. Doork dreams of regaining his lost star status, but can’t seem to motivate himself to recapture it. One night while getting drunk in a bar, Doork is overheard making some derogatory remarks about the Furher by some Gestapo agents.

In short time, Doork is shipped off to a prison where he is tormented by the guards who hold out the possibility of release to the deluded Doork. Eventually the prisoner commandant discovers that his clowning keeps the children quiet and forces him to entertain the tykes on their way to the gas chamber.

Sounds really tasteful, doesn’t it?

Lewis wants us to be sympathetic to Doork’s plight. However, the scriptwriters have not given Doork one redeeming feature that allows the audience to care for him. Doork is cowardly and self-centered. On the rare instances that he stands up for himself or another prisoner, he gets hit and immediately castigates himself for showing some backbone.

Lewis clearly seems to be striving for some kind of Chaplin-esque Little Tramp feel, but fail miserably. Chaplin’s Tramp character manages to put on a brave face and struggle through his circumstances through sheer force of will. Lewis’ Doork (now THERE’s a phrase I never foresaw myself writing . . .) just meekly accepts his situation and hides behind a vast wall of self-denial. There’s no way a viewer of this movie could be sympathetic towards him. It almost comes as a relief when the Germans chuck him into the oven at the end of this 164-page monstrosity.

That’s right, this script clocks in at an over-sized 164 pages and not because there’s an epic storyline here, either. The story is actually pretty thin. But almost every page of this script is crammed with unnecessary description, notations and camera direction.

Another failing of this script is its complete inability to mix drama and comedy. Benigni’s clowning in La Vita e bella (Life is Beautiful) is plot driven, deriving from his character’s desire to shield his son from the horrors surrounding them. Doork’s comedy bits are often set up by the guard’s cruelty. In one segment early in the script, a guard removes a blanket from Doork while he sleeps, allowing a cold draft to enter the barracks. Doork soon awakes and does some shtick with socks and other assorted clothing that are frozen stiff, eventually going to the off screen bathroom from whence issues the sound of crushed iced hitting the bowl, presumably Doork urinating! Not only is the comedy business old and tired, I’m sure it has been done to death before the advent of talkies, the frozen pee joke is just a bad cap to the scene. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m no prig. I’ve been a die hard Howard Stern fan for almost 15 years and love a well-crafted raunchy joke. This isn’t one though.)

I’ll admit it. There is a part of me that desperately wants to see this film. Why? Well I could adopt a high minded attitude and say something along the line of “How can you can judge a film that is good unless you have an idea of what a bad film is like?” or “It’s important to see this film as part of cinema history” or whatever. Truth is, there’s a disturbing blob of morbid fascination inside me that craves a viewing of this film. Can it be as truly horrible as legend says? Well, if they do the script any justice, it most assuredly is.

5 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Says:

    If Mr Lewis is online reading this, or anyone in his family, or anyone who knows him, please impress upon him the importance of releasing this film. I am a fan of John Belushi. His worst film was “Neighbors”. It is bad in every way, but I love it, because John Belushi is in it. I understand this is magnified, but Mr Lewis has legions of fans around the world who love him, and will love this film. In this world bravery involves risk. The greater the risk, the braver the act. The world critiques failure, but fans appreciate bravery and brush aside criticism. Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” was a misguided disaster, but his fans don’t care. They worship it.

  2. Ramonzmania Says:

    Actually, I thought Neighbors was Belushi’s best movie, certainly more laughs than The Blues Brothers or the assembly-line romantic comedy, Continental Divide. We’ll have to wait for the respective estates of Ms OBrien and Jerry Lewis to settle in 10 or 15 years, before Clown sees the light of day…I hope Scorcese takes interest & handles the final edit, so it’s not mangled, the way Orson Welles Don Quixote project was by euro-schlockmeister Jess Franco.

  3. Joe Says:

    what will happen when Jerry passes, will that help the chances of the public ever seeing this film? or has he already put something in his will which will continue to prevent this film from being scene, that would not be fair. God, do I want see this film !

  4. Rich Drees Says:

    Joe, I would guess that the film would still have to stay in a safe until someone works out the rights problem between what will be the Lewis Estate and whomever the heirs of writer Joan O’Brien.

  5. truthseekerAnn Says:

    About the ending, “It almost comes as a relief when the Germans chuck him into the oven at the end of this 164-page monstrosity.” I can see the ending having a twist. A change of heart. Unable to escape or save the children he goes in the chambers with them comforting them and dies with them at his own choosing. Be fitting the title. Not the Germans throwing him in there.

2 Trackbacks For This Post

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