Some people have called Jerry Lewis’s holocaust drama The Day The Clown Cried a lost film in that it has never been seen by the public. I suppose it is in a sense, but am reluctant to give it that tag as it has gone unseen more due to legal problems keeping it in a vault rather than through any casual neglect that resulted in no prints for the title in continued existence.
(You can read an in depth explanation of those legal problems, as well as a review of the film’s screenplay in our script review here.)
But one thing is for sure. The Day The Clown Cried is probably at the top of almost all serious film fans of unavailable titles that they would love to have a chance to see. And while a nearly complete version of the film lies tucked away in a safe in Jerry Lewis’s office, a sequence from an old Dutch television show on Lewis has surfaced on YouTube that shows the comic/director in the process of shooting the film. The sequences we do get to see are from early in the film, centering on Lewis’s German circus clown character Helmut Doork before he is caught making fun of Adolf Hilter and sent off to a concentration camp where he is forced to entertain children on their way to the gas chamber.
The clowning that we see Lewis do is fairly benign and out of context I can’t tell if it is supposed to portray Doork as just a middling talent or if Lewis is not actually bringing anything funny to the scene. I would imagine that there is a clue to be found though in a 1992 Spy magazine piece on the film titled “Jerry Goes To Death Camp!” Comedian Harry Shearer, through a series of fortuitous connections, was able to see the film explained what he saw thusly –
With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. “Oh My God!” – that’s all you can say… if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly-held feeling.
Shearer elaborated on his experience with the view on the Howard Stern radio show in 1990s.
I am sure that Lewis started off on the project in 1971 with the intention of doing something he thought would highlight both his comedic and hitherto untapped dramatic abilities but vanity and ego blinded him to what a train wreck in the making the project was becoming. But it seems that over the years, Lewis has become more clearheaded about what the film that was made. While he ignores the legal aspect tying up the film’s release, he in the below excerpt from a public question and answer this past January, he is brutally honest about his own estimation of his work.
Via Bleeding Cool.