The Strange Tale Of Jerry Lewis' Unreleased Holocaust Comedy

There are several infamous movies that you will likely never be able to watch on TV, buy on DVD or rent from your local video store. Some films, like Roger Avary’s post-‘Rules Of Attraction’ Euro-jaunt 'Glitterati’, would be too costly to release due to boring old rights issues; some films, like Orson Welles’ 'The Other Side Of The Wind’, were left unfinished after the director’s death. But Jerry Lewis’ holocaust movie 'The Day The Clown Cried’ is a particularly interesting case. There’s only one copy of the film in existence and it belongs to Lewis, who keeps it under lock and key – because he considers it to be one of the worst films ever made.

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In 1972, Lewis agreed to direct and star in holocaust drama 'The Day The Clown Cried’, adapted from a script written by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton. The hook? The film would see funnyman Lewis playing a clown who winds up entertaining children as they’re led to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. This is what you might call a 'tough sell’ in Hollywood terms. When Lewis was pitched the movie by producer Nathan Wachsberger, he replied: “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. Some laugh – how do I pull it off?” Nonetheless, the challenge excited Lewis and he eventually relented.

Lewis would play past-his-prime German clown Helmut Doork, who is fired from his job with the circus and winds up getting drunk and insulting Adolf Hitler, landing him in a Nazi concentration camp. Doork soon discovers that though he’s lost what talents he once had for making people laugh, he’s still a great source of entertainment for children. After getting thrown in solitary confinement for continuing to perform without permission, Helmut is ordered by the Nazis to make the Jewish children laugh as they are being led to their death – and by a twist of fate, Doork winds up on his way to Auschwitz with them. The movie ends with Doork, utterly broken, voluntarily choosing to spend his last moments entertaining the children inside the gas chambers.

Phew. On paper, it sounds like a Worthy Piece Of Filmmaking, the kind of 'issues’ movie the Academy loves – Lewis himself considered the film Oscar-worthy. However, the production of 'The Day The Clown Cried’ was farcical: promised funds never materialised, leaving Lewis to pony up much of the film’s finances himself; producer Wachsberger never once attended the set, probably due to the fact that his option to produce the film expired before the movie had even begun filming. The omens were not good.

Above: Jerry Lewis in 1964′s ‘The Patsey’

Fatally, Lewis had completely misjudged the tone of the piece, attempting to combine old-fashioned clowning around with the horrors of the holocaust. The source material saw the character of Helmut as a “bastard” – it was the story of the redemption of a selfish man. Lewis, however, made his character more of a tragic, Chaplin-esque figure: a sad, Depression-era, 'Weary Willie’-style clown. Author Joan O'Brien went on record as to call the resultant movie a “disaster”. Rolling Stone journalist Lynn Hirschberg, whom Lewis showed the climactic scenes in 1982, said of the film: “I was appalled. I couldn’t understand it. It was beyond normal computation.” According to all who saw it, 'The Day The Clown Cried’ was rotten to its core.

TV director and former Jerry Lewis collaborator Joshua White is one of a handful of people to have seen a rough cut of the movie. “To see this film that was so important to [Jerry] was just sad,” says White. “He felt like the world had conspired against him to prevent him from completing it. He endowed it with a great sadness. It was "the lost film”. But it is so awful – you can’t even laugh at it.“

'The Simpsons’ actor Harry Shearer also saw the rough cut along with White. "With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself,” he told Spy Magazine in 1992. “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.”

Years turned into decades, and still Lewis had no plans to release the film – rights changed hands, lawsuits were threatened and Jerry Lewis had ownership of the rough cut, refusing to let anyone see it until it he got his way and the film could be completed. “One way or another, I’ll get it done,” said Lewis in his autobiography, determined as a Jewish man himself to finish what he considered to be a work of great importance. He didn’t appear in another movie for eight years after filming was completed. The film had begun to consume him.

As word of the movie’s quality – or lack thereof – spread, the actor started to change his tune. In 2001, Lewis reacted angrily when a member of the public enquired about the chances of 'The Day The Clown Cried’ ever being released, snapping “None of your goddamn business!” Later the same year, he told a reporter: “As far as discussing [the movie], forget it! If you want to see any of it, forget it!” The movie slowly became the stuff of myth and legend, with Lewis the bitter keeper of the keys. This was The Streisand Effect in action: the longer Lewis held on to the film, the more the myth grew and the worse its reputation got. Had it been released in 1972, it’s likely 'The Day The Clown Cried’ would have been long forgotten by now.

In 1997, Robert Benigni released 'Life Is Beautiful’, a holocaust movie with a similar slant: Benigni’s character Guido uses humour to protect his young son from the horrors of Nazi Germany. You can imagine Jerry Lewis’ dismay when, thanks to a sustained Oscar campaign and the influence of producer Harvey Weinstein, Benigni was named Best Actor at the 1998 Academy Awards. Robin Williams – who at one point was mooted to star in a new version of 'The Day The Clown Cried’ during the film’s lengthy litigation period – instead made 'Jakob The Liar’ in 1999; another holocaust project with a comedian at its centre (although Williams was rightfully denied even a sniff of an Oscar). Both movies proved that even holocaust movies could have a little levity, the effect which Lewis was shooting for all along.

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'The Day The Clown Cried’ had been considered a long lost curio until footage surfaced online in 2013, when a Flemish TV station uploaded some behind the scenes footage to YouTube, showing Lewis on the film’s set 40 years earlier. The short video shows Lewis in full makeup, practicing his clowning and shooting scenes against a circus backdrop. The actor looked gaunt, having lost 35 pounds for the role by eating nothing but grapefruit for six weeks. The footage ignited interest in the film once again: but will it ever be seen by the general public?

Jerry Lewis, now 87, continues to resist calls to release the film, although he now claims he’s keeping the movie hidden for a different reason – not because he’s determined to finish it, but because he’s ashamed by it. “It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic,” a regretful Lewis said at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. “You will never see it, no one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work… I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad.”

Image credits: Rex/Kikapress

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