Bad Movie Fans Drool As New Scraps Of Footage Surface From Jerry Lewis’s ‘Day The Clown Cried’
A special New Year’s gift for fans of bad movies: A few glimpses of scenes from Jerry Lewis’s never-released 1972 disasterpiece, The Day the Clown Cried, the Holy Grail of lost — or actually, hidden — movies. It’s become a kind of shorthand for ridiculous hubristic overreach: The Nutty Professor makes a Serious Film about the Holocaust, in which a sad clown named Helmut Doork, played by Lewis, is arrested for mocking Hitler and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
Doork finds he can bring some joy to the little Jewish children in an adjacent part of the camp, and ends up reluctantly traveling with them to Auschwitz, leading them into the gas chamber while encouraging them to keep smiling. The door shuts on Doork and the kids, and the credits roll. And even though Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful has gone over somewhat similar territory, there’s something especially horrific about the very idea of The Day the Clown Cried, inescapably wrapped up with Lewis’s vision of himself as an auteur, not to mention his prickly refusal to talk — much — about the movie. Lewis has promised that it’s never going to be released, but by god, there’s a lot of people who want to see this damned thing. Which is never going to happen.
But there are scraps. Stories. An impassioned plea in 2006 from the Tank Riot podcast to free the film. The screenplay leaked a few years ago. In 1992, Spy published interviews with several people who worked on the film, and two people who had seen a rough cut, TV director Joshua White and comedian/actor Harry Shearer. Shearer’s assessment of the movie has become somewhat notorious:
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.
And if that doesn’t sound like a movie that you want to see — have to see — then you are not allowed to borrow any of my Mystery Science Theater 3000 tapes, ever.
Last August, a 7-minute clip from a Flemish TV documentary on the film surfaced on YouTube; It’s mostly behind-the scenes stuff, but with some glimpses of the film as it was being shot, which is more than most of us had ever seen:
What we see here is not footage from the film itself, but scenes as they were being shot, captured by the TV camera, so the angles aren’t what we’d see if we were watching the real thing. But hey, it may well be the biggest chunk of Day the Clown Cried that we’ll ever get.
Then again, a lot of us who experienced the unique awfulness of the Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978 thought we’d never see it again, either. Somewhere out there, there has to be a gang of thieves who are tired of stealing art and jewels, and they’re just the people we need to break into Jerry Lewis’s safe for the good of all humanity. If nothing else, that would make a good premise for Oceans 14.