Monday, 30 June 2014



29. THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED (1972, dir. Jerry Lewis)


I will warn you now - there are no laughs in what you about to read. Curiosity got the better of me on this one, and I want to make sure other people know what to avoid.

You will often be in a conversation with someone about a film that only one of you has seen, primarily with the aim of getting the other person to see it. I always write here as someone imploring that a film should be seen, or not seen. How about I try referring to a film that I won't see, that you won't see, that no-one has any chance of seeing and, especially after this, you won't want to see.

After finishing a residency at a Las Vegas hotel in 1971, Jerry Lewis began shooting a film in Sweden that would, somehow, be family-oriented, while portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. At the time, Jerry Lewis had a franchise of cinemas that would show only films to audiences of the sort he hoped would be drawn in by this film. 

Rewriting a ten-year old script that the producer used to sell the idea to Lewis, filming began on something rather unsettling: the story of a failing circus clown that makes drunken slurs against Hitler in a bar, is arrested by the Nazis, and put in a concentration camp for those who have been arrested due to political conscience. There, he finds purpose by entertaining the Jewish children. The authorities see how he can be useful, bargaining with the clown that, for the chance of freedom, he has to entertain the children as they are taken to Auschwitz. (So far, so heartwarming.) The clown's hard heart has melted by this point, and he begs with the guards to entertain them right up to when they enter the "showers". Knowing there is no miracle, he follows them in, entertaining the children as the film ends.

Who, in their right or wrong mind, would make a film about this? It made my skin crawl writing the above, but it is my fault for wanting to find out more about a film that won't be released. You don't want to be told how bad it is, you want to see the evidence to make your own decision, much like I would like to see the cheap 1994 version of "The Fantastic Four," made only to extend the option the producer had on the stories until he could make a better version, in 2005.

Again, who would make a film like this? Either the man who made "The Nutty Professor" (1963), it seems, or someone who thinks they can be Charlie Chaplin, but lacks the judgement that made "The Great Dictator" (1940) work. For Chaplin, authority always had to be taken down a peg. If you find a fuller description of "The Day the Clown Cried" online, along with the full script, you will see why personal moral redemption is pointless when presented alongside the total moral absence of the Nazi machine - and Jerry Lewis thought families wanted to see this?

The reason this film has not been released is not due to any amount of professional integrity, or shame. As ever with films, someone is not paid, the original writer of the screenplay in this case, and a lawsuit is fired out - the writer does not want a film released that bowdlerised their work, as the clown was meant to have been even more of a bastard, making the moral redemption clearer, but it didn't stop talks of a "remake" in the 1990s starring Robin Williams or William Hurt.

For the people who actually do want to have a look, excerpts exist online from a 1972 Belgian TV documentary that followed Lewis in making the film, and various places report the incredulity of Harry Shearer, of Spinal Tap and "The Simpsons," who has seen a bootleg copy of the film. Howard Stern, who also interviewed Shearer about it, states he wants to make a monetary offer to Lewis to get the film released. I would rather not hear about it ever again.

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