A rare look behind the scenes at the unreleased Jerry Lewis Holocaust movie, “The Day The Clown Cried”

People who asked Jerry Lewis earlier this year if we’d ever get to see his infamous unreleased movie about a washed-up circus clown entertaining Jewish children in a Nazi concentration camp may have known then what we’re only knowing now: Parts of The Day The Clown Cried have been online for us to watch all along.

The Day The Clown Cried was supposed to play at Cannes 40 years ago.

Lewis, now 87, told reporters at Cannes this summer about the film: “It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic. You will never see it, no one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.” Lewis told a man essentially the same thing back in January.

UPDATED Aug. 19, 2013: Jerry Lewis talked about the movie in a “10 Questions” bargain with an Entertainment Weekly reporter in 2009, which only surfaced now in the wake of this other footage. Here’s a juicy tidbit within the other juicy tidbits that were being kept from us all this time…

Okay, number four: is the reason the film has not been released because you are unhappy with it?
He writes: Yes/No.
Which doesn’t mean that Yes, I’m unhappy with the work that I did. But who am I preserving it for? No one’s ever gonna see it. But the preservation that I believe is that, when I die, I’m in total control of the material now. Nobody can touch it. After I’m gone, who knows what’s going to happen? I think I have the legalese necessary to keep it where it is. So I’m pretty sure that it won’t be seen. The only thing that I do feel, that I always get a giggle out of, some smart young guy like Chris is going to come up with an idea and he’s going to run the f—ing thing. I would love that. Because he’s going to see a hell of a movie!

Compare that to what he told a Flemish TV/film crew visiting the set of The Day The Clown Cried, talking about using a working soundtrack for the actors:

“I’m an old-fashioned filmmaker. I should be 80 years old, because — when they did films years ago, Charlie Chaplin told me that he would never work without a violin on the set. And he told me about how they used to play music for the silent films, and it’s a great idea. I’ve always done it. I thought I was an innovator, until Chaplin told me I had a few fellows before me that did it.”

That set visit happened and/or aired on April 9, 1972, and resurfaced on that day in 2012 on the Belgian site Cobra, where it remained undisturbed or unshared by American audiences until Sunday, when a version of the video was copied and uploaded to YouTube.

Un Jour Le Clown Pleura, as the film’s clapboard slate read in 1972 (see, Jerry Lewis and the French really have had a love connection all of these years!), also shows Lewis in and out of his clown makeup, juggling and performing simple-yet-classic clowning tricks. Nothing controversial about that.

Why it remains to be seen in full, perhaps, is the plot and how Lewis handled it as writer/director/star.

In it, Lewis played the clown Helmut, who winds up in a Nazi prison for political prisoners next to Jewish prisoners, eventually entertaining the Jewish children and leading them all the way into the gas chamber, with him following them inside, all to their deaths. Not a dark comedy so much as a dark movie.

Supposed to debut at Cannes in 1973, The Day The Clown Cried instead got bogged down in legal rights to the film prints, and when Lewis finally screened his own rough cut of the movie several years later, Harry Shearer’s reaction, quoted for posterity a generation ago: “This was the perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos, its comedy, are so wildly displaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it is. ‘Oh my God!’ That’s all you can say.”

A decade ago, Patton Oswalt hosted exclusive readings of the screenplay with his comedy friends.

That screenplay, you say? Until we get to see The Day The Clown Cried, you’ll just have to read it and weep.

FURTHER READING: Here is a full draft of the script for The Day The Clown Cried.

Also: A 2012 piece in Cinetropolis recapping the saga of Lewis and this unreleased film.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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