Jerry Lewis' Lost Film: The Day the Clown Cried

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

[Ed. note: this post is in commemoration of Jerry Lewis’ 90th birthday today.]

Man at a 2001 press conference: "when are you going to release The Day the Clown Cried?"

Jerry Lewis: "none of your g*****n business!"

Jerry Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried is one of the most famous "never released films" in movie history. In 1971, while appearing at the Olympia theater, Jerry was approached by "producer" Nat Wachsberger. Wachsberger told Jerry of his idea for a film called The Day the Clown Cried. Written by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton, the film's story (the following is pretty much the gist of it) told of Helmut Doork, a circus clown in nazi Germany who was recently fired.

Helmut gets drunk at a local bar, pokes fun at Hitler, and is taken to prison camp. After his act bombs with his fellow prisoners, Helmut goes out alone to the prison yard and tries out his shtick. There, he overhears some children laughing at him. Helmut is given the job of putting new prisoners on the train to Auschwitz, the nazi concentration camp.

Like the Pied Piper, he leads a group of children on to the train, and at the film's conclusion he leads kids to their death in the gas chamber. He goes to entertain the kids, but feels remorse, so he steps inside the gas chamber to join them. As Helmut is inside the gas chamber and has the children laughing inside with him, the movie ends. (This is actually the film's story- more or less. No kidding!)

Dick van Dyke, Milton Berle, and Bobby Darin had all been approached about playing Helmut in the film and all had (wisely) declined. But Jerry, probably to his eternal regret, decided to take the role (and agreed to take the directing helm to boot). Reportedly, he dropped 40 pounds to play Helmut, by going on a six-week all-grapefruit diet.

To prepare himself for his role, in February of 1972, Jerry toured the remains of both Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps in Germany (the film's concentration camp scenes were actually shot in a Swedish military compound).

 

Billed as Jerry Lewis' first "serious" movie, filming began in Stockholm, and trouble started almost from the word go. Film equipment was either lost or delivered late and the necessary money was nowhere in sight.

Ostensibly the film's producer, Nat Wachsberger did not appear on the set. He ran out of money, giving the production just $5,000 and failing to come up with the $50,000 he'd promised prior to production. Although he kept promising Jerry that "the money was coming,” Jerry eventually ended up footing the bill for the movie himself. Wachsberger had also neglected to pay Joan O’Brien for the rights to her script.

Jerry had re-written much of the O’Brien's original draft anyway, changing Helmut's character, trying to make him into a more sympathetic “Charlie Chaplin-like" figure. Both O’Brien and fellow writer Charles Denton hated the changes Jerry gave to the Helmut Doork they had created and envisioned.

Cast members working on the film recall Jerry as being "distracted, nervous and preoccupied with money.” Not much is known about the actual production of the film, adding to its cloak of mystery.

After production had ended, Jerry claimed (rightfully so) that Wachsberger had failed to make good on his promise of financial obligations. Incredibly, Wachsberger threatened to file a breach of contract suit against Jerry and claimed he had enough footage to finish the film without its star. The studio held the film's negative, but Jerry took a rough cut of the film for himself.

(YouTube link)

After production, Jerry claimed that the film was invited to be shown at the Cannes film festival and would be released sometime in 1973. Neither of these two events ever came to pass.

As late as 1982, in his autobiography, Jerry said he was was hopeful The Day the Clown Cried would someday be released. But various lawsuits between various involved parties stopped any hope the film would ever see the light of day. Joan O’Brien, the film's writer, saw a rough cut and said it "was a disaster.”

In the early 1980's, Europa Studios announced their plan to edit the negative of the film and finally release it. But O’Brien (and Denton) stopped this from happening, saying it could never be released.

Interestingly, Jerry has screened the film, for a very, very select few Hollywood insiders over the years. Harry Shearer (of The Simpsons) is one of the rare people to have actually seen The Day the Clown Cried. (Note: James Neibaur, author of The Jerry Lewis Films and a close friend of Jerry's, vehemently disputes Harry's claim and says he never saw the film at all.)

In Harry's words: “This was the perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, it's pathos, it's 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.” Shearer told Jerry, after the screening, that the film was "terrible." Jerry, says Harry, was furious.

 

Jerry's original motive in making the film was to make more people aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, a noble goal. But since the film was made, other movies, most notably the two multiple oscar-winners Life is Beautiful (1997) and Steven Spielberg's now-classic Schindler's List (1992) have been made and the purpose Jerry wanted to serve with his movie would seem to have been amply served. Life is Beautiful appears to be strikingly similar to Jerry's concept in The Day the Clown Cried (it may have been wholly or partly based on the film) with Roberto Benigni, like Jerry, both starring and directing.

Although a few decades ago, Jerry thought “The academy can't ignore this,” about The Day the Clown Cried and vowed in his autobiography that “One way or another, I’ll get it done,” he has definitely soured on it over the years. Jerry keeps his copy (the only copy of the film on video cassette) locked up in his vault to this day. Nowadays, he refuses to discuss any facet of the movie with any reporters or pretty much anyone else.

In 1980, The Day the Clown Cried was Nominated for a “Golden Turkey Award" (the precursor to today's “Razzies,” awards for the worst films). It was nominated in the "worst movie you never saw" category, but it couldn't even win that, losing to Billy Jack Goes to Washington -which, in contrast, was eventually released on DVD.

To this day, when Jerry is ever ever asked about the film by any reporter or fan, he usually bristles. It is obviously a sore spot for him.

How many people have ever actually seen The Day the Clown Cried? According to Shawn Levy, who wrote an excellent biography of Jerry Lewis (King of Comedy), the figure may be as low as eleven, and may be as high as a few hundred.

Jerry Lewis has had a brilliant, delightful and unforgettable movie career. And the truth is, The Day the Clown Cried is a minor blip on the screen, a small bump on a golden road of wonderful laughter and hilarity. Nonetheless, The Day the Clown Cried, much like JFK’s assassination, Amelia Earhart's disappearance, or the Shroud of Turin, in the eyes of us Jerry Lewis fans, remains a great "mystery,” unseen, and unsolved in our minds and in our hearts.

(YouTube link)


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< "Jerry keeps his copy (the only copy of the film on video cassette) locked up in his vault to this day. Nowadays, he refuses to discuss any facet of the movie with any reporters or pretty much anyone else."

Maybe that used to be the case, but Jerry recently gave it to the Library of Congress. It will be screenable after 10 years (and may be available to researchers much sooner).
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Any movie that a true actor such as Jerry Lewis puts his heart and soul (and bank account) into has to be looked at as a classic. It was a very risky subject but something tells me it's not as bad as it's being made out to be and Jerry pulled it off. I hope to see it someday. Great piece Eddie!
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