Jerry Lewis is known as a lighthearted slapstick comedian, and also for his charity work to fight muscular dystrophy. Few know him as the director of a Holocaust film so notorious, no clip has ever seen the light of day — until now.
In 1972, Lewis directed and starred in “The Day the Clown Cried,” which suffered such a fraught filming process and tested so poorly that the studio took the negatives, Lewis took a rough cut, and everyone involved tried to move on with their lives. Lewis, now 87, has referred to the film on separate occasions as “poor work” and “bad, bad, bad.” He has alternately suggested he might someday release the film and lost his temper at those who ask about it; on extremely rare occasions, he has held private screenings.
A little over a year ago, a seven minute clip was posted to YouTube, and now the entirety has been translated into English. It is a selection from a Flemish behind-the-scenes documentary of the film, and offers just a tantalizing glimpse into one of the most notorious movies never released.
In the movie, Lewis plays a German clown sent to a concentration camp for mocking Hitler in a routine. He is made into a Pied Piper figure, entertaining Jewish children as they are sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. Ultimately, out of guilt and despair, he chooses to perform one last time, in the gas chambers with a group of children.
Actor Harry Shearer is one of the select few who has seen the “The Day the Clown Cried,” and as he once told Spy magazine: “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.”
As for the YouTube clip itself, narrated in Flemish, there is unfortunately little to be seen of the actual film. Jerry Lewis mostly explains his inspiration and process as a director and films a scene that appears to take place in a circus tent, and includes typical clownish antics, such as juggling. Lewis is serious-minded between takes, periodically becoming frustrated with errors in his routine or coordination with his crew. He speaks of Charlie Chaplin as an inspiration, and his film’s use of physical comedy to mock Nazism could have fallen in the same vein as “The Great Dictator,” but, as the Hebrew saying goes warning against uneven comparisons, “l’havdil.”
Also briefly appearing in the clip is famous musician (and friend of Lewis) Serge Gainsbourg, who spent his adolescence as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. At one point, he looks on smiling with his girlfriend Jane Birkin.
“Yes, that script is surprisingly neat,” reads the translation of the narrator speaking over the couple, “But they haven’t seen anything yet.”
Nor, ultimately, would they, nor movie-going audiences, and while the clip released is fascinating in its way, perhaps we never shall.