Jerry Lewis’ ‘The Day the Clown Cried’: Outrageously Awful…Or Ahead of its Time?

the day the clown cried jerry
Courtesy: YouTube

When you watch a movie you haven’t seen for a long time (like, say, 10 or 20 years), it can look extraordinarily different from how it looked before. And that’s a fascinating thing to behold, given that the movie itself hasn’t changed one bit. It’s you that’s changed — or, just as likely, the era around you. In the case of “The Day the Clown Cried,” the infamous Jerry Lewis Holocaust drama that no one — save Harry Shearer — has ever seen, because it has never been shown, the passage of time may work in even more mysterious ways. About 30 minutes of this legendary 1972 fiasco, which Lewis wrote, directed, and starred in, then permanently shelved because he was embarrassed by how bad it was, surfaced in a rough assemblage on YouTube a couple of days ago. Bits of the footage have leaked out before (most of it lifted from a German documentary about the making of the film), but this is the first chance that anyone has really had to glimpse the full-scale, jaw-through-the-floor “The Day the Clown Cried” experience. And here’s the surprise: The movie does look pretty awful, but it no longer looks shockingly awful. If anything, its kitschy-ghastly four-hankie macabre shamelessness now seems both clueless and weirdly ahead of its time.

It’s worth remembering that for decades, “The Day the Clown Cried” hasn’t just been the notorious bad movie that no one could see. It’s been a mythological lost artifact — the Holy Grail of high camp, the real-life “Springtime for Hitler.” It occupies a place in movie history as legendary, in its way, as that of Orson Welles’ never finished and still-yet-to-be-seen final film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” The two movies would make a perfect yin-and-yang double bill, since it’s always been presumed that Welles, in his inside-dirt-of-Hollywood magnum opus, was working on some sort of crowning masterpiece, whereas “The Day the Clown Cried” looks like a crowning folly. It may be the ultimate testament to the notion that every comedian secretly yearns to play Hamlet — or, in this case, a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp who becomes a friend to the children in captivity, and then (here’s the icky part) a deathly Pied Piper, leading them to the gas chambers.

In 1992, Harry Shearer wrote an article for Spy magazine talking about how he had seen “The Day the Clown Cried”; he saw it on tape, surreptitiously, when an associate of Lewis’ snuck him a copy for the weekend. He called it “a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz,” and described the movie in a way that made it sound like the Holocaust drama that Ed Wood never got to make. In the on-line footage, things jump around without much explanation, and most of the dialogue is dubbed into German (how’s that for meta irony?), but what we see doesn’t look like a movie that is heavy on words to begin with. Here — behold! — is Jerry as a forlorn circus clown named Helmut Doork, whose mockery of Hitler lands him in hot water, and then, all of a sudden, there he is in the camp, in a beard and bowl-cut and gray-striped uniform and a rather banal expression of gloom, and he’s putting in stick-teeth to do a funny little penguin dance for the children (which they adore), and then he’s being told by the commandant that he must lead them on their march toward the building with no windows. He says he won’t do it, but he’s threatened with death, and so, putting on his white greasepaint clown mouth, he fools and diverts them by ushering them toward oblivion as a final act of humanity. (The idea, I guess, is that they died laughing.)

All of this, according to the legend of “The Day the Clown Cried,” should leave us with a single, profound thought that echoes through the chasm of our souls: WTF was he thinking? 

And indeed it does. But there’s an element of blasphemy that might once have defined the movie and no longer seems to. “The Day the Clown Cried” has the chutzpah to turn the Holocaust into a fable, a storybook curio, a weeper of lost innocence. And that doesn’t come off as nearly such a violation now, because there have been so many movies since then, from “The Reader” to “Shining Through” to “Jacob the Liar” to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” that have used the horrors of the Holocaust as a middlebrow movie backdrop. The truth is that the Holocaust has become a genre, and there’s one movie more than any other that helped to make it that. It’s the real “The Day the Clown Cried.”

That movie, of course, is Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful.” It’s a film that, in effect, channeled Jerry Lewis’ movie — for despite its disturbing backdrop, it’s a sweetly sentimental little comedy, the first feel-good movie about the Holocaust, starring Benigni as a clownish hero who lands in a death camp that looks like something out of a 1950s musical. Once there, he does a variation on what Lewis’ Helmut Doork does: He shields his son by pretending that the horror around them is all part of an elaborate game. The merits of “Life Is Beautiful” can be debated (taken on its own terms, it’s very well done), but what’s inarguable is that when the film was released in 1998, almost no one reacted by claiming that there was anything shameless, or inappropriate, about it. It affected a lot of viewers quite deeply (I know, because when I would explain to people why I wasn’t a fan of it, they often reacted with anger), and it won Benigni the Academy Award for Best Actor. It was a movie whose very existence — and meaning — was honored by the world. And one of the things the movie meant is that the Holocaust was now fair game for fanciful cinematic fiction in a way that it never had been before.

Jerry Lewis, however, got there first. In “The Day the Clown Cried,” he invented what it looks like when you merge the Holocaust with Hollywood — when you turn it into the Hollycaust. It was revealed last year that the film has been acquired by the Library of Congress, on the condition that it not be shown until June of 2024. And when it finally does get shown, its status as a tentpole of kitsch may well have evaporated; it may look better half a century after it was made than it did in 1972. Even so, there’s one thing about “The Day the Clown Cried” that won’t change. The movie, like “Life Is Beautiful,” tells the story of a saintly jester who shields the children around him from thinking the unthinkable. And the real kitsch value of that scenario is that it threatens to do the same thing to the adults watching the movie: to shield them from reality. That’s what can happen when you turn darkness into black velvet.

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  1. Jim says:

    I want to see this film !!!

    It was shot in Panavision in the aspect ratio 2.20 : 1, so it would look marvelous in a restored 4k Ultra HD edition. You can’t judge this film by looking at old rushes on YouTube in a wrong aspect ratio and without sound. This film was designed by a top Swedish cinematographer (Rune Ericson) of his day for the big screen!

    Even if it has flaws, there is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a work of art, that deserves respect.
    But to really appreciate it’s qualities (and criticize it’s flaws), we need to have a chance to see it like it was intended. In the best possible quality.

    It has a great cast and Jerry Lewis is part of film history.

    Please restore it & release it in cinemas one day!

    This would be perfect for the ‘Cannes Classics’ section.

  2. M. Tuffli says:

    I checked out the ~30 min of footage. All I got from it was “Oh dear, hubris. Ohhh boy that did not look good.”

    It just. Doesn’t. Work.

    No critique can capture that gut feeling.

  3. I write only to address two misconceptions: I indeed saw a complete (though with temp music) version of the film, and I did not describe it as Jerry Lewis doing slapstick in Auschwitz. He was indeed trying to make a serious film. I think Owen’s final sentence captures my reaction perfectly.

    • Oh now you want to set the record straight??? How convenient for you, when everyone can now see that you were wrong. You didn’t try to set the record straight all these years. You ruined the chance for the movie to be taken seriously for years, with all of your little jabs about the movie and Jerry Lewis. Congratulations….
      But now the day has finally come where people can see a good portion of the movie for themselves, and you are being discredited.

  4. Steve Barr says:

    If The Day The Clown Cried and The Other Side Of The Wind were ever to play on a double bill at the Nuart the lines would stretch for miles . It would be a film!goers fever dream .

  5. chodapp says:

    Screening anybody’s sterile, incomplete workprint is a miserable way to pass judgement on any film. What first stands out from it is how utterly devoid of resources the production obviously was. It comes off as a Pasadena Playhouse skit more than a fully mounted production. It appears that any random episode of Hogan’s Heroes had a bigger budget, and that the biggest expenses were the raw stock and lab charges.

    But the bigger surprise is that, after the more than 40 years’ of legendary denigration this film has received, the monstrously misplaced and “inappropriate” humor that the film was long described as being filled with just ain’t there, folks. Two quick scenes of Helmut making faces for Jewish children on the other side of the wire appear, and he paints on a smile for the big finish scenes. But there’s absolutely no trace of Lewis’ rumored antics and bits on the death march, or even the lead up to it. Or ANYWHERE ELSE. I’m not sure what Harry Shearer saw (if indeed he was telling the truth), but there’s no “wildly misplaced” comedy. The actual film in reality unspools just as an adolescent-level attempt at bathos that merely failed in its execution. The concept was far more embarrassing than offensive or outrageous, and in the end, Lewis’ own judgement of the work was that it was just that – an embarrassment, and nothing more remarkable than that.

  6. Terry Keefe says:

    Very well said, Owen. This footage is, by and large, compelling. The much-discussed ending even appears to be here in substantial form. I don’t think Harry Shearer ever saw this. I can certainly see how Lewis would have been worried about the reaction and may have decided to just let it go. As you’ve said, this would basically have been the first of a genre of sorts. The reaction may have been critical pitchforks. Viewed from today, it does feel ahead of its time. There is nothing Ed Wood-like about this. It is not the Nutty Professor goes to a concentration camp. Lewis is giving a sincere performance.

  7. It was just nice to see jerry in a dramatic role without all the stick – to prove he was truly a good actor – but it is always harder to do comedy than drama and Jerry could do both – One of the unsung talents of our industry – that has to be revered by the FRENCH – – Jerry great no matter what- did six films with him so i should know how special he is – bless you Jerry for all that you have given to us– Happy 90th birthday

  8. EricJ says:

    Benigni thought he was doing his own homage to Chaplin’s “Great Dictator”, and even Robin Williams tried to do his own heartfelt tribute in the American “Jakob the Liar”.
    But those are comics professional enough to CARE about their jokes. Jerry doesn’t, can’t go ten minutes without being in-your-face “on”, and all his Jerry’s-Kids attempts to do something with a conscience come off as painfully insincere.

    • Paul Whitelaw says:

      So you’ve seen the film, I take it? The rough footage on YouTube doesn’t make it look any better or worse than Life is Beautiful or Jakob the Liar. And it’s really quite offensive to suggest that Jerry Lewis didn’t care about his material when making this film – if anything, he cared too much, hence why it’s probably such an overwrought and uneven film. That’s an opinion based on the screenplay, by the way, which is all any of us have to go on at the moment. All this footage tells us is that the “Jerry Lewis doing slapstick in Auschwitz” reputation seems way off the mark. It may well be a terrible film, but it looks entirely serious and sincere in intent.

    • jhs39 says:

      If your evaluation of Jerry Lewis was correct he would never have pulled The Day the Clown Cried in the first place. He was trying to do something sincere, was horrified by the reaction to it at a test screening and pulled the movie from its scheduled Cannes appearance and from public distribution–until after his death, apparently. At least people will eventually get to judge the film for themselves.

  9. Jimmy Green says:

    Mr. Lewis said it was a bad movie & I believe him.

  10. William Gabel says:

    I ran a workprint of “The Other Side of the Wind” to a full house in Beverly Hills in the late 1990’s.

    • jhs39 says:

      It must have been a pretty rough workprint. There’s a Kickstarter campaign to actually complete the film, although there’s so much footage and so little script that whatever ends up on screen won’t really be an Orson Welles movie–it will belong nearly as much to Peter Bogdonovich (who wants to supposedly oversee the final edit) or whomever does finally assemble something feature length. You could have 10 directors work with that footage and end up with 10 completely different movies.

  11. Alex says:

    I have to wait 8 years to find out if this thing sucks or is brilliant.

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