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.