×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Luxbox Closes Sales on Venice Film

    Luxbox Closes Sales on Venice Film 'Sole' to U.S., France (EXCLUSIVE)

    Fiorella Moretti and Hedi Zardi’s Paris-based sales agency Luxbox has closed several territory deals on Carlos Sironi’s “Sole,” which screened in Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti section and Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery sidebar. The film just won the audience award at Pingyao Intl. Film Festival in China and a Special Jury Mention for the lead actors [...]

  • Puerto Rican singer Ozuna poses during

    Ozuna Joins Vin Diesel in 'Fast & Furious 9'

    Ozuna, one of Latin music’s fastest-rising stars, has signed with UTA for representation. And to kick off the relationship, the agency has landed him a role in “Fast & Furious 9.” He is also in talks to join the film’s soundtrack. Justin Lin, who directed “Fast & Furious 6,” returns to direct the ninth installment [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Boosting Efforts in Project Development Amid Agency Standoff

    The Writers Guild of America, locked in a six-month standoff with major talent agencies, has announced that it’s boosting efforts at gathering TV, streaming and film project development data to help members find new employment opportunities. The WGA made the disclosure in a message to members on Monday. The guild directed its 15,000 members to fire [...]

  • Fernando Meirelles The Two Popes

    AFI Fest Adds 'The Two Popes,' 'Aeronauts,' Alan Pakula Tribute

    The American Film Institute has added “The Two Popes” and “The Aeronauts” as galas during the upcoming AFI Fest along with a tribute to the late director Alan Pakula. AFI had previously announced that the romantic drama “Queen & Slim” would launch the 33rd annual festival on Nov. 14 and close with the world premiere [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Recalls Husband Blake Edwards' Battle With Depression

    The line to see Julie Andrews at the 92nd Street Y wrapped around the square of a sprawling New York City block. Seventy years since the start of her career, 60 since she asked “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” as Lerner and Loewe’s first Eliza and 50 since she sang “The Sound of Music” before the [...]

  • Bloodshot (Vin Diesel) in Columbia Pictures'

    Vin Diesel Comes Back to Life in 'Bloodshot' Trailer

    Vin Diesel is coming back again and again in Sony Pictures’ first trailer for “Bloodshot.” In the forthcoming superhero adventure, Diesel portrays Ray Garrison a.k.a. Bloodshot, a soldier who gets rebuilt by a corporation following his death. The clip, released Monday and scored to Johnny Cash’s rendition of the ballad “Memories are Made of This,” [...]

  • Bouli Lanners Teams With 'Peaky Blinders'

    Bouli Lanners Teams With 'Peaky Blinders' Director Tim Mielants on 'Wise Blood'

    Bouli Lanners, the Belgian actor-director of “The Giants” and “Eldorado,” is teaming with “Peaky Blinders” helmer Tim Mielants to direct “Wise Blood,” an English-language film that will star “Game of Thrones” actor Michelle Fairley and Julian Glover. “Wise Blood” is a Belgian-Scottish-French co-production between Versus Production, Barry Crerar, and Playtime, which will handle international sales [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content