The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’ Holocaust film about a clown who leads children to the Auschwitz gas chambers, is back in the news thanks to a recently discovered clip from a Dutch documentary.
With apologies to DeBeers, this weekend brought yet another example of how a link is forever.
One of the evening posts on Gawker featured a link to a 7-minute video excerpt from a Dutch documentary about Jerry Lewis. What made this go viral was the setting of the video: It was taken during production of Lewis’ 1972 film, The Day the Clown Cried.
What’s that, you say? Never heard of it? Don’t remember ever seeing it in the theater, on TV, in a retrospective of the comedian/actor/director’s work? That’s because the film, about a German circus clown thrown into a concentration camp because of his drunken anti-Hitler rants and then used by the Nazis to lead children to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, has never seen the light of day.
According to numerous reports, test screenings of the film were so overwhelmingly negative that Lewis decided to lock the project away. That doesn’t mean that interest in the project has abated over the past three decades. In fact, Lewis was asked about the film during an appearance at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (this was the same interview that produced his memorably misogynistic quotes about female comedians). Answering a question about the film’s future, he said, “It was bad, and it was bad because I lost the magic. You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I’m embarrassed at the poor work.”
The interlacing of comedy and the Holocaust in movies wouldn’t occur for another 25 years, when the Roberto Benigni Oscar-winner, Life Is Beautiful, was released in 1997. It was followed by the 1999 Robin Williams vehicle, Jakob the Liar.
There is no doubt that employing humor as a central element in a Holocaust film would be a tough sell in 1972, but with Lewis — at the height of his fame — starring and directing and the film fully financed, it should have stood a chance, right? According to the comedian/director/radio personality Harry Shearer, who saw a rough cut of the film in 1978, no.
In a 1992 interview in Spy magazine, Shearer recounted his reaction to the film. “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. 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.”