As Jack Black in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” showed most recently this past year, the right dramatic role and assured tone can create a new context for a slew of comedic actors, and rejuvenate a career that is slowly being backed into a corner. However, none of those efforts featured a Holocaust setting, a troubled production, and eventual disownment like legendary actor/director Jerry Lewis’ 1971 debacle, “The Day the Clown Cried” – a film still unseen to near-everyone, but glimpsed partially in rare behind-the-scenes footage like the material that exists today.
An unspoken conversation from “The Producers” come to life, Lewis’ film centers on a German circus clown, Helmut Dorque (whom he also plays). The depressed funnyman is sent to a concentration camp, but once there, he changes course as a maniacal Pied Pieper leading children into gas chambers. The reason? They’re his best audience yet. Naturally, Lewis, thought his “Nutty Professor” fanbase would initially balk, but buy tickets in droves by the end.
Archival behind-the-scenes footage has cropped up (via Dangerous Minds), and while Lewis appears jovial and perfectly in control, the truth is he was as rightly nervous as befitting the concept. “I had been 113 days on the picture, with only three hours of sleep a night…I was exhausted, beaten,” Lewis reflected later (via Spy Magazine) on the last day, which featured him leading the gathered children to their doom. “I thought, ‘This is what my whole life has been leading to.’ I forgot about trying to direct. I had the camera run and began to walk…”
In the end, the film never finished past the rough cut phase, with the Stockholm studio keeping the negative under requirement of a $600,000 fee; elsewhere, screenwriters Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton own the copyright, and efforts to solve both problems have only created more.
Lewis owns a copy himself, on a videotape in his office. Only a select few people have seen it, including O’Brien, Denton, Harry Shearer and reporter Lynn Hirschberg. All have essentially confirmed it as mind-bogglingly misjudged. “’Oh my God’ – that’s all you can say,” said Shearer.
As for the question of the general public getting a peek anytime soon, the answer came as a swift, curt “No” from Lewis, when he was interviewed at Los Angeles’ film institution The Cinefamily. “In terms of that film, I was embarrassed,” he said. “I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all and never let anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad.” So it seems either get in tight with Lewis for a personal sneak peek, or simply be satiated with the archival footage below – an all too fleeting glance at one of the most compelling cinematic misses around.