It’s one of the cinema’s holy grail movies, but unlike the excised ending of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” everyone knows where Jerry Lewis‘ “The Day The Clown Cried” is located. He’s got the only copy of it, sitting in a vault somewhere and he’s determined to ensure that no one ever gets a chance to view the whole thing. As always, there’s hope, and last week a bounty of footage made its way online in the form of seven-minutes of material from part of a Dutch TV special about the making of about the making of the Holocaust movie. It was the biggest peek anyone has ever gotten of the movie to date and Lewis has largely been reluctant to talk about it in interviews. But some vintage Lewis has also surfaced, this time with the comedy legend talking extensively about the movie.
Chris Nashawaty has the goods over at EW and as he explains, he had once tried to ask Lewis years ago about ‘Clown’ but was promptly shut down. Then, back in 2009 when he got another chance to talk with him, Nashawaty’s extended 2 hour conversation found Lewis much more at ease and he opened up about the locked up picture, “because you’re a nice man and I’m comfortable with you.” Of course, Lewis makes a game of it by giving Nashawaty 10 questions (though he does let a couple of extra asks slip in), but the reporter manages to make the most of it.
The first thing to note is that when asked directly if he’s proud of the movie Lewis says matter-of-factly, “I am.” This is certainly a far cry from his comments earlier this year when he was interviewed at Los Angeles’ film institution The Cinefamily and said: “In terms of that film, I was embarrassed. 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.”
But speaking with Nashawaty it seems his feelings are much more mixed on the movie, as he seems to indicate that some it worked. “I think about this a lot. If I could pull certain specific elements from the project, and give me these three or four elements that I can do what I want with, if I hired Lincoln Center one night, for a specific audience, and give me one week shooting to let me shoot a beginning to that, a beginning to that, and a beginning to that and let me show that…. Whoooo-weeeee! It would be fucking wonderful to think about,” he said, adding: “What I would shoot would be strictly as a marketing presentation tool for that night and it would all be thrown away after that night.”
As for why he’s hanging onto it, Lewis seems to believe that the myth that has built around the movie will make it hard for anyone to give it a fair shake. “It’s either better than ‘Citizen Kane‘ or the worst piece of shit that anyone ever loaded on the projector…,” he joked. And it seems that’s why he’s taken the lengths he has to keep it contained.
“But who am I preserving it for? No one’s ever gonna see it. But the preservation that I believe is that, when I die, I’m in total control of the material now. Nobody can touch it. After I’m gone, who knows what’s going to happen? I think I have the legalese necessary to keep it where it is. So I’m pretty sure that it won’t be seen,” he said. “The only thing that I do feel, that I always get a giggle out of, some smart young guy like [the interviewer] is going to come up with an idea and he’s going to run the fucking thing. I would love that. Because he’s going to see a hell of a movie!”
Lewis claims that only he’s only watched the entire film once, back when he was shooting in Sweden and that only he, his manager and his father have seen the film (though “Simpsons” veteran Harry Shearer and a small handful of others have said they’ve watched it). More crucially, he has the only copy so “The Day The Clown Cried” looks like it will forever live in Lewis’ vault much like J.D. Salinger‘s rumored reams of unpublished fiction. Regardless you’ll rarely get to read Lewis at such length talking about the movie and the EW interview is a must (particularly for the anecdote about Lewis meeting a man who pulled the levers for the gas chambers in concentration camps during World War II).