The Day the Clown Cried

Jerry Lewis

The Day the Clown Cried‘ is an unreleased 1972 film directed by and starring Jerry Lewis. It is based on a script of the same name by Joan O’Brien, who had co-written the original script with Charles Denton ten years previously.

The film was met with controversy regarding its premise and content, which features a circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ has become somewhat infamous among film historians and movie buffs as a film that has never officially been released.

Lewis plays a washed-up German circus clown named Helmut Doork during the beginning of World War II. Although he was once a famous performer who toured America and Europe with the Ringling Brothers, Doork is now past his prime and receives little respect. He is arrested for ranting about Germany and drunkenly mocking Adolf Hitler in a bar. After an interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters, he is imprisoned in a Nazi camp for political prisoners. For the next three to four years, he remains there while hoping for a trial and a chance to plead his case.

He tries to keep his bravado up among the other inmates by bragging about what a famous performer he once was. His only friend in prison is a good-hearted German named Johann Keltner, whose reason for being interned is never fully revealed but is implied to be his outspoken opposition to the Nazis. The others goad Doork into performing for them, but he does not realize he is, in fact, terrible. Frustrated, they beat him up and leave him in the courtyard to sulk about his predicament. Suddenly, he sees a group of Jewish children laughing at him from the other side of the camp, where the Jewish prisoners are being kept away from everyone else. Feeling delighted to be appreciated again, Helmut performs for them and gains quite an audience for a while, until the new prison commandant orders that he must be stopped.

Helmut is unable to leave the children in a state of unhappiness and begins performing again. The SS guards knock him unconscious and beat the children away from the barbed-wire fence. Horrified, Keltner fights off one of the guards, but is quickly cornered and beaten to death. Meanwhile, Doork is placed in solitary confinement. Seeing a use for him, the commandant assigns him to help load Jewish children on trains leading out of the internment camp, with the promise his case will be reviewed. By a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally accompanying the children on a boxcar train to Auschwitz, and he is eventually used, in Pied Piper fashion, to help lead the Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.

Knowing the fear the children will feel while being led to their deaths, he begs the deathcamp handlers to spend the last few moments with them. Leading them to the ‘showers,’ he becomes increasingly dependent on a miracle, only to learn there is none. After all the children go into the chamber, he is so filled with remorse that he goes into the room himself to entertain them. As the children laugh at his antics, the movie ends.

In 1971, while performing at the Olympia Theatre, Lewis met with producer Nathan Wachsberger, who offered him the chance to star in and direct the film with complete financial backing from his production company and Europa Studios. Before he had been given the offer, several stars such as Bobby Darin, Milton Berle and Dick Van Dyke were also approached, but declined. Lewis was initially reluctant to take the role, especially after reading the script, stating in his autobiography, ‘Jerry Lewis in Person’: ‘The thought of playing Helmut still scared the hell out of me.’ In addition, he felt that he was wrong for the part, due to the strong subject matter. He asked Wachsberger: ‘Why don’t you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn’t find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet. My bag is comedy, Mr. Wachsberger, and you’re asking me if I’m prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber? Ho-ho. Some laugh – how do I pull it off?’

But, after rereading Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton’s first draft, Lewis felt that he would be doing something worthwhile in portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. He signed on to the project immediately, and started work after completing a month of shows at  Caesars Palace in Las Vegas he had already booked. In February 1972, he toured the remains of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps and shot some exterior shots of buildings in Paris for the film; all the while reworking the script. He reportedly lost forty pounds for the concentration camp scenes. Principal photography began in Sweden in April, but the shoot was beset by numerous problems.

Cast members working on the film with Lewis reported his on-set personality as, ‘distracted, nervous, and preoccupied with money.’ Film equipment was either lost or delivered late, and the necessary money was nowhere in sight. Lewis was repeatedly assured that money was forthcoming by Wachsberger, who did not appear at all on set. However, Wachsberger not only ran out of money before completing the film, but his option to produce the film expired before filming began. He had paid O’Brien the initial $5,000 fee, but failed to send her the additional $50,000 due her prior to production. Lewis eventually ended up paying production costs with his own money to finish shooting the film, but the parties involved were never able to come to terms which would allow the film to be released.

After shooting wrapped, Lewis announced to the press that Wachsberger had failed to make good on his financial obligations or even commit to producing. Wachsberger retaliated by threatening to file a lawsuit of breach of contract and stated that he had enough to finish and release the film without Lewis. Wanting to ensure the film would not be lost, Lewis took a rough cut of the film, while the studio retained the entire film negative. In January 1973, Lewis stated publicly that the film was in final production, it had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival in May, and it would be released in America after that.

Although never seen publicly, the film became a source of legend almost immediately after its production. In a 1992 article in ‘Spy’ magazine comedian and actor Harry Shearer, who saw a rough cut of the film in 1979 said of 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.” Shearer described thinking Lewis made the film because, ‘the Academy can’t ignore this.’ When asked to sum up the experience of the film overall, he responded by saying: ‘if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly-held feeling.”

The article quoted Joan O’Brien as saying the rough cut she saw was a ‘disaster’; it also reported that she and the original script’s other writer, Charles Denton, will never allow the film to be released, in part due to changes in the script made by Lewis which made the clown more sympathetic and Emmett Kelly-like. In the original script, the protagonist was an arrogant, self-centered clown named Karl Schmidt, who was ‘a real bastard,’ according to O’Brien. Her script reportedly had him trying to use his wife, who knew the ringmaster, to get him a better gig, and he apparently informed on nearly everyone he knew after being interrogated for mocking Hitler. She stated that the original draft was about the redemption of a selfish man, but that Lewis practically changed the entire story into a Chaplinesque dark comedy a la ‘The Great Dictator.’

Jim Wright revealed to the press his plan to produce a new version of ‘The Day the Clown Cried,’ and he mentioned he had Richard Burton in mind for the title role. Despite major buzz about the project, nothing concrete came out of the planning stages. By 1991, producer Michael Barclay announced that he and Tex Rudloff (apparently with the help of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff) were preparing a joint production of the project with the Russian film studio Lenfilm. Allegedly, Robin Williams was offered the leading role and given a copy of the script. Jeremy Kagan, who made ‘The Chosen,’ reportedly was slated to direct the film, but once again the idea was dropped before it was officially greenlit. In 1994, William Hurt was considered to play the role, but nothing came to fruition.

Discussion of the film in the mainstream press was rekindled in the late 1990s due to the release of two films with similar themes, ‘Life Is Beautiful’ in 1997 and the remake of ‘Jakob the Liar’ in 1999. The latter starred Robin Williams. The 2009 film ‘Adam Resurrected,’ adapted from Yoram Kaniuk’s 1968 novel of the same name, has also drawn comparisons.

In 2013, Lewis was asked by actor Bill Allen, ‘Are we going to ever gonna get to see ‘The Day the Clown Cried?” Lewis replied in the negative, and explained the reason the movie would never be released was because, ‘…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.’

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