When presenting a film about the Holocaust that hopes to imbue any level of humor into the most terrible of situations, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is 1997's "Life is Beautiful." Roberto Benigni (who won an Oscar for his leading role in the film) takes on the role of a father who plays games with his young son to help the boy avoid realizing that they are in a concentration camp. It requires a lot of nuance and more than a bit of attention to tone.
Apparently neither of these things were evident when Jerry Lewis made "The Day the Clown Cried," a film he starred in, co-wrote and directed in 1972. In it, Lewis plays a circus performer who is taken by the Nazis after making fun of Hitler. In the concentration camp where he's sent, he amuses the children with his routine, and eventually walks with them into a gas chamber. The last scene involves Lewis' clown (Helmut Doork) and the children laughing while the gas surrounds them.
"The Day the Clown Cried" is perhaps the most infamous film that was never released, and if Lewis has his way, it will never see the light of day.
But on Saturday, YouTube user Unclesporkums uploaded perhaps the longest clip (it's a 7-minute "Making of Footage" collection of clips) to ever publicly surface of the film in the past 41 years, which introduces the movie mistake to a whole new generation. (A nearly 1-minute "behind the scenes" clip is also available.)
The new "Making Of" clip includes scenes from the film, and shows Lewis working on the film and speaking to the camera. (Note: Only Lewis' comments and the film clips are in English.)
The film was not made as a comedy; it was to have been Lewis' first foray into serious drama. But after test screenings went terribly wrong, Lewis (who told Dick Cavett in 1973 that he'd planned to release it at the Cannes Film Festival) pulled the film. When he was asked about the movie at Cannes this year, the 87-year-old Lewis said, "It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic. You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work."
Only a select few have seen the film since Lewis packed it away, and one is comedian (and frequent voice on "The Simpsons") Harry Shearer, who saw a rough cut in 1979. As he told Spy magazine in 1992, it's no surprise that the film won't get a public release.
"Seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object," he said. "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."
"Any kind of comedy that engages with difficult subject matter is bound to attract a divided reaction," said Eric Kohn, Chief Film Critic for Indiewire. "When the jokes work in congress with the ideas driving them, the work is self-justifying. Everything we've seen and read about 'The Day the Clown Cried' suggests it fails on that front.... It's not a question of whether or not 'The Day the Clown Cried' is offensive; that's irrelevant to whether or not it's a successful work of art. (I)t strikes such a peculiarly subversive contrast to everything Lewis did before, but that's exactly why it makes sense to remain skeptical about the quality of the results."
Feel like judging for yourself? You can read the film's script here.