Throughout the history of cinema, there are cases of comedians taking serious roles… and then there’s what the late Jerry Lewis tried to do in 1972. That year, he filmed the most famous unreleased movie ever made, The Day The Clown Cried. Since 1972, only a handful of people have actually seen it.
Lewis died at age 91 on August 20, but it will still be a long time before anyone else sees The Day The Clown Cried again.
The movie was a bad idea from the start. It centers on Helmut Doork (Lewis), a washed-up German clown who is arrested by the Nazis for making fun of Adolf Hitler. He is later placed in a concentration camp, where he is able to make Jewish children laugh. After he is put in solitary confinement, the Nazis realize they can use him to lead Jewish children to the gas chamber. Doork realizes too late what he’s going and he accompanies the children to the chamber at the end of the movie.
The script was written by Lewis from a story by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton. The entire script is available online. Lewis later said the movie was a terrible idea and he often didn’t want to talk about it.
“We don’t talk about that, not even if I found out you were one of my sons,” Lewis told Entertainment Weekly in 2009.
Here’s what you need to know about the movie.
1. Lewis Made the Film in Europe & Was Given Full Financial Control
Lewis, whose films were beloved in France, was given free rein after meeting Hungarian producer Nathan Wachsberger after a performance at the Olympia Theater. Washberger owned the rights to the script, which was written 10 years earlier. He had tried to find someone to star in it, and asked Lewis if he’d be interested. Lewis took the job and was given full financing and could direct, too.
In early 1972, Lewis toured the concentration camps in Europe, lost 40 pounds, according to Mondo-Video, and then headed off to Paris for pre-production. Filming started in Stockholm, where he cast Harriet Andersson to play Doork’s wife. Anton Diffring was cast as the main villain.
Although Lewis thought he’d have no trouble with financing, that wasn’t the case once cameras started rolling. Wachsberger suddenly disappeared. Film equipment went missing. Financing was gone. Wachsberger lost the rights to the story.
Somehow, Lewis did make the movie, but never released it. The cast also included the legendary French comedian Pierre Etaix, who died in October 2016.
2. Harry Shearer Claimed He Saw the Movie & Called It a ‘Perfect Object’
In a 1992 issue of Spy Magazine, comedian Harry Shearer said he saw the film. He said he believed Lewis made the movie because he wanted an Oscar. When asked to sum up his thoughts on the film, he said it was like “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.”
Shearer said he saw the rough cut in 1979, explaining:
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.
O’Brien, the film’s co-writer, also told Spy it was a “disaster.” She said she and co-writer Denton would never let the film come out and they disliked the changes Lewis made. She said it was written as a story of a selfish man seeking redemption, but Lewis tried to make into Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
3. ‘It Was All Bad,’ Lewis Said of the Film in 2013
When Lewis attended the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, hew likely knew people would ask about The Day The Clown Cried. He had an answer ready.
“It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic,” Lewis told the media. “You will never see it, no-one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”
“We don’t talk about that… not even if I found out you were one of my sons,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2009.
In a later 2013 interview with EW, Lewis confirmed that he had a copy in a safe and told the interviewer he would never see the movie. He also said there is only one copy of it in the world.
After being asked if he was unhappy about it, Lewis wrote “yes/no” on a piece of paper. He went on to explain:
Which doesn’t mean that Yes, I’m unhappy with the work that I did. 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. The only thing that I do feel, that I always get a giggle out of, some smart young guy like Chris is going to come up with an idea and he’s going to run the f‑‑‑ing thing. I would love that. Because he’s going to see a hell of a movie.
4. We’ll Get to See the Movie in 2024 & Only If You Go to Virginia
In 2015, The Los Angeles Times reported that Lewis donated his copy of the film to the Library of Congress. The New York Post reported that the film will finally be screened in 2024, but only if you visit the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia.
Curator Rob Stone told the Post that researchers won’t even be allowed to look at it until 2024. He also vowed to have the film preserved as an important part of film history.
Stone said they likely won’t release it on DVD or home video themselves. They can’t even loan it out to museums or theaters without the permission of Lewis’ estate.
“But it’s not like we’re going to stick it in a vault,” Stone told the Post. “We can and will do preservation work on the important part of film history.”
5. 30 Minutes of the Film Leaked Online in 2016
The segment provided the more of The Day The Clown Cried than ever seen before by the public. But there was one problem – much of the footage came from a German documentary. Previously, a seven-minute clip of the documentary, seen above, leaked in 2013. The video includes scenes from the film, along with scenes of Lewis directing the film.
Since the script has been available online for some time, Lewis fans have tried to recreate it. In 2014, comedian Patton Oswalt wrote in his memoir that he got Bob Odenkirk and David Cross to perform it for him in 1997. Oswalt wrote that he was served with a cease-and-desist letter before the performance. They did one reading in Los Angeles, but aother readings in New York.
“It was my 28th birthday. The year before, I’d gotten my hands on the shooting script of Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried,” Oswalt wrote. “It was a drama about a clown in Auschwitz, forced by the Nazis to entertain Jewish children on their way to the gas chamber. If he does this, his life will be spared. But his conscience can’t bear the burden, so, at the last minute, he enters the gas chamber with them. Slam. Hiss. Fade to black.”