The US government might show the unreleased Jerry Lewis Holocaust comedy in 10 years

The US government might show the unreleased Jerry Lewis Holocaust comedy in 10 years

By Dave Gonzales Aug. 9, 2015 12:31 pm clown

Jerry Lewis: from the 1940s until he turned 40 in the late 1960s, Jerry Lewis was a popular American comedian both in his partnerships with Dean Martin, and in movies for Paramount and Columbia as he aged. By the 1960s and 1970s, Lewis was on television and teaching directing classes at the University of Southern California. He was one of Hollywood’s big stars who was left over after the studio system gave way to new Hollywood. He was around when the 1980s turned new Hollywood into blockbuster Hollywood, and he has stayed around until this day as blockbuster Hollywood has become CGI superhero Hollywood. Still alive at 89, The man has been around long enough to have some crazy Hollywood stories.

One of the greatest Jerry Lewis stories is also a mystery: a film of his that the man himself has declared no one would ever see. In 1971, Lewis co-wrote, directed, and starred in a comedy about the Holocaust called The Day the Clown Cried. Lewis played a German circus clown named Helmut Doork that spoke ill of Adolf Hitler and was sentenced to a concentration camp where he had to entertain children on the way to the gas chamber. The film never got released for unknown reasons, some say it had something to do with the French producers of the film or the inappropriate subject matter — or was it simply not good? The Day the Clown Cried has since become an object of fascination for film buffs.

The most the public has ever seen of it was some behind the scenes footage shot for a foreign documentary:

In 1992, Harry Shearer (yes, Flanders from The Simpsons who left the show briefly but now is back) gave an interview in Spy Magazine claiming that he had seen a rough cut of the film in 1979 because Lewis showed it to him.
When asked to describe the tone, Shearer said “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.” This sounds irredeemably bad, but he also called it a “perfect object,” claiming “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.”

Jerry Lewis himself is notoriously close-lipped about The Day the Clown Cried and usually will not answer any questions about it while he’s out promoting a new book, Broadway, or TV appearance. It wasn’t until he was 82 years old that he started to loosen up with information about the film, and when he did it was only briefly. Entertainment Weekly published a good Q&A with Jerry Lewis that included several instances where Lewis insisted no one would ever see the movie.

Will I ever see The Day the Clown Cried?
He writes on a piece of white paper in green ink: NO.

Is there more than one copy of the film?
He writes: NO.

Is the film in a safe somewhere?
Yes, yeah.

Okay, number four: is the reason the film has not been released because you are unhappy with it?
He writes: Yes/No.
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.

For about five years, that was the final word on the matter: there was one copy of the film and Jerry Lewis had it and we’d have to pry it from his cold, dead hands.

However, this week it was revealed that if there is only one copy, it is no longer with Jerry Lewis himself, but with the Library of Congress. Buried in a LA Times piece about the coolest silent movie sleuths who get together to identify mystery film clips (seriously, read the whole article and decide this is your new career path) is this paragraph that starts the countdown for hundreds of film geeks:

[Rob Stone, the moving-image curator at the Library of Congress,] also let the group in on secrets, like the Jerry Lewis collection he had just acquired on behalf of the library.

Did he really have the film negative of “The Day the Clown Cried,” an unreleased Holocaust comedy that Lewis regretted making? Yes, Stone said, but the library agreed to not show the film for at least 10 years.

This means that Jerry Lewis will be 99 years old if he ever lives to see a Library of Congress screening of The Day the Clown Cried. Start your countdown clocks, fans of morbid comedy films, July 2025 is right around the corner.

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