In the early 1970s, legendary comic actor/director Jerry Lewis decided to make what he believed would be the film that would finally make critics take him seriously … and hopefully shower him with Oscars. The film was “The Day the Clown Cried” and the plot involved a clown (played by Lewis) who is sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis in World War II and the clown’s job is to entertain the children in the camp before they’re sent off to the gas chambers.
That’s a VERY … um … heavy and bizarre subject for a film … not to mention potentially tasteless. To be fair, I’m not saying that this concept would be impossible to bring off in a non-offensive manner. But it would take an artistic genius on the level of Orson Welles during the “Citizen Kane” era to do this and I’m not even sure he could pull it off.
Nobody’s entirely sure what happened next, but Lewis got into battles with his financiers and eventually, the film was never released. It’s allegedly locked in one of Lewis’s vaults somewhere and he has never shown it to anyone. The subject matter is verboten for any Lewis interview.
However, a few people have managed to see it, most notably comedian Harry Shearer who saw it in a surreptitious screening back in the 1970s. I’ve attached a clip from the Howard Stern Show from 2011 where he talked to Howard about seeing the film.
When Shearer was interviewed for a famous Spy magazine article about the film in 1992, he described it as 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.” He also said “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.”
Some extremely rare and behind-the-scenes footage of the making of “The Day the Clown Cried” recently surfaced on YouTube, which can be seen here. It is so rare in fact, that the mere posting of this footage on YouTube was a major story:
A pretty good and detailed article by Justin Bozung can be found at the Mondo Film + Podcast website:
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