The movie Jerry Lewis didn’t want you to see
Few would deny the comedic genius of Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday at age 91. But there is one movie in his slapstick-riddled filmography that drew no laughs — partly because it is so distasteful, partly because, at the behest of Lewis himself, it is never officially screened.
It’s 1972’s “The Day the Clown Cried,” an attempt at a serious Holocaust film that Lewis directed and starred in. The movie centers around German circus clown Helmut Doork, played by Lewis, who insults Adolph Hitler, gets sent to a concentration camp and is then charged with entertaining children as they are marched off to the gas chamber. He eventually leads them in, giving up his own life so that they are not afraid of walking to their deaths.
Comedian Harry Shearer, famous for playing myriad characters on “The Simpsons,” ranks among the few who have seen it. According to Variety, “an associate of Lewis’s snuck [Shearer] a copy for the weekend” in 1979.
“The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz,” Shearer said.
Lewis gave it the worst review of all: “Bad, bad, bad, embarrassingly bad.”
Proving that he stands by what he says, Lewis donated a copy — it only got to the rough-cut stage — to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. But it was conditional: The movie cannot be shown until 2025, the year Lewis would have turned 99.
This inglorious chapter of film history began in 1961 when a TV publicist partnered with a film critic from the Los Angeles Examiner to write the script. According to a story that ran in Spy magazine, Dick Van Dyke, Bobby Darin and Milton Berle had all considered starring in the movie but turned it down. Lewis, who says he thought the movie could convey the horrors of the Holocaust to a wide audience, signed on 1971 after being courted by producer Nat Wachsberger.
Enthused, Lewis toured concentration camps and went on a grapefruit diet that resulted in his losing 35 pounds in order to play the imprisoned clown convincingly.
Financing eventually dried up and Wachsberger reportedly bailed, but an obsessed and Percodan-addicted Lewis soldiered on. He dropped his own money into the doomed project, which was mostly shot on set in Sweden and entangled in legal issues, including whether or not Lewis and Wachsberger even had a right to use the script.
In 1972, Lewis said he almost had a heart attack from the stress of it all. But, as he told The New York Times that year, there was an upside: “I put all the pain on the screen … I think it’s given a new depth to my playing of the clown, Helmut, whose agony is the center of the picture.”
Shortly after, he decided to bury his seemingly botched effort.
The irony is that the shunned flick bears similarities to the 1997 movie “Life is Beautiful,” which won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for star Roberto Benigni.
“Jerry might have been eating his heart out when those Oscars came in,” said Robert Edwards, producer of “The Last Laugh,” a documentary about humor related to the Holocaust. “Who knows, maybe the movie was deservedly buried or else it is ahead of its time.”
New Yorker critic Richard Brody recently saw a few snippets and described them as “profoundly moving.”
“If it does get released [in 2025],” added Edwards, “and is praised as a hidden gem, it’s a shame that Jerry won’t be here to know.”