“Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” - Mark Twain
Today I will review the film you will probably never see… It is the 1972 Jerry Lewis movie “The Day the Clown Cried” , starring Jerry Lewis, Peter Ahlm, Lars Amble. Let me make it perfectly clear that neither I have seen this movie. However, I became aware of it several years ago and the whole matter of its non-release fascinated me. Quite coincidentally I heard about it again a few days ago.
The plot is set at the time of WWII and concerns Helmut Doork who is a once great clown, but who is dismissed from the circus. Quite depressed, he goes to a local bar and he pokes fun at Hitler in front of some Gestapo officers, who arrest and send him to a political prisoner camp. Helmut angers his fellow prisoners by refusing to perform for them, wanting to preserve his legend. As times passes, Jews are brought into the camp, and they are sequestered away, not being allowed to interact with other prisoners. Helmut is forced by the other prisoners to perform or be beaten. His act is terrible and he leaves the building depressed, trying the routine out again alone in the prison yard. He hears laughter and sees a group of Jewish children watching him through a fence. Happy to be appreciated again, he makes a makeshift clown suit and begins to regularly perform to growing audiences of Jewish youngsters. The new prison Commandant orders Helmut to stop but he refuses, and continues to perform. He is beaten up and locked in solitary confinement. But the Nazis soon come up with a use for Helmut, which is a terribly vengeful one and demoralising for both his ego and his new-found sensitivities – He is forced to march the children into the gas chambers...
The movie is based on a story by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton. Producer Nathan Wachsberger, offered Lewis the chance to star in and direct the film with complete financial backing from his production company and Europa Studios. In February 1972, Lewis toured the remains of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps and shot some exterior shots of buildings in Paris for the film; all the while reworking the script. He reportedly lost forty pounds for the concentration camp scenes. Principal photography began in Sweden on the film in April 1972, but the shoot was beset by numerous problems.
Wachsberger not only ran out of money before completing the film, but his option to produce the film expired before filming began. He had paid O’Brien the initial $5,000 fee, but failed to send her the additional $50,000 due to her prior to production. Lewis eventually ended up paying production costs with his own money to finish shooting the film, but the parties involved in its production were never able to come to terms, which would allow the film to be released. After shooting wrapped, Lewis announced to the press that Wachsberger had failed to make good on his financial obligations or even commit to producing. Wachsberger retaliated by threatening to file a lawsuit of breach of contract and stated that he had enough to finish and release the film without Lewis. Wanting to ensure the film would not be lost, Lewis took a rough cut of the film, while the studio retained the entire film negative.
On January 12, 2013, Lewis appeared at a Cinefamily Q&A event at the Los Angeles Silent Movie Theatre. He was asked by actor Bill Allen: “Are we going to ever gonna get to see ‘The Day the Clown Cried’?” Lewis replied in the negative, and explained the reason the movie would never be released was because: “...in terms of that film I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad.” Later that year at Cannes while promoting Max Rose, Lewis was asked about ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ and said: “It was bad work. You’ll never see it and neither will anyone else.”
The film is dealing with a sensitive issue and despite Lewis’ talent, his brand of broad, slapstick comedy would not seem to be suited for such a film. Nevertheless, even in his most zany films he does have scenes full of pathos and poignancy that show his talent at making the viewers drop a tear in between the laughs. However, to deal with such a horrific topic at the time the film was made, while he was beset by all sorts of problems – psychological, financial, existential, was perhaps not wise… In later years, Roberto Benigni showed that a similar idea could work extremely well, although even Benigni’s 1997 “Life is Beautiful” has its critics.
The Holocaust is one of the darkest moments of human history. The tragedy and horror of the systematic extermination of millions people by a totalitarian regime has no humorous side. However, humans have always turned to humour as coping mechanism in even the direst circumstances, or perhaps these circumstances are the ones that need humour the most. The question of taste of course is a personal matter and whether the humour is appropriate or not is often debatable. Lewis’ efforts in dealing with this painful and very sensitive topic cannot be judged objectively in the absence of a final, complete, released version of the movie. It would be wise to refrain from making any judgment when one has not seen the movie. Perhaps today in capable hands, the film could be remade and its message – a humanistic one would be evident.
I have reviewed another film about the Holocaust and children. It is the excellent “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” . We have to acknowledge even the most painful of topics, we have to remember even the most brutal of atrocities, and we have to have the strength to never allow them to be repeated. Jerry Lewis probably had the right intention when he set out to make “The Day the Clown Cried” – if the film turned out to be “…bad, bad, bad.” (by his own admission) is something that we may never be able to judge for ourselves.