BOOTLEG FILES 493: “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972 unreleased film starring and directed by Jerry Lewis).
LAST SEEN: Footage from the film just emerged on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The most infamous unseen film of all time.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Probably not in Jerry’s lifetime.
In January 1973, Jerry Lewis announced that his feature film “The Day the Clown Cried” would have its world premiere during that year’s Cannes Film Festival. That didn’t happen. In fact, the movie never had a premiere – to this date, there has never been any public screening of this bizarre and mysterious production.
Over the past 40 years, movie addicts discovered bits and pieces of this film. A few production stills and a brief snippet of behind-the-scenes footage have bubbled into view, and the full screenplay became available on the Internet. Lewis added to the confusion through contradictory statements and actions. He was screening parts of the film for colleagues in the late 1970s and for journalist Lynn Hirschberg in 1982 – and yes, everyone knows that Harry Shearer was aghast after being allegedly among the chosen few to see it – and Lewis has spoken repeatedly about trying to complete the film. But Lewis has also brusquely shut down questions about the film’s status, and interviewers that encounter him are warned in advance not to raise the subject. As recently as this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he insisted that he would never allow “The Day the Clown Cried” to be seen.
But last week, something remarkable happened. A YouTube denizen calling himself “Unclesporkums” found a snippet of a long-forgotten Dutch television profile of Lewis that was shot when he was filming the circus sequences to “The Day the Clown Cried” in a Paris studio. Now, for the first time ever, the world has a brief glimpse of what one part of “The Day the Clown Cried” looks like.
For those who don’t know the story behind the story, here it is in the proverbial nutshell. French producer Nathan Waschberger approached Lewis to star in and direct a dramatic film about a German circus clown that ran afoul of the Nazi regime and winds up in Auschwitz, where he entertains the Jewish children and winds up joining them in the gas chamber. The production was thick with problems – Waschberger reportedly disappeared after work began on the shoot, leaving Lewis with insufficient funds. Lewis financed the work from his own wealth, only to discover that he no longer owned the rights to the original story written by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton. O’Brien was horrified at the rough cut that Lewis assembled and refused to allow him to renew the rights to the property. Lewis, Waschberger and O’Brien became engaged in a thorny series of lawsuits that ultimately prevented the film from being released.
As the years passed, curiosity grew about “The Day the Clown Cried.” There were reports of a remake working from the original O’Brien-Denton screenplay (O’Brien was angered at the changes Lewis made to her work), and in 2012 French film director Xavier Giannoli claimed that he acquired an incomplete 35mm print (though he never allowed for any independent confirmation). Rumors has circulated for many years that a bootleg video of “The Day the Clown Cried” was floating about, but there is no evidence to support that story. As a result, there has been a long-simmering desire to view Lewis’ work, and even the Film Threat family contributed to the ongoing conversation about this flick back in 2001.
The Dutch TV clip that recently emerged opens with a ringmaster standing in the center of a circus ring, introducing Lewis’ character of Helmut Doork, a past-his-prime clown. Lewis’ presentation of Doork consists of Emmett Kelly-style clown make, complete with an oversized red bulb nose and a ridiculously small hat. Lewis’ clown engages in some light pantomime shtick – he tries to light a cigarette with an uncooperative candle (the flame vanishes when the cigarette comes close, but reappears when the cigarette is withdrawn), and he throws a paper airplane into the air and watches in bafflement as it engages off-screen in an aerial dogfight (the soundtrack is filled with the battle noises). In a series of slated shots, Lewis does repeated takes of Doork’s vain attempts to offer a simple juggling routine.
The clown routine in this offering calls to mind the star’s baggy pants act in the Martin and Lewis comedy, “3 Ring Circus,” while his make-up resembles the clown greasepaint he wore in his TV production of “The Jazz Singer.” And the bulk of the footage includes Lewis preparing to set up the camera and the on-set music playback for his scenes. Lewis speaks about Charlie Chaplin, who was both a professional influence and a deep personal friend – though there is little in the clown routine here that recalls Chaplin’s subtle comedy. (An amused Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin are briefly seen watching the production.)
If anything, these fleeting moments only serve to quench the appetite to see more of “The Day the Clown Cried.” While Lewis has recently claimed to be “embarrassed” by this film, I suspect that a great deal of the film’s negative reputation may be inflated. After all, it is too easy for a film to be crippled by the harsh talk of a select few – consider how a handful of New York critics savaged “Heaven’s Gate” in 1980, while today the film has earned standing ovations at prestigious festivals. One can easily imagine “The Day the Clown Cried” to be wildly imperfect, but Lewis certainly deserved praise for daring to find some degree of humanity and pathos in a story that takes place during the greatest atrocity of modern times.
Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican stated that the YouTube posting of this previously unseen footage may only be temporary, because “Lewis has vowed to keep the film hidden forever.” I suspect that won’t happen – even if Lewis forces “Unclesporkums” to remove the footage, plenty of the star’s fans have probably made copies of this clip for themselves. If anything, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the appearance of this footage should spur Lewis to seek a final resolution to whatever legal problems are preventing public exhibition of “The Day the Clown Cried.”
I am willing to wager money that “The Day the Clown Cried” will someday find its way to full public viewing. Maybe not during Lewis’ lifetime, but eventually it will be seen – either in a proper commercial presentation or as a bootlegged offering.
And, who knows, the reaction to the film might actually be overwhelmingly positive. If that is the case, it wouldn’t be the first time that Jerry Lewis had the last laugh on his detractors.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!