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By Thom Bennett | March 23, 2001

Helmut asks for some time with the children and they grant him a half hour. He joins the children in the room where they are being kept. “Now I want everyone to put on a big smile and sit down, because we’re going to have more fun than we’ve ever had.” Once more Helmut Doork clowns with the children. The guards come to get the children. The children want to know what is going on. Helmut tells them “They… want us to move to another building… where we’ll have more room… to play. Tell you what. Let’s make it a big circus parade. Everybody get in line behind…” With that, Helmut marches the children through the prison yard, all the while hoping for some miracle, and to the open doorway of the gas chamber. He stops outside the door and reluctantly steers the children through. A little girl stops beside Helmut and puts out her hand for him to take. At first he hesitates and the child pulls away, but he then takes her hand and walks through the door with her. The guards lock the door behind them and Helmut gathers the children around him. They all begin to laugh “until the chamber resounds with gentle laughter.”



In the self-righteous, egocentric world that this film seems to occupy, this finale somehow justifies what has happened. It seems to me however, at least upon reading the script, that it is little more than a f****d up rationalization for what is a misguided story from word one. Perhaps Lewis made this film with the best intentions and it was not meant to be as pompous and self-serving as it seems. It is however near impossible to conceive that this film would be anything but disturbing to watch and utterly without conscience. Not to say that films have to be pleasant to watch, and quite often a slap in the face ending is quite effective. However, after a couple of hours of pontificating from a clown, the result is something like an overly-long “Hogan’s Heroes” episode with the mass slaughter of children at the end. What on earth were they thinking?

For the myriad reasons to not make this film there seems to be not a single reasonable reason to make it. Comedian Harry Shearer, one of the few who have seen this picture, commented in Spy Magazine that “This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and comedy are so badly 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.”

Stories vary as to what exactly did happen to the film. According to the surely unbiased “Official Jerry Lewis Comedy Museum” website, the story goes as follows:

In 1971, producer Nate Waschberger asked Jerry to direct and star in “The Day the Clown Cried,” based on Joan O’Brien’s book by the same name, about a German clown who was arrested by the Gestapo, interred in a concentration camp, and used to march Jewish children into the ovens. Jerry lost close to 40 pounds to play the role. The shooting began in Stockholm, but Waschberger not only ran out of money to complete the film, but he failed to pay Joan O’Brien the money she was owed for the rights to the story. Jerry was forced to finish the picture with his own money. The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation.

Whenever asked about the film, Lewis either takes the above stated stance or reacts with utter disdain to even being bothered with the question. The fact remains that it is this singular, unseen film that has both marred and conversely hyped Lewis’ reputation as a filmmaker to the cinematic community. For his many, largely self-proclaimed innovations as a filmmaker it will always be “The Day the Clown Cried” that people will continuously ponder.

There are many who claim that the film was either so bad, so embarrassing, so debased or some combination thereof, that it was merely Lewis’ decision to bury the film and take the loss in an effort to save face and escape accusations of anti-Semitism (Lewis, himself, being Jewish) as well as preserve his reputation as a humanitarian. Since 1949 Lewis has raised over one billion dollars in the fight against muscular dystrophy, most notably with his annual Labor Day telethon.

In Lewis’ defense, the Holocaust-comedy is not an idea without precedent. It has been done on several occasions with great success. From Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to Roberto Begnini’s Oscar Winning “Life Is Beautiful,” filmmakers have managed, strangely though successfully, to derive some humor from one of humankind’s greatest atrocities. Yet these films had that something that “The Day the Clown Cried” (or at least its screenplay) is sorely lacking. Namely, some hint of moral sense. That said, “The Day the Clown Cried” stands as an enormously misguided attempt at “serious” comedy by Lewis that backfired big-time. But, then again maybe it is not such a backfire. By virtue of the fact that it has never been seen, the film has become legendary and has garnered far more attention than it would seem to deserve. From the screenplay it is clear that the film is unbelievably bad. From dialogue to story to characters, there is not much of merit here. It is the audacity of the premise and the legendary arrogance of Lewis that makes this thing so damn intriguing. In infamy “The Day the Clown Cried” has gained a status and aura that few films will ever have and lent far more credence and legend to Lewis as a filmmaker than his “seen” films would ever warrant on their own.

Year after year as he hams it up on his albeit extremely worthwhile telethon, all I can picture is that deranged clown who loved children so much he had to lead them to death and the irony of it all just oozes from my television. Perhaps some day we, the people, will get to see it. Until that day the legend lives on of a film so misguided and preposterous that it should not be seen by the world. Maybe one day, during that annual telethon, Jerry will come out of a song and announce that if he gets enough pledges he will finally let us see this debacle for ourselves… It could, after all, do for clowns what “Howard the Duck” did for ducks.

Want to get the whole story? Read part one of JERRY LEWIS’ “THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED” REVEALED!>>>

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  1. A. T. Cairns says:

    I’ve just come across the debate, comment, and conjecture regarding The Day The Clown Cried. It puzzles me as to why many people seem to be so down on Jerry Lewis. His “legendary arrogance” would only be relevant if the person stating that, had experienced the arrogance directly. Have they? If so, say so. Otherwise, it’s another form of hearsay, repeated to reinforce the opinion of the writer, which in itself is hardly ethical, particularly in light of the same writer going on to comment on morality. I fail to see why a lack of “moral compass” even matters. Many films don’t posess such a thing and anyway, I thought that Art was supposed to be devoid of any kind of morality in order to achieve ultimate freedom of expression? I hope this film is put to general release some day, if only to encourage further public debate as to whether the subject matter is ever suitable for anything other than straight documentary. It probably will be when all the protagonists have died.

  2. matthew says:

    most of the wording you’ve chosen is simply from your disdain of a script.. you were not privy to any actual film therefore your entire analysis seems at least partially invalid. it could be an awesome film, but it seems your opinion seems a bit jaded and biased against mr. lewis. gotta love heresay when you practically say he was an arrogant monster you don’t know the person, you’re only going by what others have said. sorry man, but you should revise your article a bit, for goodness sake y’know.

  3. Scott93205 says:

    Over the years Richard Burton, Dick Van D**e, Danny Kaye, Robin Williams, and William Hurt have all found merit in this work, Susanna. But if you say it’s “awful,” I guess that just about settles the matter. Keep up with that “research” and thanks for your input.

  4. Susanna says:

    I’ve been researching this film for a little while now. I’ve read the shooting script and I must concur with you, it is just an awful read.

    No question in my mind that Jerry Lewis was addicted to Percodan while he was shooting this. He was probably buzzed when he wrote this garbage script.

    I had no idea that the film had been kept from release because the original writer had never been paid, the rights to the story had expired, etc. I always believed that Jerry wanted to avoid embarrassment and kept the film from being released himself.

    I do believe we will see this monstrosity one day. Probably long after the protagonists in this fight over the film have shuffled off this mortal coil.

    I’m in my mid-forties. I hope to be around a long time. Simply because I have got to see this for myself. If the shooting script I struggled to get through is any indication, this film will surpass any motion picture disaster we can name.

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