Bits of The Day the Clown Cried emerge on YouTube
Footage from Jerry Lewis’s notorious, suppressed film concerning a clown in a Nazi concentration camp has been unearthed
There are few unseen films quite so notorious as Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried. Shot in 1972, the picture stars Lewis as a circus clown who, after drunkenly insulting Hitler, ends up imprisoned in a concentration camp. The great Harriet Andersson, from Ingmar Bergman’s stock company, costars alongside Mr Lewis. As we understand it, the picture ends with various dubious sentimental interactions between Lewis and the doomed children.
It has often been argued that Lewis suppressed the film because he realised it was inappropriate. This is not entirely true. In fact, objections by the original writers — Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton — were at least as significant in killing off the release. They felt that Lewis had softened the story and sandpapered the protagonist’s rough edges. At any rate, almost nobody has seen any of it until now. Then, a few days ago, excerpts from a Flemish-language programme on the film appeared on YouTube. Who saw that coming?
There is, in truth, nothing here to scare the horses. Lewis does some perfectly creditable physical comedy and then discusses his influences with the European TV station. He chats about the influence of Chaplin. He takes on the pose of an auteur.
The footage does, however, remind us of one of cinema’s oddest projects. It hardly needs to be said that some Lewis enthusiasts — they abound in France — suspect that a masterpiece might be lurking in the vaults. Harry Shearer, the veteran comic and broadcaster, saw a rough cut of the film in 1979 and has, ever since, worked hard at disabusing pundits of any such notion. His description of the film in an article for Spy Magazine is utterly priceless. The future Mr Burns wrote:
“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.”
It is, here, worth adding that, while we can’t really comment on the execution, the concept of the picture is no less offensive than that of Roberto Benigni’s utterly revolting Life is Beautiful. Indeed, synopses of Clown’s final act — the hero attempts to distract the children from their fate — make the denouement sound almost identical to that of the Italian prankster’s film. Yet a great many people found Life is Beautiful tasteful, moving, poignant and a lot of other things it really wasn’t.
Are we likely to see The Clown that Cried in full? Not if Lewis has his way. ”I thought the work was bad. I lost the magic, and that’s all I can tell you,” he said earlier this year. “No one will ever see it, because I’m embarrassed. I believed in the work and the way it should have been, and it wasn’t.”
So this is all you get for now. That may not be such a bad thing.