Perhaps the most famous unreleased film of all time, this 1972 tragicomedy tells the story of Helmut Doork, an embittered German clown who is sent to a Nazi death camp for lampooning Hitler. While there, he befriends the camp’s children, who restore his desire to entertain. In the film’s finale, he is coerced into leading the children into the gas chamber, where he winds up being exterminated alongside them.
Not an easy story to pull off, to say the least. Blending slapstick comedy with concentration-camp horrors could prove unbearable unless handled with exquisite subtlety, all of which makes this next sentence very, very important.
The film was written and directed by Jerry Lewis, who also starred.
It’s difficult to evaluate Lewis’ direction or performance, because few have seen the finished film. But the movie’s screenplay has been widely bootlegged and, while it’s unfair to judge a completed film on the basis of its script, one might assert that subtlety is not the story’s strong suit. (The film veers between feats of clowning and heavy-handed pronouncements like this, from one of Doork’s fellow prisoners: ”When you rule by fear, laughter is the most frightening sound in the world.”)
One of the few people who have seen a rough cut of the film is the radio host and Spinal Tap member Harry Shearer, who told Spy magazine in 1992, ”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. You’d just think, ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling.”’ (In an e-mail to EW, Shearer would only add, ”If somebody tells you it’s a serious movie about Jerry Lewis as a clown in a concentration camp, you will find the film itself one of the few perfect objects you’ve ever experienced — i.e., it meets or exceeds your expectations.”)
Audiences, however, seem unlikely to experience this perfect object: According to most published accounts — and Lewis’ website (jerrylewiscomedy.com) — The Day the Clown Cried has been in limbo because its producer, Nathan Wachsberger, neglected not only to raise enough funds for its production but to secure the rights to the screenplay on which it was based. The original screenplay’s author, Joan O’Brien, seems unlikely to grant such rights, given that she termed the film ”a disaster” in the Spy story. As for the status of the film’s legal disputes, Wachsberger is deceased, and O’Brien couldn’t recall her attorney’s name, or the disposition of the case, but was quite firm in her insistence that the film was not suitable to be shown. As for Lewis himself, he responded to an interview request by saying ”If you knew how it’s not a subject I’m going to discuss, you’d have never contacted me.” He shut down any further questioning with a terse ”Why don’t you say ‘Goodnight, Gracie’?”