When the name Jerry Lewis is mentioned, thoughts will immediately go towards one of three things: his movies with Dean Martin, his movies without Dean Martin or the Labor Day MDA telethon. With Labor Day 2013 now in the books and Jerry’s involvement with the MDA over since 2011, we’re left with his movies. Jerry has never been one to steer away from controversial comments. He’s a product of a forgotten age. However, in 1972, avoiding controversy may have played a big part in his decision to shelve The Day The Clown Cried. In 2009, he finally talked about the movie a little, leaving many to hope the “lost” film may one day be seen.
Just read the plot description and you know there was no way this could have been released without upsetting somebody somewhere. Jerry Lewis played Helmut Doork, a clown who is imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II and, ultimately, would lead children to their deaths. It was not intended to be a horror movie nor was it a comedy. It was a dark drama and one in which some feel may have been the defining movie of Jerry’s career. His last film had been two years earlier with Which Way To The Front?, a comedy hated by many. His brand of humor was always for a select audience and many of them felt it was time for Jerry to either change or take a rest. The Day The Clown Cried would have been a dramatic change indeed. It would have shown to those doubters that he could actually act, something we really didn’t see until such work in the 80s, like The King of Comedy or the Wiseguy television series.
However, the movie was never officially completed nor was it ever released. Reportedly, Jerry has the only print and claims it will never be released. Some speculate it may indeed be finally seen upon his death. Others, such as Harry Shearer, have claimed to have seen it, which seems very unlikely. The script is available online and well worth a read. At first read, the premise sounds shocking. Jerry’s character of Helmut Doork is arrested by the Nazis for making fun of Hitler. Helmut refuses to perform for his captors until some children in the prison camp see him and begin laughing again. He agrees to help ease the children as they board a train. He is accidentally locked in with them and now all are headed to their presumed final destination…Auschwitz.
This is a story that could not have been told in 1972. The timing was wrong. It’s a tale of despair and, seemingly, little hope. However, flash forward 20 years and the world was ready for Schindler’s List. Another 20 years and the time may be right for the film to see the light of day. Controversial cinema has an audience in the 21st century. Jerry might receive that recognition that has long eluded him. The appreciation for his body of film work; to show he is more than pratfalls and gag lines. However, that praise may not come until after Jerry Lewis has died. He openly stated in 2009 that the movie could be wonderful but only if he could finish it; if he could fill in the gaps to enhance the story. And he said that will never happen. He is proud of it and the challenges it gave him, both as an actor and as a man. He was doing something he hadn’t done before and still has doubts whether he should have done it at all.
He hasn’t watched it since 1972 as he doesn’t feel there is any point. It’s been wrapped up in litigation due to finances and rights issues. Yet, he hasn’t destroyed the only known print. And every time new footage surfaces, it makes all of us interested in cinematic history all the more hopeful. So, while we all continue to wonder about it, check out some of the footage on YouTube that does exist, including the recently posted material found on a Belgian website. And perhaps, someday, this will surface as part of a triple feature alongside other lost films, such as London After Midnight or the first Marx Brothers movie, Humor Risk. Like those films, the waiting and wondering may or may not be worth it. We may never know for sure.