If I could snap my fingers and magically see any movie that already exists right now, there is no question in my mind what film I’d watch. I have been fascinated by the stories about the Jerry Lewis film “The Day The Clown Cried” since the very first time I heard about it.
And why wouldn’t I be? The premise is fairly audacious, and the idea that Lewis finished it, looked at it, and immediately ordered it to be buried forever only makes it that much more enticing. I am just as interested in art that fails as I am in art that succeeds, because I think those failures can be incredibly revealing about the artists and the decisions they were making. Jerry Lewis is someone I have grown up watching, and my feelings about him have changed repeatedly over the years. There were times I liked him, times I hated him, times I have considered him both overrated or unjustly overlooked, and when you look at his career as a whole, there’s almost no way to dismiss that he is a major part of Hollywood’s comedy and filmmaking history.
My own kids have been introduced to his work. The first film I showed them of his was “The Bellboy,” and they ended up watching it three times in a week, watching certain scenes repeatedly each time they screened the film. It’s amazing to see how far ahead Lewis seemed to think at times, and how he also couldn’t resist some of the cheapest gags possible. He appears to be at war with his own sense of taste at times, and that only makes it more interesting to watch his work.
One of my favorite events I ever attended in LA came years ago, when I got to see one of Patton Oswalt’s legendary staged readings of the screenplay for “The Day The Clown Cried.” If you don’t know the backstory to the film, it was written as a serious movie by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton. Jerry Lewis was not the first person involved with the film, but when he did finally come onboard to star in it, he also signed to direct and rewrite the movie. He considered it the biggest challenge he’d ever accepted as a filmmaker, and by all indications, he really did have the best intentions when he set out to make it happen.
It’s the story of Helmut Doork, a circus clown who can no longer find work. He becomes bitter and after a public incident in which he denounces Hitler, he is arrested and sent to a prison camp. He begins to perform for the Jewish children being kept in the camp, and when he is ordered to stop, he defies the commandant, happy to have found an audience that appreciates him. The commandant realizes this could be useful, and he orders Doork to play specifically to the children being loaded onto the trains to the death camps. During one of his shows, he ends up onboard a train himself, and he ends up leading all of the kids, still laughing and cheering, into the gas chamber where they all die.
The script is, to put it bluntly, a nightmare. It is a story that you have to assume someone thought would be uplifting, but that’s not the effect it has on audiences at all. In the staged reading we saw, it was so wrong-headed so often that we heard more gasps than laughs. It is a completely miscalculation, not least because of the long stretches of material where it’s just Helmut Doork doing “hilarious” clown routines. Patton was eventually forced legally to stop holding his staged readings, which were filled out by tons of his comedian friends, and it’s a shame. It was the only real way to get a glimpse at what might have been.
One reason for the film never screening was because of legal issues involving the script. Producer Nathan Wachsberger made a stupid rookie mistake. When he first read the script, he negotiated an option deal, and he paid Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton $5000. When he began production on the film, he was supposed to deliver another $50,000 as a purchase fee, and he didn’t. Once the film was done shooting, he tried to deal with the issue, but by that point, the writers had a totally different degree of leverage. At the same time, Lewis put some of his own money into finishing the film, and he and Wachsberger ended up at legal odds with each other. There were reportedly two prints of the film, with Wachsberger keeping one and Lewis keeping the other. In recent years, when asked directly about the film, Lewis has said that he finds the entire thing embarrassing. He says there was a great movie to make in there somewhere, but that he just missed the mark.
Harry Shearer wrote once about seeing a screening of the movie, and his description only made it seem like even more of a must-see for those of us who were already fascinated by the film. I had gotten used to the idea that I would never see the movie, and then today, I woke up find several references online to a newly-surfaced promotional reel for the film. And it’s astonishing.
What’s clear when you look at the footage is that it was very much a Jerry Lewis film. I think in my head over the years, I had imagined all sorts of things about it, but I never realized how close it would look to the rest of his work, and how much the tone of the footage would obviously be consistent with the majority of his work, particularly in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I thought it would turn out to be some weird departure, some momentary insanity on his part, but it’s not. And that seems to be the most shocking thing of all about it.
I love when we get these looks at things that might have been, at near-misses in filmmaking, and I’m not sure why this surfaced now or how, but I’m thrilled to get this peek at something so long-rumored. It gives me new hope that maybe, somehow, we’ll someday see the entire thing.