In the annals of movies celebrities have hidden in shame, no movie looms larger than 1972’s The Day The Clown Cried. Jerry Lewis’ notorious Holocaust dramedy is supposedly so bad, Lewis has publicly stated more than once it will never, ever be released. But nothing can stop the internet, and a rough cut of about 30 minutes has finally leaked online.
The Day The Clown Cried follows Helmut Doork, a formerly popular clown fallen on hard times. After getting fired from the circus and drunkenly denouncing Hitler, he’s sent to a camp and waits years to plead his case. He finally finds an audience who appreciates him in the form of Jewish children at the camp, and winds up being used by the Nazis to lead kids into the gas chambers. The movie supposedly ends with Helmut performing for the kids right up until the doors close.
The film was beset with disaster behind the scenes. Lewis, who’d signed on to star and direct, quickly learned that the production company not only didn’t have the money needed to complete the movie, they didn’t even have the rights to shoot the script. Lewis wound up paying for the movie himself, but the legal issues were never resolved, and the movie remains in a form of limbo.
It has not gone entirely unseen, however. Oddly, Simpsons voice actor Harry Shearer has seen the whole rough cut, and summed it up thus back in 1992:
…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.
And in theory, we’ll be able to see it around 2025, as the Library of Congress has a cut of the movie. That said, what we see of this cut is undeniably rough, but also interesting. It’s assembled largely from a German documentary about the movie that aired in the country this February, which mixes footage of Lewis with reenactments by the original Swedish cast, with some unedited test footage spliced in. You can see it on Vimeo, at least until it’s taken down, but what’s there, while hardly Oscar-winning material, isn’t as bad as years of legend have made it out to be. Lewis in particular gives a surprisingly refrained performance that veers away from his usual persona.
Hopefully some day Lewis will relent, the legal issues around the movie will be resolved, and we’ll finally see the whole thing. It’s likely not going to be a triumph on his resumé, but at the same time, it’s a cinematic curiosity people have wondered about for years, and if nothing else, 40 years of distance may allow people to give it a fairer shot. Besides, we live in a world where Uwe Boll made a movie about the Holocaust, so no matter how bad The Day Clown Cried is, there’s going to be something a whole lot worse.