Back in early ‘70s, master of slapstick Jerry Lewis made a movie about the Holocaust. That movie, called The Day the Clown Cried, has become one of the world’s great lost films, as Lewis tried to bury it after the blend of outrageous comedy and horrific subject matter went over terribly in test screenings. In it, Lewis plays a clown who is arrested for mocking Hitler and is forced to take kids to the gas chambers (if you want a sense of the kind of comedy that pervades the film, the clown’s name is Helmut Doork). Now, a rare 30-minute cut of The Day the Clown Cried has surfaced online. It’s an incomplete assemblage of different sources, including a German documentary and behind-the-scenes and unedited test footage, and much of it is dubbed in German, but it’s more of the film than has ever been available before.
Because of Lewis’s efforts to bury the project and its taboo subject matter, footage from the movie has become a white whale for a certain kind of film buff. Last August, news broke that the Library of Congress had acquired a print of the film as part of a Jerry Lewis collection, though the LOC agreed not to show the film for at least ten years. Shorter bits of footage from the film have cropped up online before, and it’s possible to get your hands on the screenplay (a few people have staged readings of it). But until the full footage comes out, cinephiles have to rely on short clips of the film, and the tantalizing, and oft-quoted interview Harry Shearer (one of the few men who saw The Day the Clown Cried in full) gave Spy magazine:
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.