This past Sunday, Hollywood lost a comedic legend: Jerry Lewis. The star of The Nutty Professor and The King Of Comedy, Lewis was a film/TV/radio/stage actor, screenwriter, director, producer—and, in his extensive work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a humanitarian.
But throughout the condolences and tributes that poured in over social media for Lewis, a small contingent of cult movie fans couldn’t help but wonder aloud: will this mean The Day The Clown Cried will finally be released?
Jerry Lewis starred in, and directed, this film in 1972; it has remained unreleased for over 40 years. Theoretically, its existence in the deepest bowels of the Lewis vaults is due to litigation over ownership and distribution rights. But the scuttlebutt around Hollywood has been that The Day The Clown Cried was simply not a very good movie. It might have even been a bad movie.
So bad, in fact…that it is now a cult classic.
Rather, it’s a cult classic few people have actually had the privilege to see. One of those lucky souls is This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons actor Harry Shearer, who attended a private screening of the film in 1979. He told Spy magazine 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.
The Day The Clown Cried is about German clown Helmut Doork, who gets sent to a concentration camp for making fun of Hitler. Once there he discovers the plight of the Jews who have been rounded up by the Nazis. The once-arrogant Doork changes his ways and bravely sacrifices his life to make the children laugh as they march to the gas chambers.
Now, this plot might sound familiar to you: comparisons of it have been made to both the Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful as well as the not-so-Oscar-winning Jakob the Liar with Robin Williams. In fact, Williams was at one point attached to a scuttled remake of The Day The Clown Cried.
Lewis was reportedly deeply embarrassed by the movie, and often bristled at reporters who dared mention it. But it was possible he had a change of heart in 2015, because that was when he donated a copy of the film to the Library of Congress—with the caveat that they not screen it until ten years from that point.
And it’s too bad, really. Because as much as it’s hip to enshrine and fetishize “so bad it’s good” films (or “so bad it’s bad…and that’s actually good” films), the actor’s involvement and dedication to The Day The Clown Cried seems to have come from a well-meaning place. The role of Doork was reportedly turned down by Bobby Darin, Dick Van Dyke, and Milton Berle. Lewis took it on, in part, because he thought a film about the Holocaust was a worthwhile and even educational venture.
What imaginary line gets crossed from Good Intentions to Classic Bad Film? And what do you do when your labor of love turns out to be the joke of Hollywood?
While the actual rough cut of the movie is going to be held back by the Library of Congress until 2025, there is a full movie script floating around. Several people have performed “re-enactments” of parts or the whole of the film, and you can find those on YouTube as well as some actual behind-the-scenes footage from the original. There have also been live performances of the movie arranged by comedian Patton Oswalt; I had the privilege of attending one of these in NYC many years back, and from what I remember…I dunno, it didn’t seem that bad.