BBC South: The Story Of The (Unreleased) ‘The Day The Clown Cried’


Jerry Lewis looks through the cine camera during the shooting of the film “The Day the Clown Cried” he directed at the Cirque D’Hiver in Paris on March 22nd, 1972. STF/AFP/Getty”.

This is only a 28 minute long documentary but it’s a fascinating 28 minutes, presented by the train worker in the first ‘Mission Impossible’; and one of Christopher Morris’ stock company, David Schneider, so he knows about extracting humour from difficult places. The main meat of this is to see the on-site, behind the camera, photographs of the filming of ‘The Day The Clown Cried’. Something like the Swedish Film Institute has those photographic elements in its documents of the time and you get a quick perusal. (A Google image search is productive now too.). I still get a thrill from ‘deleted scenes’ on DVDs or Blu-rays, with extra excitement points if said scenes had yet to have been colour-corrected and/or if they play with a time-stamp in motion on screen too. This unreleased film, ‘The Day The Clown Cried’, is forbidden fruit like no other.

In short: Jerry Lewis, the hugely successful actor, writer, performer and director went to Sweden in 1971 to make a film about a clown who ends up in a Nazi concentration camp, after his previous film was also World War II themed. After it was shot and edited, Lewis looked at the finished work and just decided that it wasn’t good enough so he threw it in his vault.

Some films are made but can’t get a distribution deal and so they just sit on a shelf. Other films on that shelf might then get a release through a changing context. For example, a film that might have an actor in a part but it still awaits distribution and then that actor subsequently becomes very famous, like Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘X-Men’. And suddenly there becomes a pressing reason for that film to be retrieved from the shelf as soon as possible as there’s now a market. Other dusty films might get a release under a new title, to underline that they, the studio, and not an original director, own a property’s title. And there’s the director who was supposedly so embarrassed by his new film, that he offered to do his next one for free if the first one was just junked, but it got released anyway (Woody Allen later took the time to insist on video and TV screenings to be ‘Letterboxed’, to be true to the Gordon Willis cinematography, so it sounds like he did see the film’s value after all. That fact doesn’t coalesce with the story of him thinking that the movie was worthless.). Also, there’s the capacious oeuvre of ‘Alan Smithee’ .

Here, though, this seems to be one example of a film made totally by an artist, with no “back seat drivers”. After having the project’s script on his back burner for ten years and, at the end of this whole process, he decided that he just couldn’t put it out. Amazing. Most directors wouldn’t have a choice: either they, their producers or both would have got to that point having hocked themselves to various people and/or organisations who’d be looking for a return on their investments: it would have to be released, no matter what.

Some say that Jerry sank a lot of his own money in and had trouble with producers’ promises of money as reasons why the film remained unreleased but surely that was all the more incentive to get it out in the market place and claw back some money? And public relations has been around for decades so that financial trouble could have been used to attention-grab at the time, before it was due to be released. The story with James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ was that it was out of control and its profligacy was a milestone around its neck but it kept the film in the news prior to it becoming a colossal hit.

The great Harry Shearer – voice artist in ‘The Simpsons‘; musician; actor; radio host; writer – says that he has actually seen the virtually-finished film (the final musical score wasn’t on the copy he saw in the late 1970s, just some dummy music to fill in the spaces) when someone who knew Lewis managed to purloin a copy of the film for a weekend and called Harry up to watch it. Shearer says that it was one of those experiences where everything was just wrong as the film unfolded on screen; just jaw-droppingly terrible. To me, it sounds almost intoxicatingly, invitingly bad; like a description of three of my favourite awful film experiences: the cheap and nasty ‘Bullseye!‘ (Sally Kirkland retained much more dignity playing the drug-dealing prostitute kicked out of the car at the beginning of ‘JFK’); ‘Grace of Monaco’ (the great classical piece in the trailer isn’t even in the finished shambles of a film) and ‘W.E.’ (like being stuck under an avalanche of ‘wrong’.).

Years after the figurative burial of the film, though, things are moving in an interesting direction. The Library of Congress now has the film, under its French title, in amongst a collection of donated Lewis work and the film can be shown eventually, but not before the year 2025. By which time, Jerry will be 98/99 years old, if he’s still extant.

Lewis is surely missing a real win here, though. In the documentary above, the interviewer Terry Wogan mentions to Lewis how Jerry’s reputation in Europe far outstripped his cinematic currency back home in the U.S.; being seen as a real auteur, a real film-maker in France especially. If Lewis could be persuaded to lay down a director’s commentary to perhaps accompany a future disc release, he could only end up in credit and be seen as a real artist. The two extremes: that the film is totally inappropriate and awful would back up his decision to bury the movie at the time; that the film is a masterpiece would promote the idea of Lewis as a creative giant. All gradations in between would be much of a muchness: Lewis would come out smelling of roses whichever way one cuts it.

2025 is a long way away. If Donald Trump hasn’t been crowbarred out of the White House in some fashion beforehand, 2025 will be the year that the short-fingered vulgarian, the orange antichrist, has to finally vacate the premises in January. Another option, in the meantime, for those who’d like their curiosity satiated, would be something along the lines of the excellent documentary ‘Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno’ (2009).

The short-hand description of Henri-Georges Clouzot was that he was like a French Alfred Hitchcock. He made the astonishing ‘The Wages of Fear’, later remade as the somehow even more astonishing ‘Sorcerer’ by William Friedkin, and the genuinely scary ‘Les Diaboliques’  amongst other works. With a major budget from the U.S. in 1964, Clouzot tried to make his film ‘Inferno’ (later actually made by Claude Chabrol as his 1994 movie ‘L’Enfer) but everything went wrong and it was abandoned after three weeks.

This documentary tried to put the pieces together: of what was shot; of the remaining script; of outtakes; of read-throughs with other actors. It’s a great piece of work but it could only come up with an approximation of what Clouzot was aiming for since Clouzot himself passed away in 1977, having long since abandoned ‘L’Enfer’ anyway. However, Jerry Lewis is still around. He gives little clues to interviewers here and there but imagine if he could walk a sympathetic documentary film-maker through what he was looking for with ‘The Day The Clown Cried’ and why, he believes, that he failed. That could make a fabulous primer for the real thing in 2025.

Behind-the-camera stills is one thing – and it’s a truly great thing for a film that never even got released – but actual footage from the making of the movie is even better. Finnish television had access to Jerry while he tried to make his film. You get an interview with Lewis; you see him performing his clown act; you see him directing and you even see a scene from the film played out hazily on a monitor. This kind of tantalising movie history is manna from heaven, even if you’re not a big fan of Lewis, per se.

I remember seeing and liking ‘The Nutty Professor’ some time ago; I recall vague feelings of warmth for his work with Dean Martin, but I’m probably more a fan of his spiritual son: Professor Frink, if truth be told. One caveat would be ‘Arizona Dream’ , parts of which are just brilliant. Another would be Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Kind of Comedy’. In an honest, objective world, most anyone’s favourite Scorsese segment would come from one of his biggest, most beloved, most mainstream works but one naturally gravitates towards the more neglected pieces, after a while, so put a gun to my head today and I’d choose when Jerry Lewis had a gun to *his* head.

Everything about this scene, the way it’s acted; the way it’s shot; the way it’s edited; the way it’s written, just reduces me to a wreck. One day, I’ll get a tattoo somewhere on my body that just reads: “It’s….it’s not grammatically correct but I think you have the idea…”. Jerry’s portrayal of suppressed rage is an acting masterclass. ‘The King of Comedy’ also brings an unsubstantiated rumour that, with Scorsese suffering from his addictions at the time, Jerry might have helped out with the direction on certain days and especially when Rupert finally performs on television. Who knows? I think it comes from the idea that the film is less kinetic in filming and editing than usual, and as shown in the preceding ‘Raging Bull’ and the subsequent ‘After Hours’, but, then again, so is his latest picture ‘Silence’. My guess is that the King of Comedy’s chosen visual aesthetic was probably just a case of Scorsese treating the material in front of him in what he deemed to be the most appropriate way possible.

There is an idea that Lewis buried his ‘The Day The Clown Cried’ because it finally occurred to him that the mixture of comedy and the holocaust didn’t work. If so, what did he think when Roberto Benigni picked up shedloads of awards for his holocaust comedy-drama ‘La vita è bella’/’Life is Beautiful’ in 1998? Seemingly the two notions can co-exist together. Elsewhere Lewis said that, in the finished picture, “the magic” had gone from his comedy, hence he didn’t release ‘The Day The Clown Cried’ but he still subsequently directed and starred in later films ‘Hardly Working’ and ‘Smorgasbord (The Movie) a.k.a. Cracking Up’, although Roger Ebert’s verbal disembowelment of ‘Hardly Working’ backs up Lewis’ thesis.

Regarding not liking films, David Mamet, writing in essay form, once took the beloved-by-many ‘Schindler’s List’ to bits. I can’t find the whole piece, entitled ‘The Jew for Export’, but a blog post by Mark Richardson supplies the relevant passage. It’s worth reading the whole extract but its last few lines sums up how Mamet sees the holocaust’s worst representation as within a melodramatic format. Something for him that was embodied by ‘Schindler’s List’:

Mamet: “…legitimate attempts to use a dramatic form (the joke) to address the insoluble and oppressive phenomenon of genocide. Schindler’s List, on the other hand, is an exploitation film.”.

Over the last few months I’ve seen three films which deal with the holocaust: ‘Night Will Fall’, ‘Shoah’ and ‘Son of Saul’. All of them are astonishing and true ‘must sees’. The first two are documentaries, albeit of two vastly differing approaches (I’ll write on ‘Shoah’ another time) while the third is a fictional, almost anti-exploitation, film. I thought of Mamet’s perspective while watching ‘Son of Saul’ as all of the horror is both there and not there; at the edge of the screen, blurred, glimpsed and gone but its suffocating, oppressive odour never leaves. I’d guess that all three works would be seen by Mamet as legitimate artistic interpretations of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ , as would a comedy, like Lewis’ ‘The Day The Clown Cried’.

As with  Jim Garrison and his son at the end of Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’, we’ll have to keep ourselves fit and healthy for a few years until we get to see what’s been buried and hidden away but maybe, like after Stone’s film was released, things will get catalysed, will keep moving in the right direction, and we’ll see ‘The Day The Clown Cried’ all the quicker? To me, Lewis has got nothing to lose and everything to gain from allowing us to see his film that he himself blocked from public eyes.

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