The Day the Clown Cried: The Strangest Major Picture We’ll Never See

We’ve talked a lot on here before about how many lost films there are, films we will more than likely just never see. Sometimes, the legend of the film can grow simply through the fact that we can’t see it. One of the most legendary unseen films certainly has gained an aura for that reason. It isn’t a lost film at all, though. We haven’t seen it because someone doesn’t want us to. That someone is Jerry Lewis and the film is The Day the Clown Cried.

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The film has become legendary both because of it’s incredibly misguided plot and Lewis’ fervent belief it should never be shown. Just hearing the plot synopsis should give a good idea as to why Lewis wants it hidden from the world. In the film, Lewis plays a German clown who ends up in a concentration camp. While there, he attempts to keep the children entertained (aside from the time they watch him receive a beating from guards). The film ends as he enters the gas chamber with the children, so they can laugh as they die.

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It sounds bad enough on paper, and apparently the production of it didn’t go much better. Stories are abound as to what happened with the production, but one thing that is known for certain is that there were numerous budget problems. It is believed that producer Nate Waschberger ran out of money and also didn’t pay the script’s co-author. Lewis appears to have fronted at least some of the money needed himself to complete the picture. Because of that, one of the theories as to why it’s never been seen is because the money is tied up in different places and the litigation has never been settled. Lewis certainly believed at one point that it would be released. Shooting finished in 1972, and as late as 1974 Lewis stated on TV shows that post-production was being completed, upon which point it would be shown at Cannes.

The other long standing theory as to why the film has never been seen is because it is simply too horrible. Harry Shearer is the man most responsible for installing the belief that the film is truly awful. He is one of the few people who has seen a copy of the film, and has spoken about it a couple of times. He first spoke of his experience with Spy Magazine, and again most recently on the Howard Stern Show in 2011. His viewing was made possible through someone who worked for Lewis lifting a copy from his home. After viewing, the tape was returned back. Here is how Shearer described it to Stern:

We sat in the home of this person and watched, our mouths just getting, you know, lower and lower on our faces . . . If you say ‘Jerry Lewis, clown in a concentration camp,’ and you make that movie up in your head, it’s so much better than that. By better, I mean worse . . . You’re stunned. You’re just, ‘oh my god, you’ve got to be, oh no’ . . . He tried to do it, and I’m going to use a word very strangely here. He tried to do it real . . . He’s trying to play it straight . . . I really to believe he was trying to make it capable of being shown in his family theaters . . . It’s just the goddamn creepiness of it.

Screenwriter Joan O’Brien maintained that the reason the film turned out so terribly was because of the changes Lewis made to her script. This included making the main character sympathetic and humorous, as opposed to somewhat of a lowlife in her original script. It is possible she may have a hand in legally preventing the film from being seen.

Lewis himself has helped the legendary status by his frequently angry responses when the film is mentioned. He has always maintained, often furiously, that the film will never be seen. It wasn’t until recently that he began answering questions about it more rationally, stating last year that “”…in terms of that film I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad.”

2013 also brought about the most footage we’ve seen from the movie yet: a foreign seven minute behind the scenes vignette. It doesn’t reveal a whole lot. A good portion of the seven minutes consists of Lewis explaining that he plays dummy music during the filming of scenes to help actors along. We do, however, get a few moments of Lewis performing solo routines, as well as applying his clown makeup.

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Will it ever be seen? The odds of a legal release are incredibly slim. Even if the legal wrangling rumors aren’t true, Lewis has made it abundantly clear that he will not let it be released. Even a bootleg copy appearing somewhere online seems unlikely. It’s safe to assume not many copies exist, and that those who do keep a close guard on them. If not, there would be more people talking about it like Shearer has. Instead, it appears very few have ever seen it. We can only hope that some day the film is unleashed upon us. Otherwise, the legend will just continue to grow.

TCM Silent Film Schedule: August

As you probably know, TCM has a little bit of a different schedule for August. It’s Summer Under the Stars, with a full day of movies by a different star every day. That means Silent Sunday (as well as other the other regular features) won’t be around this month. There is also only one day this month with silent films showing, but it’s a good one. Charlie Chaplin’s day is filled with wonderful silent films. Here are all the silent films being shown below:

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Tillie’s Punctured Romance: This is very early Chaplin, released in 1914 when he was with Keystone. In this picture, he isn’t the typical Tramp character. Released near the end of that year, it’s one of the last films he made for them before moving to Essanay. This film is also notable for a couple of other reasons. This was the first feature Keystone produced, as well as Chaplin’s first feature. It’s also the last time film Chaplin starred that he did not write or direct. Mabel Normand co-stars.
Shoulder Arms: Released in 1918, this is another one of Chaplin’s early features. A World War I film, it also features regular female lead Edna Purviance and his half-brother Sydney.
Sunnyside: Although a short, this clocks in a little longer than most at 34 minutes. This was released in 1919 for First National, at a time when Chaplin’s output began to slow down. It was one of only two films he released that year, the fewest he made up to that point in a calendar year. The output would only continue to go down from there.
A Day’s Pleasure: The other film from 1919, this one centers around a car.
The Pilgrim: Although not one his highest level features, this is still a very enjoyable film of Chaplin out west. It’s also the last film he starred in with Purviance (she would appear in the next film below as well).
A Woman of Paris: Although Chaplin often had a serious side to his comedies, this is his only experiment at a completely dramatic film. As such, Chaplin decided not to star, only making a cameo appearance. Purviance stars in what was meant to be a starring vehicle for her, but the film was not successful at the time.
The Gold Rush: Chaplin finds himself caught in the snow in one of his all time classic films. It also won an Oscar decades later for Chaplin’s new score. TCM airs this one frequently, but it’s always worth watching.
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The Circus: Released in between some of his most famous and greatest work, this one is still great even though it doesn’t get mentioned as often. Chaplin himself originally performed a tightrope walk, but the footage was ruined and not used. Chaplin was given an honorary Oscar at the first Academy Awards for this film.
Modern Times: Originally meant to be Chaplin’s first talkie (by this point it was 1936 and he still hasn’t done so), he instead made this mostly silent, along with synchronized sound and gibberish song sung by Chaplin. A portrayal of a factory worker’s life, it’s one of the greatest films ever made.
A Dog’s Life: The first film Chaplin made for First National, this short is also the first time he appeared in a film with his brother Sydney. Purviance also co-stars.
The Kid: Another one of his classic features, this is the perfect mix of comedy and pathos, as the tramp takes in a small child (Jackie Coogan).
The Idle Class: This short, a case of mistaken identity, is another co-starring Purviance.
City Lights: Yet another one of his best films, this is one of the most heartwarming romantic comedies you’ll ever see. Once again, Chaplin mixes comedy and drama perfectly.

The Chaplin talkies that day are must-see as well: The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux and A King in New York.