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.
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.
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.
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.