A Glimpse at The Day the Clown Cried

It could be considered the holy grail of unreleased films. For decades, film fans have pined to see Jerry Lewis’ infamous The Day the Clown Cried. It was even discussed here previously. Lewis’ staunch standing that it would never be seen has not only added to the intrigue, but also to the certainty it would remain unseen. Much to everyone’s surprise, Lewis gave the film to the Library of Congress last year, on the condition that it wouldn’t be shown until 2024. But getting a glimpse of the film came a lot sooner. Today, we finally have footage of the infamous clown holocaust film. 

Thanks to a German documentary, a fan has edited together a 30 minute version using the film footage now available. So, what does this most notorious film actually look like?

One of Harry Shearer’s statements on the film was that Lewis “tried to do it real . . . he’s trying to do it straight,” and that is pretty much right on the money. From the footage here, it’s pretty clear that there were lofty goals with this film: a stark and depressing portrait of concentration camps, and the power of laughter when there’s tragedy. And just from a technical standpoint, the film isn’t a disaster at all. Always a strong director, Lewis creates a very fitting bleak atmosphere. All of the actors are pretty good as well, although Lewis could be accused of going a little over the top at times. 

Those are the good things. The rest of it is just so, so wrong.  

Early portions focusing on Lewis’ alcoholic clown are nothing to write home about. And yes, there is a little bit of cute charm to the antics that he performs for the happy children. Shortly thereafter, the film hits the most infamous scenes, the ones that seem so bad on paper. In execution, they’re all the more worse. Over and over, you just think “please don’t do that,” just before that very thing happens. Take, for instance, the scene where Lewis is beaten by Nazi guards in front of the children. That description alone tells you it’s not going to be a good scene to watch. Seeing it is so much worse, considering how strangely it’s done.

As the guard strikes Lewis the first time, he actually takes a comedy pratfall, an exaggerated stagger and drop. All of the kids laugh, and given the way it looks, one is left wondering if the audience is supposed to laugh too. They also laugh when he comically (?) bows before the guard, who beats him with a club. This upsets another man, who ends up getting shot. The kids watch the whole thing and stare in shock. From the worst comedy placement to the children watching brutality, the scene is all kinds of wrong and uncomfortable.

And then there’s the big climax, where Lewis accompanies the doomed children to the gas chamber, trying to make them feel good one last time. This ending is the most notorious of all the scenes, but the descriptions don’t truly explain what it’s like. For one, it feels like it goes on forever, getting more unbearable my the minute. Lewis simply doesn’t lead them into the gas chamber. First he accompanies them on the train ride, works hard to get them off the train, receives a long explanation for why they’re being killed, and then finally performs his last task. All the while, it gets harder and harder to watch.

Part of what makes the ending sound so bizarre is the idea of Jerry Lewis making children laugh on the way to their death. In reality, there isn’t much of that. Lewis dawns the clown makeup, but spends most of these final excruciating minutes in shock. While it sounds downright odd in description, a grim faced Jerry Lewis leading a group of children (and himself) to their deaths just makes you feel like you need a shower. The final moments of walking inside aren’t present, but Lewis taking the hand of a smiling girl is there.

It’s certainly not fair to judge a film based on only a portion of it. But after decades in the dark, looking at these fragments is a must for many. Some of the fascination and mystery can be peeled away–at least we can see some of it now. And now that I can see it, it’s both exactly what I expected and not what I expected. Of course, this film is going to be hard to watch and misguided. It’s Jerry Lewis as a clown in a concentration camp. There’s only one outcome to that, and that’s a wrong and misguided film. 

But it’s also not bad enough to be funny. Going in, there’s the idea that it will be such a weird trainwreck that it will be amusing. Instead, it’s competently made with a cringeworthy plot. That’s just the right combination for an unfortunate, unpleasant watch. 

Don’t say Jerry didn’t warn you.