Legendary comedian Jerry Lewis, famous for roles in early color comedies such as The Nutty Professor and The Bellboy passed away August 20, 2017 at the age of 91. While well-known for his slap-stick style of Comedy and upbeat, larger-than-life persona, many are unfamiliar with Lewis’ involvement in an unreleased motion picture which he both directed and starred in. While known by an auteur by many, portraying complete control over the many collaborative projects he signed his name onto, this is one aspect of Lewis’ career that remains a mystery to many.
The 1972 film “The Day the Clown Cried” follows the fictional story of German circus clown Helmut Doork, played by Lewis, who ends up in a German concentration camp during World War II after insulting Adolph Hitler. While the film drew the attention of Milton Berle, Dick Van Dyke, and Bobby Darin, Lewis was eventually chosen for the role, in large part due to his willingness to direct the film as well.
After entering the camp and realizing his career as a Clown is essentially over, Doork is assigned to entertain and load Jewish children on trains out of the internment camp, under the promise from an SS officer that his case will be reviewed. Unbeknownst to Doork, the train is headed to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where Doork eventually realizes that there isn’t any sort of miracle coming to save them. While no footage exists of these seemingly heart-rending moments, some of the stills provided to Archive Valley by the Swedish Film Institute hint at an impassioned connection between Doork and the condemned children he seeks to humor.
While the script still exists, giving us these glimpses into the plot, Lewis took the film reels with him back to the United States following filming in Sweden. Lewis reportedly donated the film to the Library of Congress in 2015 with the stipulation that it not be aired in any capacity until 2025, when Lewis would have turned 99.
According to Stills Archivist Krister Collin from the Swedish Film Institute, rolls of color negatives were donated to the institute only two years ago. While they are underdeveloped, looking somewhat flat, these images provide us a rare-glance into the film and Lewis’ apparent moods at the time of shooting.
Lewis, who would rarely broach the subject of the film, was once quoted saying “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 anybody see it. It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful, but I slipped up. I didn’t quite get it, and I didn’t quite have enough sense to find out why I’m doing it, and maybe there would be an answer.”
While Lewis was not the first nor will be the last film star to both direct and play the lead role in their own production (think Mel Brooks, Tyler Perry, or Michael Moore), The Day the Clown Cried appears unique because of it’s subject-matter and plot; a clown who is being painfully penalized in a concentration camp within the film is the same man behind every shot and decision regarding the illustration of the Nazis who he as a director is looking to denounce. This convoluted role likely played into the constant stress Lewis was apparently under during the shooting, as illustrated by the stills we have gained access to.
Many wonder what went wrong during the filming process to convince Lewis to keep the final product hidden, as it has been said by members of the cast and crew that Lewis was very dedicated and serious about the venture, even losing 35 pounds via a strictly-grapefruit diet in order to play Doork more convincingly. Before the film was finished, Lewis was quoted saying “you will see wonderful things happen to a human being, because something’s happened that makes him think about others besides himself, and that’s all i’m going to tell you.”
Lewis’ transformation appears evident in the stills we received from the production, as his once stocky frame had been reduced to someone almost unrecognizable to the average fan. Is it possible that Lewis’ new appearance, surroundings, and performance-style drove viewers away before the film could really be analyzed? Well known French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon was able to see a version of the film thanks to French film director Xavier Giannoli’s personal copy, and in an interview with Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy was quoted “I’m convinced it’s a very good job. I think it is a very bitter film, and a disturbing film, and this is why it was so brutally dismissed by those people who saw it, or elements of it, including the writers of the script.”
Not all reviews from those involved in the production process were positive. Swedish Star Harriet Andersson stated during an interview that her part really wasn’t appreciable, but that she was casted because the producer wanted a big European name. Andersson stated that Lewis was in fact not great to work with, as he was aloof and became strange after beginning to take pain killers. Additionally, Anderson said that not everyone was paid, a lasting legacy of the film to this day. However, Harriet praised the set design and costumes for being fantastic, an accomplishment that confused many Swedish people who saw photos from production, as they were used to a lively, goofy Jerry Lewis, not one looking completely disheveled and standing behind a barb-wired fence.
In an interview with BBC South Today’s David Schneider, Swedish film Critic Jan Lumholdt said that the film was originally intended to strictly be a drama, but elements of comedy crept in as filming approached, as illustrated by the changing of the main character’s name from Carl Schmidt to Helmick Doork. This switch makes sense when considering Lewis’ incredible skillset and experience, but raises into question the morality behind and even possibility of producing a film about such a serious subject-matter with comedic undertones. While Lewis, a Jewish-American Comedian, was often quoted that he didn’t “think humanity could prevail without laughter,” it is possible that even this comedy genius wasn’t quite up to the task. On the other hand, it is also possible that the film was ahead of its time, and Lewis didn’t believe that it would be received well by his generation, thus burying it until 2025. Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film “Life is Beautiful” is largely regarded as the first film with comedic aspirations to successfully discuss the Holocaust, raising into question if the 25 years between these two projects was the true cause of their varying degrees of success, or if this difference can instead be placed on Lewis himself. Regardless, it should prove interesting to view Lewis’ attempt at bridging genres in the film.
It can also be posited that Lewis didn’t know how well the film would be received, once stating The Day the Clown Cried was “either better than Citizen Kane or the worst piece of shit that anyone ever loaded on the projector.” In burying the film until 2025, Lewis could have been hedging his bets, on one hand afraid to hurt his stellar reputation while alive, but on the other optimistic about the films eventual acceptance and success. Lewis believed that “comedy is our safety valve,” and just maybe he wasn’t ready to let it open.