There are some films that go through development hell, and achieve the status of myth and legend. Jodoroswky’s Dune for example, never actually got made, but the tales of his crazy interpretation of the classic sci-fi novel are mind-boggling. Then there is The Day The Clown Cried, a seemingly monstrous piece of hubristic bad taste, that only a handful of lucky (or unlucky) people have seen. And by all accounts, ever will.
Jerry Lewis, long considered a genius by French cinephiles, was, by 1970, a star no longer in the Hollywood ascendancy. His last self-directed film, Which Way To The Front?, was a tepid farce in which his WWII playboy military reject assembles a team of 4F’s to shake up the allied advance, with Lewis along the way impersonating a German General. It barely set the world alight, being pulled from distribution after three days and replaced by Woodstock. The film record of the legendary rock festival was more in tune with the taste of modern youth. Lewis had only directed zany comedies, but now he wanted to sink his teeth into something more challenging. In the meantime he played a stand-up circuit in big money Casinos across America.
In 1966, a screenplay by TV producer Joan O’Brian and TV critic, Charles Denton, had been passed to Jerry Lewis. The Clown That Cried was a heavy Holocaust drama about a selfish man achieving some sort of redemption in the most morally challenging of quandries. Lewis passed, as he still felt stung by critics withering response to his 1959 NBC TV adaptation of The Jazz Singer, Startime. By 1971, the screenplay was being touted around by Hungarian film producer Nathan Wachsberger. He approached Lewis at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, and offered him the lead role and directing duties. He spun a convincing argument, with full backing from Europa Studio.
The screenplay tells the story of a former famous circus clown, Karl Schmidt, now a self loathing failure in 1930′s Nazi Germany. Fired for messing up an act, he drowns his sorrows in a bierkeller, and rails against Nazism and Hitler. Arrested by the Gestapo, he begins a long incarceration in the camp system. He regales other prisoners with stories of the glory days, but refuses to perform, feeling a fraud. They drag him from their hut and beat him. Left in the dirt, he realises segregated Jewish children are laughing at him from behind the wire. Finding fresh inspiration, he begins to improvise clown make up and perform daily for them. Warned to stop by the Commandant, he continues, until thrown into solitary. One day the Commandant offers him leniency if he will assist in the quiet transfer of the children to Auschwitz. Karl believes he can make their final moments more bearable, and agrees. Unable to leave them, he ends up on the cattle train with them. At the climax, he begs to be permitted to share the childrens final moments, leading them, pied piper style, into the gas chamber. Praying for a miracle, he juggles small chunks of bread. As the children laugh, oblivious to their fate, the doors close, and a single tear rolls down his make-up…
Lewis recalls listening to this pitch in his 1982 autobiography. “Why don’t you try and get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn’t find it too difficult to choke to death playing hamlet. My bag is comedy, Mr Wachsberger, and you’re asking me if I’m prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber. ho-ho. Some laugh – how do I pull it off? After a moment of silence I picked up the script. “What a horror. It must be told.”"
The warning signs soon became apparent. Lewis changed the clown’s name from Schmidt to Helmut Doork, a more zany, Lewis type character name. He also made other changes to character and script to reflect his own improvisational style. In one rewritten scene, Doork, freezing in his bunk, performs a puppet show with frozen socks. Taking a leak in the latrine bucket off camera, the sound of ice cube piss cracking the frozen urine can be heard. The clown, no longer the mean and selfish character originally written, is now all along a gifted, misunderstood performer. Lewis felt incredible pressure to deliver a meaningful, Oscar worthy tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, but he was wracked with self doubt. He was also addicted to the pain killer Percodan, after injuring his back on the Andy Williams show. Other tribulations plagued him. Equipment went missing, and it was discovered Wachsberger had in fact lost the rights to the story just before filming began in Sweden. He had in fact only paid O’Brien a $5000 initial fee, and failed to pay the remaining $50,000. It is unclear if Lewis was aware of this. He ploughed on, sinking his own money into it, consumed now by a drive to prove to the Motion Picture Academy that he was more than a mere clown himself. In an interview with the NY Times in 1972, he poured out all his frustration and fears during the shoot.
“I almost had a heart attack. Maybe I’d have survived. Just. But if that picture had been left incomplete, it would nearly have killed me. The suffering, the hell I went through with Wachsberger had one advantage. I put all the pain on screen….I was terrified of directing the last scene. I had been over 100 days on the picture, with only three hours of sleep a night. I was exhausted, beaten. When I thought of doing that scene, I was paralysed; I couldn’t move. I stood there in my clown costume, with the cameras ready. Suddenly the children were all around me, unasked, undirected, and they clung to my arms and legs, they looked up at me so trustingly. I felt the love pour out of me.”
Holy shit. That Percodan gave him a messiah complex?! Another story related by Shaun Levy has it that Lewis would complain when the inexperienced children would occasionally look directly into the camera. “I told her to keep her fucking eyes to the front, “ he’d snarl to editor Rusty Wiles. “That it wasn’t a beauty pageant…There’s no room for Shirley Temple in a concentration camp!”
When filming ended in June 1972, Lewis told Swedish reporters (he shot in Stockholm – appropriate, since he was hostage to his own mania) that Wachsberger had abandoned him . Wachsberger retaliated by suing for breach of contract. Lewis continued to tour his stand up act, taking the cans of film with him on the road, editing at night with Rusty Wiles. His bitterness and vitriol would pour out in these sessions. Everyone was an expert, he snarled. “Where were they when we were freezing in fucking Sweden, shooting the film. Too long? Jesus Christ!”
Finally he assembled a rough cut and announced on the Dick Cavett show in 1973 that it would be screened at the next Cannes Film Festival. This was probably wishful thinking, as legal and financial issues prevented a public screening. The screenwriters were appalled at Lewis’ treatment of their script, and retain the copyright to this day. Joan O’Brian said of the scenes he screened for them, “It was a disaster.” Lewis had turned the character from “a bastard into a hero”, from “an egotistical clown“, according to former Lewis associate Jim Wright, into “a very sad clown,” heavy on pathos. They felt he had turned a hard hitting tale of redemption and enlightenment into a sentimental representation of Lewis’ treatment at the hands of his critics – a fuck you to Hollywood – ignore me now!
Lewis kept the negative locked in a safe in his Nevada office. Comedian Harry Shearer was shown a rough cut on video tape by Joshua White, director of Jerry Lewis’ 1979 MDA charity telethon. Shearer memorably said of it: “The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down toTijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think “My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling.”
Various other attempts were announced to remake the original script with other parties, but nothing came to pass. As late as 1982, Lewis was still hopeful he would release it, after finishing several scenes. By 2002, his mood had soured. Scott Marks interviewed him and asked when the public would see the film. Lewis wearily replied, “Kid, you’ve got as much chance of seeing it as you have the Chicago fire (of 1871).” Apart from legal difficulties, what has made Lewis so touchy? Is he afraid he misjudged the subject matter? Would the potential ridicule and dismay undo a lifetime of goodwill and high standing in the public eye? The more it remains an enigma, the more mystique surrounds it…
Addendum: At an event in the Los Angeles Silent Movie Theatre 12 January 2013, a cheeky question from Bill Allen gets an unusually frank and humble answer from Lewis to the question of whether we will ever see The Day The Clown Cried…