Train Wreck Cinema
The Most Preposterous Film We’ve Never Seen
The Most Preposterous Film We’ve Never Seen
By Ed Garea
It was shaping up to be another slow week, but then I receive a link from reader Chris Larsen to Gawker.com that had not only an article, but a snippet of behind-the-scenes footage from Jerry Lewis’ infamous and unreleased film, The Day the Clown Cried. It’s the incredible story of a German circus clown arrested by the Nazis, and, as punishment, ordered to entertain children as he led them into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Finally he follows them into the chambers, giving his last performance. Though the footage is only about seven minutes long, is still absolutely incredible, and only makes me want to see the full movie even more.
What is even more amazing is the roster of co-stars who lined up to be in this strange attempt at pathos. Such luminaries as Bergman regular Harriet Andersson and German actor Anton Diffring (Remember him from Fahrenheit 451?) lend their talents to Lewis’s effort. Even Pierre Etaix, who is said to be influenced by Lewis’ comedies (that’s not saying much for him), has a small role.
The accepted story is that Lewis, seeing just how bad the movie came out, locked away the only copy and refuses to let it see the light of day. However, looking at the history of the movie, Lewis was approached in 1971 by producer Nathan Wachsberger. Wachsberger had optioned the move from screenwriters Charles Denton and Joan O’Brien, who had written the script back around 1962. Lewis was said to have been skeptical when he first read the script, though not about the story itself. But the more he thought about it, the more convinced be became. “I thought The Day the Clown Cried would be a way to show we don’t have to tremble and give up in the darkness,” he wrote in his 1982 autobiography, Jerry Lewis in Person, and quoted in the article. “[The clown] would teach us this lesson.” Oh, Brother.
Lewis plunged into the project with all the required zest of a true believer. He lost 35 pounds on a grapefruit diet. He toured both Dachau and Auschwitz, taking detailed notes. He rewrote the script, changing the clown’s name from Karl Schmidt to the more Lewis-movie-like Helmut Doork. Lewis, who stars and directs the movie, began filming in Paris, and then moved to Stockholm, where most of it would be shot. However, everything began to go horribly wrong. According to Lewis, Wachsberger took off for the south of France on the first day of filming, never to return. Following his departure, the funding dried up and Lewis had to finance the rest of the movie himself. Finally running out of money he shut down the production. He then publically denounced Wachsberger, who retaliated by filing a breach of contract suit.
But now comes the real kicker: When Denton and O’Brien got wind of what Wachsberger and Lewis were up to, they also noticed that Wachsberger’s option on the property had run out shortly before filming began. O’Brien was quoted in the article as saying that Lewis knew the option had expired, but decided to film it anyway.
That Lewis would be emboldened to even conceive of making such as film is itself an object in hero worship gone horribly wrong. French critics and filmmakers had lionized Lewis for years as a comedic genius. In a 1980 interview with Dick Cavett, Jean-Luc Godard even praised the idea of The Day the Clown Cried, and also praised Lewis for being funny “even when he’s not funny.” (Whatever that means.) Of course, Cavett just sits around adoringly and asks smarmy set-up questions. That the French still don’t get it is illustrated in the article by a quote from critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon: “Although the odds against it are staggering, it might turn out to be sublime.” And elephants might just learn to fly. Ah, such is hope.
Harry Shearer claims to be one of the very few who has actually seen the entire movie and spoke of that experience in the May 1992 issue of the defunct satire magazine Spy. (You can read it at Google Books!) Shearer was part of a group that included Andersson, screenwriters Denton and O’Brien, Swedish actor Sven Lindberg, who also appears in the film, journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who interviewed Lewis on the subject for Rolling Stone magazine, television director Joshua Wright, who saw the film with Shearer, and producer Jim Wright, who originally brought the script for the film to Lewis’ attention.
When asked about what it was like to see the movie, Shearer answered as follows: “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. Oh my God! – that’s all you can say.”
Yes, but what of the performances themselves? How about Lewis? According to Wright in the article, Lewis was doing “bad silent routines and they’re intercut with these shots of blond, blue-eyed, obviously Scandinavian kids sitting in bleachers.” And the Nazis, how were they portrayed? According to Shearer, they were “evil incarnate.” White, however, pointed out the performance of Anton Diffring as one of the head Nazis: “ . . . this hammy German actor, plays the main Nazi. You can tell he was embarrassed. The performance was right out of Hogan’s Heroes.”
And so here we are. Barring some sort of miracle, it looks as if The Day the Clown Cried will never see the light of day. The farthest Lewis has gotten is a rough cut. The question of the rights is tangled beyond belief. The studio in Stockholm where the film was shot claims it is owed $600,000, and until that money is forthcoming, the studio will not release the only negative of the film. The screenwriters still hold the copyright. Over the years, groups of investors from Europe (where else?) have attempted to negotiate for the film, but the screenwriters are firm in their holdout. Lewis himself has a rough cut of the movie on videotape that he keeps locked away, screening it from time to time for selected people. Until such time as everyone gets together and agrees, this film will never make it out of Stockholm.
Stranger things have happened, however, and who knows? There’s a slim possibility it will see the light of day. I can see it now: a two-disc set with the Criterion Collection label attached. Disc One will be the movie itself while Disc Two will be a collection of critical reaction, mainly from the French. That’s not good enough for me. Unfortunately, its time has passed, but the only way to give this movie the respect and admiration it deserves is to release it as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo are the only critics qualified to give this film the analysis it truly deserves. Until then we can only watch, and wait.