The Day the Clown Cried (partially found unreleased Jerry Lewis drama film; 1972)

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Still image from the film.

Status: Partially Found

In 1971, Jerry Lewis and Nathan Wachsberger began producing a film titled The Day the Clown Cried. The plot follows a down-on-his-luck circus clown named Helmut Doork, a frankly unpleasant egotist who becomes a political prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp for drunkenly mocking Adolf Hitler. While there he discovers a receptive new audience in the youngest Jewish prisoners... and ultimately volunteers to lead them into the gas chamber, remaining to make their last moments happy, and perhaps earn some redemption for himself.

The notion of comedy star Lewis (best known for his bumbling slapstick persona in films like The Nutty Professor) taking on such a dark and tragic tale earned the film considerable notoriety even before it began production. The script had been originally written in 1962 by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton. Personally moved by the premise, and eager to try out his dramatic skills, Lewis threw himself wholeheartedly into what became a full-fledged vanity project, re-writing the script from the ground up prior to starting production.


Production of the film was riddled with issues, not least of which was that the budget ran out before its completion, forcing Lewis to invest his own money. A feud ensued between Lewis and Wachberger, who turned out to have never actually secured the rights to the script from O'Brien in the first place. It ended with Lewis taking a copy of the film so that it wouldn't be lost, and Wachberger keeping the original negatives, planning to finish the film himself.

Nothing ever came from Wachberger, but Lewis continued working on the film, stating in 1973 that it was in the final stages of production, and had even been invited to play at the Cannes Film Festival, after which time it was to receive a wide release in America. However, none of these plans materialized, largely it seems because nominal rights-holder O'Brien, unhappy with Lewis' comedic changes to her purely dramatic, heartfelt script, refused to authorize them.[1] The growing mystery of the unreleased film has led to it becoming a much sought-after prize among cinema buffs and historians.

The film's quality is a central part of that mystery, as it's generally conceded the subject matter would have been difficult to pull off and hugely controversial regardless, in much the same way Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful would be decades later. Clown's critical reputation rests largely on comedian Harry Shearer, who was shown a rough cut of the film in 1979 and later described it to Spy magazine in memorably horrified terms:

"...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... It's as if you flew down to Tijuana 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."

Lewis came to emphatically share this view, insisting in later years that the film was “bad, bad, bad”, an unsalvageable mistake in both tone and taste. In one of his few in-depth discussions of the subject, he declared that he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed of the work” because he “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."[2]

Even after O'Brien's death in 2004, Lewis consistently refused to release the film in any form, despite the intense interest that would have likely guaranteed its success.

However, several screenshots from the film and photos from the set have surfaced, as well as the final shooting draft of the script from 1972,[3] a brief behind-the-scenes clip and, most recently, a half-hour Flemish behind-the-scenes documentary on the production release in 1972, featuring actual takes of a scene from the film, one of which would have presumably been used in the final product.

Release of the Film

In 2001, while giving a motivational speech, the notoriously prickly Lewis was asked about a potential release for The Day the Clown Cried and replied "none of your goddamn business!". When asked the question again by an audience member during a live 2013 interview,[4] he reiterated that the film would never receive a release, again on the grounds of its quality.

French film director Xavier Giannoli publicly revealed in 2012 that he is in possession of an incomplete (1h 15m) 35mm copy of the film and has stated that he has held a few private screenings of it, perhaps most notably for French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon, who wrote about it in his 2013 publication The Last Laugh: Strange Humors of Cinema.[5][6][7] Frodon argues that the frankly 'bizarre' stylistic choices that disturbed Shearer and others actually give the film a 'great power'. He further praises it for not limiting itself by adopting a stereotypically earnest and respectful tone towards the material. Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker of having seen the recovered outtakes, also argues for this view.[8]

In 2015, the LA Times reported that a copy of the film had recently been donated to the Library of Congress by Jerry Lewis, but with the condition that the film not be shown for 10 years.[9]

On February 3rd, 2016, German public TV channel ARD aired a 2-hour documentary called "Der Clown". German filmmaker Eric Friedler shows interviews, original footage and re-staged scenes from the original scripts with some Swedish actors who participated in Lewis' movie. The highlight of the film is the first full interview with Lewis about his work after 43 years. Later in February 2016, the discovery of an unfinished documentary by Traces Films was mentioned in several relevant YouTube comment threads. The documentary makers are Australian-based and posted a six-minute teaser in 2012 which includes exceptionally candid and emotional interview excerpts with Jerry Lewis discussing his involvement with making The Day the Clown Cried. The documentary makers have refused any more detailed comment other than to state their film has reached a critical juncture in its production process.

On June 16th, 2016, roughly 30 minutes of footage from the film was discovered on Vimeo. The footage included dubbed film scenes from the German documentary about the film, while other sections were filled in with title cards as well as certain scenes from Patton Oswalt's live staging of the script. Despite all the missing material, it’s far and away the most comprehensive assemblage yet seen of the project, and while the original video has since been deleted, it has since been re-uploaded to other sites.

In 2019, Lewis' son, Chris, revealed that no complete negative of Clown exists (suggesting the film was never actually finished) and copyright issues with O'Brien's estate have prevented its release.

In 2021, The Moving Image Research Center at the Library of Congress revealed that the 35mm original negative (8320 feet) they have is unedited. They also received a behind-the-scenes print (6750 feet). Neither print is complete with sound, and both have yet to be digitized.



Short behind-the-scenes clip.

The full Flemish documentary on the film.


Izzzyzzz's video on the subject.

Sourcebrew's video on the subject.

All Things Lost's video on the subject.