Perhaps the lost film of the last 50 years, The Day The Clown Cried was directed by its star, Jerry Lewis, way back in 1972. It’s the story of a clown in a Nazi concentration camp and is most notorious for the last scene of its screenplay, and presumably of the film as shot.
At risk of spoiling a movie you will most likely never, ever get to see, I can tell you that the climax takes place in a gas chamber, with the clown going in to face his death with a group of scared children, trying to make them laugh in order take away their fear. It ends with them all locked in, the kids laughing as the clown juggles stale bread, just about holding it together.
Some footage from behind the scenes of the film, and possibly including a take or two from the production, has now been posted to YouTube. It’s an incredible find.
Thanks to Justin Bozung for the embed.
Now, the screenplay for the film seems very sincere to me, and I would anticipate that it could have made for a powerful, remarkable film. A famous quote from Harry Shearer, however, suggests that this was not the case:
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… 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.
That comes from a 1979 issue of Spy magazine, which apparently also quoted screenwriter Joan O’Brien in saying that she’d never allow for the film to be released. On the screenplay page, she says, the story was about the redemption of a selfish man, but in the film, Lewis lightened the tone and tried to make the clown more appealing, and this undermined the film significantly.
Without seeing the movie myself I’m curious how much people’s vested interests and relationships with Lewis clouded their perception, but it does seem like the director may well have judged this one very, very badly indeed. He even seems to think so himself, as you’ll see in this clip.