Jerry Lewis and The Most Disturbing Clown Film You’ll Never See
There’s always been an air of unease surrounding the traditional circus clown – the hint of a dark heart beneath the painted smiles and outlandish outfits. Of course it’s tempting to attribute this to horror movies and novels – or the real life murders upon which many are based – though the roots of the dark clown reach much further back through opera, literature and fables. For whatever reason over the last few decades though, it seems that the image of the clown has been almost entirely consumed by its darker side and that now children and adults alike are more likely to run screaming at the sight of one than laugh along with his slapstick antics. Had Jerry Lewis’ ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ been released in 1972 as originally intended, its likely that even his most devoted fans would have left the cinemas in disbelief to traumatized cries of “Mon dieu!”
The previous year, Jerry was approached by producer Nathan Wachsberger about taking on the lead role in a notoriously difficult script that had previously been offered to (and turned down by) stars including Dick Van Dyke and Milton Berle. Set during World War II, ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ was written by Joan O’Brien and adapted from a script she had previously worked on with Charles Denton over a decade earlier. Jerry’s was to be the role of down-on-his-luck German clown Helmut Doork, once a famous draw at a touring circus but now a drunk and disrespected loner who finds himself arrested by the Gestapo after drunkenly imitating Adolf Hitler in a bar.
Following his interrogation, Helmut is sent to a Nazi camp for political prisoners. During the intervening years as he awaits a chance to plead his case he makes friends with a kind-hearted Nazi-opposing prisoner named Keltner and attempts to keep spirits up amongst his fellow prisoners by regaling them with tales of his earlier life of stardom. Tiring of hearing him toot his own horn, the prisoners goad the clown into performing for them and upon disliking his act, beat Jerry – sorry, Helmut – up. While sulking in the prison yard, Helmut catches the eye of some Jewish children who are watching from their side of the camp. He is invigorated by their laughter and appreciation of him, however the new prison Commandant informs him that fraternizing with the Jewish prisoners is prohibited and orders him not to perform for them again. Not wishing to see the children unhappy or to disappoint them, Helmut attempts a further performance anyway which is interrupted by SS Guards. Helmut is knocked unconscious and Keltner, while attempting to protect the children, is beaten to death.
After a spell in solitary confinement, it seems that the children’s relationship with the clown may have given the prison Commandant a use for him and a bargain is made. In exchange for his case being reviewed in the near future, Helmut must help to load the children (who’s cries, according to the script, were found by the Commandant to be an annoyance) on trains out of the internment camp. Having made the children laugh and convinced them that they’re going to ‘a better place’, Helmut is accidentally locked in the train overnight with the children arriving the next morning at Auschwitz, and here this jaw-droppingly disturbing film – which presumably would have by now been playing to the two or three audience members so paralytically stupefied by what they were seeing that they found themselves unable to leave – begins its final morbid spiral towards its even more jaw-droppingly disturbing finale.
The Commandant of Auschwitz explains to Helmut the plans to exterminate the children, and that since he has led them this far he ought to finish the job as he is practically ‘one of them’. Fearing for his life, Helmut insists he is ‘a German’ and ‘not one of them’, so it is decided that he shall prove his loyalties and have his life spared by merely leading the children Pied-Piper style to the gas chambers. (Perhaps now is as good a time as any to consider the fact that not only did somebody write this script and think it would make a watchable motion picture, but someone also thought it could be a great vehicle for Jerry Lewis and Jerry Lewis apparently agreed.)
Helmut requests a last half hour with the children, during which he clowns with them once more. Time is soon up and the guards arrive so Helmut tells the children they should have ‘a big circus parade’ and marches them towards their fate all the while hoping for a miracle that doesn’t come. As he is about to leave, a child takes his hand and after hesitating, Helmut, apparently having decided he’s ‘one of them’ after all enters the gas chamber with them. The guards lock the door behind them and Helmut continues his clowning ‘until the chamber resounds with gentle laughter’ and we fade to an on screen caption: ‘IF ANOTHER MAN’S CHILD IS THREATENED AND YOU MOVE NOT TO PROTECT IT, THE CHILDREN OF ALL MEN ARE IN JEOPARDY AND YOU STAND AS GUILTY AS THOSE WHO THREATEN.’
Various theories have been hatched as to Lewis’ intentions in taking on the role of Helmut. Perhaps as comic actor Harry Shearer – one of very few to have seen the movie – suggested, he initially believed that the film’s emotional suckerpunches would translate to Oscar nominations. Perhaps he felt that ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ could be a spiritual successor to Chaplin’s great multi-faceted works like ‘The Great Dictator’ and ‘The Kid’ though with such grave subject matter, a muddled and self-righteous script and an all-too-real setting, the magic blend of pathos and humour, sadness and joy was not to be achieved. According to a 1992 interview with Shearer, he found the finished film was “so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy 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.”
Many causes of the film’s non-release have been cited over the years ranging from financial and ownership litigation to the more readily verifiable reason of Jerry Lewis’ own dissatisfaction with the finished work. What has recently come to light however, is the below 7 minutes of rehearsal and behind-the-scenes footage, during which Chaplin’s methodology is notably mentioned. Whilst these brief glimpses at a work-in-progress are unlikely to change the overall perception that the movie was ultimately a mistake, it is interesting to see Jerry’s Pierrot like clown and deadly serious direction which suggest that the subject matter would have at least been treat with somber, appropriate gravitas.
As for the chances of the film ever seeing the light of day in its entirety, when asked about ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ earlier this year Jerry succinctly informed an audience: “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 anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad.” The official website of the Jerry Lewis Museum on the other hand, contends ‘Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation.’
Sometimes you just have to laugh. And sometimes, try as you might, you just can’t.