It was announced last week that Jerry Lewis turned over his notoriously uncompleted 1972 film, The Day the Clown Cried, to the Library of Congress, with the proviso that it not been screened or shown to anyone for another 10 years.
For those who have lived under the proverbial rock for the past couple of generations, Lewis intended The Day the Clown Cried to be his cinematic masterpiece. It’s the story of a bitter, unfunny German circus clown who ends up in a Nazi concentration camp. I’ll let Wikipedia’s synopsis of the movie take it from here (SPOILER ALERT, if you’re really that involved):
“By a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally accompanying the children on a boxcar train to Auschwitz, and he is eventually used, in Pied Piper fashion, to help lead the Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.
Knowing the fear the children will feel, he begs to be allowed to spend the last few moments with them. Leading them to the ‘showers,’ he becomes increasingly dependent on a miracle, but there is none. He is so filled with remorse that he remains with them. As the children laugh at his antics, the movie ends.”
Through a series of cumbersome legal circumstances, the film never got finished or released. Lewis has since vacillated about the movie, stating alternately that he thought it was great and that he failed to achieve what he wanted with it.
In the movie’s wake, many people have speculated upon it — most notably comedian Harry Shearer, one of the few people to have actually seen the entire movie as such. (Click here for Shearer’s take on the movie, as well as a detailed history of its making and its non-release.)
Now that there’s a chance that people might actually see The Day the Clown Cried, Lewis fanatics and foes alike are salivating at the prospect. Will it be the masterpiece that Lewis once claimed? Will it be Lewis’ most excessive wallowing in bathos? Are you dying to see it?
Me, not so much. Even with all of its legal entanglements, I tend to think that if it had indeed been Lewis’ crowning artistic achievement, surely someone — maybe Lewis himself? — would have gone through hell and high water to get it released. Plus, I have to think that Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), with its similar theme of deluding a happy child while in a concentration camp, certainly stole much of what was left of the Lewis movie’s thunder. At the moment, The Day the Clown Cried looks to me to be one of those Great Lost Films that will remain great only as long as it stays lost.
On the other hand…If I had the Jerry Lewis Genie in front of me, and he gave me two choices — “You can either have The Day the Clown Cried released in all of its glory for everyone, including you, to see…or you can shelve the movie for good, and instead interview Mr. Lewis on the topic of your choice” — I’d go for the interview. Why? Because…
After 45 years of hosting the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annually televised Labor Day telethon, Lewis was unceremoniously dumped by MDA in 2010. Even more surprisingly, Lewis has remained tight-lipped about the entire matter ever since his firing. This used to be the guy you couldn’t get to shut up about anything.
I’d love to have a no-holds-barred interview with Jerry Lewis about his ejection from the MDA. “Jerry, do you have any idea why they fired you? Were you given any advance notice? And [wait for it, folks]…how did you feel about the firing, and how do you feel about it now?”
I have the feeling that Jerry’s answers would comfortably run the length of a feature film…and that film would be far more entertaining and insightful than The Day the Clown Cried.