The most offensive film ever made? Why Jerry Lewis buried The Day the Clown Cried

·9 min read
Pierre Étaix as Gustav the Great and Jerry Lewis as Helmut Doork - Getty
Pierre Étaix as Gustav the Great and Jerry Lewis as Helmut Doork - Getty

On March 21 1999, the Italian actor Roberto Benigni won an Oscar for his performance in Life Is Beautiful as a Jewish bookshop owner who, forced into a concentration camp with his young son, tries to turn the situation into a farce in order to protect the boy from the worst of the experiences. Critics agreed that Benigni had trod a fine line between tastelessness and profundity and come out on top, even if his over-exuberant acceptance speech at the awards was not to everyone’s taste: the actor first clambered over his fellow guests’ seats, and then announced: “I would like to be Jupiter! And kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody, because I don’t know how to express.”

Benigni’s metaphysical profundities were met with a mixture of amusement and bafflement, but the reaction of one man – the comedian Jerry Lewis, who was not present at the Academy Awards – would have been fascinating. By 1999, Lewis was semi-retired, and would only make a few minor appearances in obscure films during the rest of his career. He had not been in a major picture since Martin Scorsese’s brilliant 1982 The King of Comedy; a box office failure with audiences bemused that it was neither a slapstick Lewis farce nor a gritty and violent Scorsese crime thriller. But the reason why Lewis might have been so irked by Benigni’s success was that, nearly three decades before, he had tried to make his own Holocaust-themed black comedy, The Day The Clown Cried.

The film deviated from his patented blend of wild and crazy humour in an attempt to achieve the critical recognition that he had always craved as a serious artist, rather than merely a clown. Lewis hoped that it would not only bring him the respect of his peers, but Oscars, and would launch a new career far removed from the zany antics that he had been associated with for decades, alongside Dean Martin and The Rat Pack.

But it was not to be. Not only did the total failure of the film that he starred in, rewrote and directed nearly end his career, but it was never released in cinemas or on any home entertainment service. Very few people have seen it, and Lewis withdrew the picture from view until long after his death in 2017. It remains a fascinating, notorious project, one of the great cautionary tales of Hollywood hubris. But how did Lewis get it so spectacularly wrong?

The film’s genesis came with a screenplay by two previously little-known writers, Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton. Their intention was to depict another side of the Holocaust, by concentrating on an over-the-hill circus clown, Helmut Doork, who had a successful career in the pre-war era in Germany and Europe but has been worn down by both the rise of fascism and his own fading comic skills.

When Doork gets drunk in a bar and abuses Hitler, he is arrested and thrown inside a concentration camp as a political prisoner, never to be put on trial but kept there as a reminder to his peers of the perils of disrespecting the Führer. Yet Doork finds himself offering a mixture of hope and escapism to the inhabitants of the camp, not least the children, who he seeks to entertain in the face of the horrors around them.

This is not so very far from Life is Beautiful, and, had the material been handled sensitively, it could been terrific. So it was unfortunate that the script came to the attention of the producer Nat Wachsberger, a Belgian impresario who had previously made such undistinguished films as the heist thriller They Came To Rob Las Vegas and one of Orson Welles’s innumerable cash-in quickies, the adventure The Southern Star. Wachsberger believed that the character of Doork should be played by a major comic actor looking to expand their repertoire, and so approached the likes of Bobby Darin, Dick van Dyke and Milton Berle, all of whom reacted with horror.

Yet his next choice, Lewis, was more receptive. When Wachsberger approached him backstage at a show in New York in 1971 and suggested the idea, Lewis’s initial response was to laugh it off – “Why don’t you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn’t find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet” – but there was something intriguing in the project.

Lewis plays Doork, a washed-up circus clown, who is sent to a concentration camp - AFP via Getty
Lewis plays Doork, a washed-up circus clown, who is sent to a concentration camp - AFP via Getty

According to Lewis’s biographer Shawn Levy, the comedian was desperate to return to relevance. “There was certainly a part of him that wanted to tell the story, but a bigger part, I believe, was hoping for a chance to establish for audiences, critics, and maybe even himself that he was a genuine artistic talent and not just a comedy performer on the decline. But his career was already in a significant downward spiral.” He was also bitter. As Levy says: “He never had a remotely positive reputation as an artist among American critics as a filmmaker – unfairly, in many cases.  And his popularity had waned significantly by the time he turned to making this film. He was deeply thin skinned, and it really angered him that he wasn’t taken seriously.”

Lewis agreed to take on the role, after a stint at Caesar’s Palace, and, after undertaking a tour of Auschwitz and Dachau for inspiration and losing 35 pounds by only eating grapefruit for six weeks, he headed to Sweden in April 1972 to begin filming. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that, for all Wachsberger’s fine words, he was a shyster. Levy says: “Wachsberger didn’t have enough money to make the film, forcing Lewis to borrow money and enter into litigation.  Worse, Wachsberger had allowed his option on the script to lapse before production even began, so Lewis had literally no right to film the material.  When the money ran out, the Swedish studio seized the working print and all the additional footage, though Jerry retained a copy of everything.”

According to Levy, the shoot had been haphazard at the best of times. “I think Lewis knew that the film was doomed in Sweden.  By the time he got around to editing the film in the States he was drinking and lashing out – not necessarily unusual behaviour from him, but you kind of doubt he felt that way while making even flop films like One More Time.” And matters soon worsened because of Wachsberger’s carelessness when it came to such minor matters as having the rights to film the screenplay. When Joan O’Brien learned of Lewis’s shooting her script without a contract, she was appalled; when she saw the rough cut, she vowed never to permit it to be released.

Lewis’s character is imprisoned after disrespecting Adolf Hitler - Getty
Lewis’s character is imprisoned after disrespecting Adolf Hitler - Getty

The results were catastrophic, and notoriously so. As Levy remarks, it’s hardly a surprise that the unfinished film is so bad. “It was always going to be a tough sell. Jerry Lewis, significantly past his most popular prime, doing a sentimental story about the Holocaust?  In the early Seventies?” A major problem was that Lewis had catastrophically overrated his own abilities as a director. Levy says: “There is barely a single scene of drama or even credible realism in any of the films he ever directed.  He certainly couldn’t have pulled off anything horrific or convincing or truly worthy of such heavy subject matter.  It would have been excruciating to sit through, I’m confident, but not necessarily in the ways that Nazi-themed films of the era such as The Night Porter and Salo were.”

Very few people have ever seen The Day The Clown Cried. Once Lewis’s rough cut was finished, it disappeared into his private collection, and only a select few have ever been allowed to glimpse it. (Levy has not, but knows that the author Michael Tolkin and comedian Harry Shearer have done so – “they were horrified”.) It has acquired near-mythical status, for all the wrong reasons, but Levy believes that, if it had been released, it might have accelerated Lewis’s decline. “After failing to get this film finished and released, he was finished in films for about a decade. And his TV appearances were winnowed down to guest shots on variety shows and his annual Muscular Dystrophy telethon. He was already seen as damaged goods. But this probably would have been like kicking a man while he was trying to climb out of an empty well.  He might truly have been finished in all areas if it had gotten out at the time.”

Later in life, Lewis remained ambivalent about his magnum opus, alternating between dismissing it as “poor work”, and suggesting that it should be seen, after all. Levy says: “I think he felt that it was the brass ring that eluded him and simultaneously knew that he had been spared a drubbing by its never coming to light.”

Lewis on the set of The Day the Clown Cried - Alamy
Lewis on the set of The Day the Clown Cried - Alamy

It was typical of him that he would simultaneously shout down an audience member’s question as to whether it would ever be released as “None of your goddamn business!” and that he would solemnly place a copy of his final cut of the film in the Library of Congress, embargoed until 2024. After that, it will be possible for the curious – or masochistic – to view it. Levy will be one of those doing so. “It will be very interesting to see what the world makes of it,” he says. “I’ll watch it, for one, if only to complete the circle in my head.”

The tragedy is that the film could, perhaps, have been good, if only Lewis had never been involved with it. Levy suggests that “Many people approached the O’Brien material over the years with more substantial dramatic and cinematic bona fides than Jerry. Presumably one of them might’ve done the thing justice.” The later success of Life Is Beautiful indicates that, handled the right way (and some would argue that Benigni, too, failed), dark comedy and the Holocaust could be unlikely bedfellows. There have been occasional suggestions that the film might be remade – once with Robin Williams in the lead – but it has never come to pass.

Perhaps this is just as well. The Day The Clown Cried remains the anti-Citizen Kane of films, a towering folly of almost comical distinction. If it was ever to be made in a competent, even distinguished, fashion, it would rob cinema of the legacy of one of its most bizarre white elephants. And that would be its own tragedy.