This is making-of footage from a film that will never-be.
The Day the Clown Cried was a 1972 Holocaust drama directed and starring Jerry Lewis that was famously decried for its bad taste before ever being released. Lewis then buried the film, denouncing it as “bad” and made him feel “embarrassed.”
The script and a few stills are all that survive for public consumption — until now, when YouTube user unclesporkums found this 7-minute clip of behind-the-scenes footage and shared it online yesterday.
It will be a curiosity to anyone interested in film history, though it is unlikely to stay online long. Lewis has vowed to keep the film hidden forever.
When asked about it at the Cannes Film Festival this year, even the distance of nearly 40 years did not ease the irritation of Lewis, who gave a caustic response about whether The Day the Clown Cried might ever be shown.
“It was all bad, and it was bad because I lost the magic,” the 87-year-old said. “You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”
What made The Day the Clown Cried so atrocious?
It was about a European circus performer during World War II who ends up in trouble with the Nazis for spoofing Hitler. He is then forced to entertain Jewish children detained in a concentration camp, which the guards feel is the easiest way to make them behave.
It ended with a notoriously cringe-inducing scene of cavorting clown Lewis leading the laughing kids into the gas chamber. Overcome by the grief of what he is being forced to do, he chooses to stay in the gas chamber with them as they are killed.
There may be potential for a deeply moving, tragic story here. Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Life is Beautiful explored a similar idea, with a father trying to keep his child’s spirits up by making their Nazi imprisonment seem like a game. That movie went on to get seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won three, including Best Actor.
In this clip from The Dick Cavett Show (minute 2:30) Lewis turns serious when asked about the film and says it will be completed in a few weeks, with plans to debut at the Cannes Film Festival.
But the consensus among those who saw the handful of early test screenings of The Day the Clown Cried back in the early ’70s was that Lewis had bungled it horribly. Clearly, he came to believe the same.
As noted by film critic Shawn Levy this morning, one quick shot in the clip that surfaced from unclesporkums featured the late French star Serge Gainsbourg and his girlfriend Jane Birkin.
There’s been doubt about whether Gainsbourg was in the film or not (he was added to the IMDB page at one point, but there’s no authoritative source to back it up.) Before his 1991 death, he did not list it among his own credits. Here, finally, is some visual evidence he was at least around the production — though he’s not in costume and appears to only be visiting, which was perhaps the source of the rumor.
Until now, only brief glimpses behind the scenes of the movie have ever been revealed, and the slated shots from this new footage is the first material to surface from the actual movie. The YouTube poster said he found it while browsing a Dutch film site.
One thing that spared Lewis public humiliation was a legal dispute between Lewis and French producer, Nathan Wachsberger, with the studio, Europa Films, seizing the footage. Lewis assembled a rough version with his own footage, which triggered the terrible response from test screenings.
The strange thing is, his children’s entertainment routine in this behind-the-scenes video isn’t bad. The bit with the candle and the cigarette (hey, kids do love cigarettes!) has a comical grace about it. He talks in the video about getting advice from Charlie Chaplin, and there is an obvious influence here from the Tramp.
What we’re not seeing in this foreign-language footage are any of the concentration camp scenes, which were the main source of the bad taste that still lingers around this notorious title four decades later.
Contributing: Steve Korn
DUTCH TRANSLATION, via Susanna Eng-Ziskin.
Of course Jerry, with his agile face, is a wonderful clown. But in the actor’s performance, we clearly can feel the director.
This gag with the paper airplane is circus, but it is above all, cinema. He relies on a sound effect that would never work in the circus tent/ring.
The best improvisations are those that are prepared. That’s also Jerry Lewis’ opinion. His script is an example of the genre. Literally everything is in there. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg watch over his shoulder. But they haven’t seen anything yet.
Besides clown, actor, director and producer, Jerry is also a sound technician.
He has nothing left to learn from us. On the contrary, he has to help the French technician from his film crew.
Incidentally, Jerry only looks older here because of paint/makeup.
(Lewis talks in English with the Dutch interviewer about using the temporary music)
Look. On the mirror there’s another picture of Jerry as a clown, with specific directions for make-up. He took pictures of every character before filming and in the film, they have to answer to these pictures.
It can be difficult to capture a funny moment. It goes wrong immediately and you can hear that Jerry is not amused.