Lovers of film history and legendary movies — even ones supposedly so tasteless that they’ve never been released—had their interest piqued this week when a piece of exciting news was dropped in the 21st paragraph of an Los Angeles Times article. The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’ notorious unreleased Holocaust drama in which he stars as a clown playing with children before they are sent into gas chambers, has been acquired by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
What does this mean? Well, that we might finally see the film, though we shouldn’t hold our collective breath. According to the article, Rob Stone, the moving-image curator at the library, received the one known print of the film as part of a larger collection of Jerry Lewis work. Stone did not respond to EW’s requests for comment, but told a group of movie buffs at a festival of “lost” movies that the library has agreed not to screen the film for at least a decade.
Lewis, now 89, made The Day the Clown Cried in Sweden in 1971. Not much is known about the film’s plot except that Lewis plays a German circus clown named Helmut Doork who is sent to a concentration camp during World War II and ordered to entertain children. The production sputtered due to production problems related to an alleged financial dispute with a French producer, but the film was finished and a copy was printed, intended for release.
But Lewis, some time after locking that final cut for the movie, decided that it should never been seen, even after his death. In a fascinating interview with EW’s Chris Nashwaty in 2009, Lewis addressed the Schrödinger’s cat dilemma that his film had caused for curious movie lovers. “It’s [either] better than Citizen Kane or the worst piece of s— that anyone ever loaded on the projector,” he quipped.
We’ll have to wait until the embargo lifts to find out. As Lewis said himself to EW, “After I’m gone, who knows what’s going to happen? … The only thing that I do feel, that I always get a giggle out of, some smart young guy … is going to come up with an idea and he’s going to run the f—ing thing. I would love that. Because he’s going to see a hell of a movie!”
See clips from The Day the Clown Cried, as seen in a 1972 TV documentary that aired in Belgium, below: