Jerry Lewis, who passed away last weekend at the age of 91, was one of those famous people whose career was so long and varied that he was uniquely famous for close to a dozen different things. There was his comedy, his stage work, his long-time partnership with Dean Martin, his long resume of significant films that he directed, his iconic status in France, his annual hosting of the Labor Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy charities and latter-day media appearances as an ornery curmudgeon.
However, there was one, particularly notorious episode in Jerry Lewis’ decades-long career: His direction of the infamous 1972 Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried, which remains perhaps the most notorious unreleased movie in Hollywood history.
Lewis wrote, directed and starred in The Day the Clown Cried, the fictional story of a washed-up circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The character agrees to perform for Jewish children, and is later used by the Nazis to essentially usher Jewish children into the gas chambers.
The Day the Clown Cried has often been described as a wild miscalculation, a masterpiece of bad taste and a vain, failed attempt at Oscar bait by Lewis who, in his decades-long career, never won an Academy Award until he was given a Humanitarian award by the Academy in 2009. Lewis had long vowed that he would never allow the release of The Day the Clown Cried. So now that the Hollywood legend has died, will that change? That’s a very complicated question, but most signs point to "no."
The film, shot in Sweden in the early '70s, was a troubled production - plagued by money shortfalls, which soon dissolved into disputes between Lewis and Joan O’Brien, who had written the story that inspired the film. The Day the Clown Cried, according to some accounts, was actually never officially completed and exists only in rough cut form; Lewis and O’Brien never reached any agreement on the rights that would allow the film to be released.
Nor, it appears, did any of the interested parties have any interest in any such release. Lewis, for his part, was known in his later years to lash out angrily at both journalists and audience Q&A participants whenever they asked him about the subject (and, to be fair, quite a lot of other subjects as well.)
So The Day the Clown Cried became something of an object of curiosity over the years, among Lewis fans, cinematic historians, preservationists and even scholars of the Holocaust. In an age when even the most hated movies, such as Showgirls and Ishtar, often have their reputations rehabilitated over time, The Day the Clown Cried never got that chance. In fact, it never even got to begin that cycle, even after a similarly themed film, Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, was an Oscar-winning hit in 1998. There were even, in the early ‘90s, plans for a remake, in which Jack Abramoff, the Hollywood producer-turned-imprisoned political lobbyist, was involved an investor, although that film was never made.
A few people claim to have seen the film: Harry Shearer has said in various interviews that he saw a cut of the movie in 1979, while French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon told Vanity Fair that he saw the film in the early 2000s; Frodon actually had nice things to say about it. A series of reports last year claimed, somewhat misleadingly, that The Day the Clown Cried had been uploaded to YouTube. In fact, a German television documentary series called Der Clown had featured a small amount of original footage from the film, plus some re-enacted scenes from the script; a part of that documentary is what was posed to YouTube.
Since the film's screenplay has surfaced, actor Patton Oswalt once hosted a staged reading of said screenplay, and a YouTuber named Uncle Spokurns posted his own staging of the script in 2014:
So will we ever see The Day the Clown Cried? You probably shouldn’t expect it to pop up at your local multiplex, or art house, any time soon. And it doesn’t appear that Lewis’ death will have any immediate effect on the film’s status, one way or the other.
Lewis donated a print of his cut of the film to the Library of Congress in 2015, with the condition that it not be screened for at least ten years, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. Even then, it’s unclear who, exactly, owns the rights to the film, nor is it a given that the Library of Congress would choose to screen it at the time, or even have the rights to do so. Joan O’Brien, the writer with whom Lewis tangled all those years ago, died in 2004, and it's unclear if there are any copies of the film in existence besides Lewis' print.
Could the film leak illegally somehow? It's not out of the realm of possibility, but if there's only one existing analog print, I wouldn't count on the likelihood of that happening, either.
Lewis, in turns out, had addressed this very subject, with Entertainment Weekly in 2013:
“Who am I preserving it for? No one’s ever gonna see it... But the preservation that I believe is that, when I die, I’m in total control of the material now. Nobody can touch it. After I’m gone, who knows what’s going to happen? I think I have the legalese necessary to keep it where it is. So I’m pretty sure that it won’t be seen.”
What, exactly, is the "legalese" to which he refers? Perhaps only Jerry Lewis' lawyer knows.
The Day the Clown Cried’s limbo has lasted through five decades, including various seismic changes in cultural trends, political trends, technological changes in terms of film distribution, and changes in definitions of what does and does not qualify as “offensive.”
Should there be any move to release or otherwise show the film, whoever makes the decision will have to weigh the value of cinematic scholarship and preservation against that of a deceased artist’s explicit wishes. But if Lewis put specific legal safeguards in place, it's unlikely that The Day the Clown Cried will ever resurface.
Source: Los Angeles Times, YouTube, The Wrap
Next: Jerry Lewis Dies at 91
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