THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED May Screen In Our Lifetimes
There are a few films I would sell my mother to see, lost movies or potentially phony movies - London After Midnight, Him (a 1974 gay porno about Jesus), King Kong Appears In Eido - but at the very top of the list that should cause my mother real concern is The Day The Clown Cried.
This 1972 film, written and directed by Jerry Lewis, is about a clown who speaks poorly of Adolf Hitler and gets sent to a concentration camp, where he entertains the Jewish children waiting in line for the gas chambers. The film was supposed to play Cannes, but Lewis and his producers had a falling out and the movie was unfinished. Eventually Lewis finished the movie on his own dime, but he decided to suppress it, saying it embarrassed him. Harry Shearer claims to have been shown the movie by Jerry himself, and said of it:
"With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. 'Oh My God!' – that's all you can say."
Shearer saw it in 1979, so I wonder if films like Jakob the Liar and Life is Beautiful have taken some of the wind from the movie's sails. Of course if the film is as profoundly wrong-headed as it sounds, nothing can reduce the sheer shlock value.
Lewis has said that The Day the Clown Cried would never be released in his lifetime but a) the end of that lifetime is rapidly approaching and b) it was recently revealed that a copy of the film has been placed with the Library of Congress as part of the larger Jerry Lewis archive. The bummer is that there's a stipulation attached: the film cannot be screened for at least a decade. Jerry should be long dead by that point, meaning he won't see what impact the final release of this movie will have on his legacy.
What will the cultural impact be? Is The Day the Clown Cried better served as a piece of ephemera, as a lost film that tantalizes forever? Will it become less special once it's out there, available? Will the sheen of wrongness fade away once the movie makes semi-annual appearances on TCM? Check back in 2025 to find out.