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The Jerry Lewis Film Nobody Has Ever Seen

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Man at a 2001 press conference: "When are you going to release The Day the Clown Cried?"

Jerry Lewis: "None of your G*****n business!"

In 1971, while appearing at the Olympia Theater, Jerry Lewis was approached by "producer" Nat Wachsberger, who told Lewis of his idea for a film called The Day the Clown Cried. Here's a look back at one of the most famous "never released" films in movie history.

The Plot

Written by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton, the film's story told of Helmut Doork, a circus clown in Nazi Germany who has recently been fired. Doork gets drunk at a local bar, pokes fun at Hitler, and is taken to prison camp. After his act bombs with his fellow prisoners, Doork goes out alone to the prison yard and tries out his shtick. There, he overhears some children laughing at him.

Doork is given the job of putting new prisoners on the train to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. Like the Pied Piper, he leads a group of children on to the train; at the film's conclusion, he leads kids to their death in the gas chamber. He goes to entertain the kids, but feels remorse, so he steps inside the gas chamber to join them. The movie ends with Doork inside the gas chamber, the children laughing with him. (This is actually the film's story, more or less. No kidding.)

The Role Rejectors

Dick Van Dyke, Milton Berle, and Bobby Darin had all been approached about playing Doork in the film and all had (wisely) declined.

But Jerry Lewis, probably to his eternal regret, decided to take the role, and agreed to take the directing helm to boot.

Lewis' Preparation

To prepare himself for his role, Lewis toured the remains of both Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps in Germany in February of 1972. (The film's concentration camp scenes were actually shot in a Swedish military compound.) He also reportedly dropped 40 pounds to play Doork, going on a six-week all-grapefruit diet.

Production Problems

Not much is known about the actual production of the film, adding to its cloak of mystery. What we do know indicates that when Lewis' first "serious movie" began filming in Stockholm, trouble started almost from the word "Go."

Film equipment was either lost or delivered late, and the necessary money was nowhere in sight. Ostensibly the film's producer, Nat Wachsberger did not appear on the set. He ran out of money, giving the production just $5,000.00 and failing to come up with the $50,000.00 he'd promised prior to production. Wachsberger kept promising Lewis that "the money was coming," but Lewis eventually ended up footing the bill himself.

Wachsberger had also neglected to pay Joan O'Brien for the rights to her script. Lewis had re-written much of O'Brien's original draft anyway, changing Doork's character in an attempt to make him into a more sympathetic "Charlie Chaplin-like" figure. Both O'Brien and fellow writer Charles Denton hated the changes Lewis gave to the Helmut Doork they had created and envisioned.

Cast members working on the film recall Jerry as being "distracted, nervous and preoccupied with money."

Post-Production Drama

Once production had ended, Lewis claimed (rightfully so) that Wachsberger had failed to make good on his promise of financial obligations. Incredibly, Wachsberger threatened to file a breach of contract suit against Lewis and claimed he had enough footage to finish the film without its star.

The studio held the film's negative, but Lewis took a cut of the film for himself.

After production, Lewis claimed that the film was invited to be shown at the Canes Film Festival and would be released sometime in 1973. Neither ever came to pass.

As late as 1982, Lewis wrote in his autobiography that he was hopeful The Day the Clown Cried would someday be released. Various lawsuits between the involved parties, though, stopped any hope the film would ever see the light of day.

Reactions to the Film

In the early 1980s, Europa Studios announced their plan to edit the negative of the film and finally release it. But O'Brien and Denton, the writers, stopped this from happening, saying it could never be released. O'Brien had seen a rough cut and declared it "was a disaster."

Interestingly, Lewis has screened the film for a very select few Hollywood insiders over the years. Harry Shearer (of The Simpsons) is one of the rare people to have actually seen The Day the Clown Cried. In Shearer's words:

"This was the perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos, its comedy, are so wildly displaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it is. 'Oh my God!' That's all you can say."

Shearer told Lewis after the screening that the film was "terrible." Lewis, says Shearer, was furious.

Lewis' Motivation

Jerry Lewis' original motive in making the film was to make more people aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, a noble goal. But since the film was made, other movies, most notably the two multiple Oscar-winners Life is Beautiful (1997) and Steven Spielberg's now-classic Schindler's List (1992) have been released, and the purpose Lewis wanted to serve with his film would seem to have been amply served. Life is Beautiful actually appears to be strikingly similar to Lewis' concept in The Day the Clown Cried (and may have been wholly or partly based on the film), with Roberto Benigni, like Lewis, both starring and directing.

Lewis' Change of Heart

While Lewis once thought "the Academy can't ignore this" about The Day the Clown Cried and vowed in his autobiography that "one way or another, I'll get it done," he has definitely soured on the film over the years. He keeps his copy (the only copy of the film on video cassette) locked up in his vault to this day. He refuses to discuss any facet of the movie with reporters or anyone else.

The Award Nomination

In 1980, The Day the Clown Cried was nominated for a "Golden Turkey Award" (the precursor to today's Razzies—awards for the worst films). It was nominated in the "Worst Movie You Never Saw" category, but it couldn't even win that, losing to Billy Jack Goes to Washington, which, in contrast, was eventually released on DVD.

How many people have ever actually seen The Day the Clown Cried?

According to Shawn Levy, who wrote an excellent biography of Jerry Lewis (King of Comedy, 1997), the figure may be as low as 11, and may be as high as a few hundred.


Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.


Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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