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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September 5, 2011 - 3:07am
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