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The Jerry Lewis Film Nobody Has Ever Seen

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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Scarface is Returning to Theaters for Its 35th Anniversary
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures

Pop culture history was forever altered on December 9, 1983, when Scarface arrived in movie theaters across America. A loose remake of Howard Hawks's classic 1932 gangster film, Brian De Palma's F-bomb-laden story of a Cuban immigrant who becomes the king of Miami's drug scene by murdering anyone in his path is still being endlessly dissected, and quoted, today. To celebrate the film's place in cinema history, the Tribeca Film Festival is teaming up with Screenvision Media and Universal Pictures to bring the film back into theaters next month.

Just last month, Scarface screened at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival as part of a 35th anniversary celebration. The film's main cast and crew—including De Palma and stars Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer—were on hand to discuss the making of the film and why it has endured as a contemporary classic. (Yes, that's the same conversation that left the panel momentarily speechless when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much she weighed during filming.) That post-screening Q&A will be part of the upcoming screenings.

"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years. We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary," Darryl Schaffer, executive vice president of operations and exhibitor relations at Screenvision Media, said in a press statement. "The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."

Scarface will screen at select theaters nationwide on June 10, June 11, and June 13, 2018. Visit Scarface35.com to find out if Tony Montana and his little friend will be coming back to a cinema near you.

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11 Magical Facts About Willow
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Five years after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and four years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), George Lucas gave audiences the story for another film about an unlikely hero on an epic journey, but this time he had three Magic Acorns and a taller friend instead of a whip and gun to help him along. Willow (1988) was directed by Ron Howard and starred former Ewok and future Leprechaun, Warwick Davis.

Over the past few decades, Willow—which was released 30 years ago today—has become a cult classic that's been passed down from generation to generation. Before you sit down to explore that world again (or for the first time), here are 11 things you might not have know about Willow.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR WARWICK DAVIS.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Warwick Davis revealed that George Lucas first mentioned the idea for the film to Davis’s mother during the filming of one of the Ewok TV specials in 1983, in which he was reprising his role as Wicket. Lucas had been developing the idea for more than a decade at that point, but working with Davis on Return of the Jedi helped him realize the vision. “George just simply said that he had this idea, and he was writing this story, with me in mind,” Davis said. “He didn't say at that time that it was going to be called Willow. He said, 'It's not for quite yet; it's for a few years ahead, when Warwick is a bit older.'" The role was Davis’s first time not wearing a mask or costume on screen.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED MUNCHKINS.

Five years after he mentioned the idea, Lucas was ready to make his film with Ron Howard directing and a then-17-year-old Davis as the lead. The original title was presumably inspired by the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the subsequent Victor Fleming film.

3. IT WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING A COPY OF STAR WARS.

Having thought of the two worlds simultaneously, Lucas may have cribbed some of his own work and other well-known stories a little too much for Willow, and some critics noticed. “Without anything like [Star Wars’s] eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, Willow recapitulates images from Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Mad Max, Peter Pan, Star Wars itself, The Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950s, the Bible, and a million fairy tales," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times. "One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda, and the White Rock Girl.”

Later in her review, Maslin continued to point out the similarities between the two films: “When the sorcerer tells Willow to follow his heart, he becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi of a film that also has its Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Princess Leia stand-ins. Much energy has gone into the creation of their names, some of which (General Kael) have recognizable sources and others (Burglekutt, Cherlindrea, Airk) have only tongue-twisting in mind. Not even the names have anything like Star Wars-level staying power.”

4. IT WAS THE LARGEST CASTING CALL FOR LITTLE PEOPLE IN MOVIE HISTORY.

Lucas has previously cast several little people for roles in Return of the Jedi, and there were more than 100 actors hired to portray Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. But, according to Davis, the casting call for Willow was the largest ever at the time with between 225 and 240 actors hired for the film.

5. THE DEATH DOGS WERE REAL DOGS IN COSTUME.

The big bad in the film, Bavmorda, has demon dogs that terrorize Willow’s village. The dogs are more boar-like than canine, but they were portrayed by Rottweilers. The prop team outfitted the dogs with rubber masks and used animatronic heads for close-up scenes.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST USE OF MORPHING IN A FILM.

While trying to use magic to turn an animal back into a human, Willow fails several times before eventually getting it right, but he does succeed in turning the animal into another animal, which is shown in stages. To achieve this, the visual effects teamed used a technique known as "morphing."

The film’s visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, explained the technique to The Telegraph:

The way things had been up till that time, if a character had to change at some way from a dog into a person or something like that it could be done with a series of mechanical props. You would have to cut away to a person watching it, and then cut back to another prop which is pushing the ears out, for example, so it didn't look fake ... we shot five different pieces of film, of a goat, an ostrich, a tiger, a tortoise, and a woman and had one actually change into the shape of the other one without having to cut away. The technique is much more realistic because the cuts are done for dramatic reasons, rather than to stop it from looking bad.”

7. THE STORY WAS CONTINUED IN SEVERAL NOVELS.

Willow has yet to receive a sequel, but fans of the story can return to the world in a trilogy of books that author Chris Claremont wrote in collaboration with Lucas between 1995 and 2000. According to the Amazon synopsis of Shadow Moon, the first book picks up 13 years after the events of the film, and baby Elora Danan’s friendless upbringing has turned her into a “spoiled brat who seemingly takes joy in making miserable the lives around her. The fate of the Great Realms rests in her hands, and she couldn't care less. Only a stranger can lead her to her destiny.”

8. THERE IS A MISSING SCENE CONCERNING THE MAGIC ACORNS.

Hardcore fans of the film have noticed that there is a continuity error that involves the Magic Acorns Willow was given by the High Aldwin. During an interview with The Empire Podcast, Davis explained that in a scene near the end of the film, he throws a second acorn and is inexplicably out after having only used two of the three Magic Acorns he had been given earlier in the film. Included in the Blu-ray release is the cut scene, in which Willow uses an acorn (his second) in a boat during a storm and accidentally turns the boat to stone. Davis says that his hair is wet in the next scene that did make it into the original version of the film, but the acorn is never referenced.

9. JOHN CUSACK AUDITIONED FOR THE PART OF MADMARTIGAN.

Val Kilmer in 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Val Kilmer famously played the role of the reluctant hero two years after played Iceman in Top Gun (1986), but he was not the only big name to audition for the role. Davis revealed in a commentary track that he once read with John Cusack, who in 1987 had already starred in Sixteen Candles (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Hot Pursuit (1987).

10. THERE IS A NOD TO SISKEL AND EBERT.

During a battle scene later in the film, Willow and his compatriots have to fight a two-headed beast outside of the castle. The name of the stop motion beast is the Eborsisk, which is a combination of the names of famed film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

11. THE BABY NEVER ACTED AGAIN.

A scene from 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As is the case with most shows and films, the role of the baby Elora was played by twins, in this case Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The IMDb pages for both actresses only has the one credit. In 2007, Davis shared a picture of him posing with a woman named Laura Hopkirk, who said that she played the baby for the scenes shot in New Zealand, but she is not credited online.

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