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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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11 Delicious Facts About Good Burger
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Paramount Pictures

It takes just 14 words—“Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”—to make a ‘90s kid swoon with nostalgia. Good Burger, the beloved Nickelodeon comedy about a couple of daft teens who try to save their fast food joint from corporate greed, was born out of a Kenan Thompson/Kel Mitchell sketch on All That in the mid-'90s. A year later, due to its popularity, it found itself being turned into its own live-action movie, with Brian Robbins at the helm. Today—20 years after its original release—it’s a silly cult hit that’s indelibly a part of Generation Y. Revisit the classic with these facts about Good Burger.

1. KEL MITCHELL AUDITIONED FOR ALL THAT WITH HIS CHARACTER FROM GOOD BURGER.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Kel Mitchell explained how he came up with Ed. “I did a ‘dude’ voice, and that’s where Ed [from Good Burger] was kind of born,” he said. “I did that there at the audition. They were just cracking up.”

2. ED’S FIRST APPEARANCE WAS IN THE JOSH SERVER SKETCH, “DREAM REMOTE.”

Essentially, Good Burger was born out of a random character decision made during one little sketch. “It was where [Josh] could have a remote control that could control his entire life,” Mitchell told The A.V. Club. “So, he could fast-forward through his sister nagging, he could make pizza come really quickly. I was the pizza guy. I came to the door, and the pizza guy didn’t really have a voice, so I was like, ‘Mleh, here’s your pizza! That was the first time we saw Ed, and so they created Good Burger.”

3. ED’S LOOK WAS INSPIRED BY MILLI VANILLI.

When prepping for Ed’s debut on All That, Kel Mitchell spotted what would become the character’s signature look. “I remember I went to the hair room, and I saw these braids. It was like these early Brandy ’90s Milli Vanilli braids. I put those on, and it came to life,” he told The A.V. Club.

4. THOUSANDS OF POUNDS OF MEAT STUNK UP THE SET.

Nickelodeon

For a movie all about burgers, you better believe the production had a ton of them sitting around on set. "At one point, there was over 1750 pounds of meat on the set," Kenan Thompson told The Morning Call. "Some of it was old meat. It was so nasty. Some of the burgers would stay out there for a long time. I felt sorry for the extras who had to eat them with cold, clammy fries. But on screen, those burgers look good."

5. ELMER’S GLUE WAS USED TO KEEP THE FOOD LOOKING FRESH.

In order to keep the food looking good on screen, the production resorted to old, albeit inedible, tricks. "It was so gross, because when I scoop out ice cream in the movie, it was really vegetable shortening with food coloring,” Mitchell told The Morning Call. “When I poured milk on cereal, we used Elmer's Glue so the flakes wouldn't get soggy."

6. KENAN AND KEL CONTRIBUTED TO THE GOOD BURGER SOUNDTRACK.

Good Burger was their baby, so of course Kenan and Kel took the reins on more than just the creation of the characters, according to a 1997 interview with The Morning Call. Specifically, Kel partnered up with Less Than Jake on the hit song, “We’re All Dudes.” Because of this, the soundtrack actually charted at 101 on the Billboard 200.

7. GOOD BURGER WAS LINDA CARDELLINI’S FEATURE FILM DEBUT.

YouTube

In an interview with The A.V. Club, the Freaks and Geeks star reminisced about her breakout role in the Nickelodeon movie. “That’s my sister’s favorite role that I’ve ever played! It was so much fun. It was my first film, and it was a fantastic part,” Cardellini said. “I got to play crazy! Nobody knew who I was, and I got the part from the table read.”

8. WRITER DAN SCHNEIDER INTENDED TO GIVE UP ACTING WHEN HE WROTE GOOD BURGER, BUT HE PLAYED MR. BAILY IN THE FILM.

On creating Good Burger, writer/producer/actor Dan Schneider explained to The A.V. Club: “I’ve always wanted to write, and after I was doing All That and Kenan & Kel, I got the opportunity to do another TV show—I was still going on auditions. I realized that if I took that show, I was going to have to give up All That and Kenan & Kel. I really didn’t want to do [that] ... I passed on the acting role, and that was really the turning point, I guess, in 1996, when I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to put my acting career on the back burner, and I’m going to be a writer-producer.’ Then I wrote the movie Good Burger.” However, if you watch the movie, you’ll notice Schneider starring as Mr. Baily.

9. THE ORIGINAL TRAILER FEATURED A SCENE THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE MOVIE.

For reasons that remain a mystery, a scene where a Good Burger customer orders “a good shake” from Ed (Mitchell), only to receive an actual bodily shaking from the Good Burger employee, didn’t make the final cut. It did, however, feature for a few seconds in the theatrical trailer.

10. KENAN AND KEL REUNITED FOR A GOOD BURGER SKETCH ON THE TONIGHT SHOW.

In 2015, Kenan and Kel reunited for a Good Burger sketch with Jimmy Fallon. This time, however, Fallon played Ed’s co-worker, while Kenan came in as a construction worker as a surprise. "We've been wanting to get back together," Mitchell told E! News. "It was just about the right project ... it felt like home."

11. THE FIRST LINE IN THE FILM IS THE SAME AS THE LAST LINE.

Appropriately, the line is, “Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”—just watch the movie.

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What's the Kennection? #160
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