The 1972 film "The Day the Clown Cried" was apparently such a disaster that it never saw the light of day, except for among a few people. Even decades later, actor and comedian Jerry Lewis, who directed and starred in it, said at the Cannes film festival this year "no-one will ever see it" because he is "embarrassed" by it.
But then over the weekend, rare scenes from the making of the film seem to have cropped up on YouTube.
Jerry Lewis seen in costume in a scene from "The Day the Clown Cried." (Image: YouTube screenshot)
According to Drew McWeeny with HitFix, "The Day the Clown Cried" was originally a screenplay about a German circus clown, captured by Nazis and ordered to work in concentration camps, entertaining children and eventually leading them into a gas chamber. The screenplay, written by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton, was later rewritten by Lewis, who would play the lead role of the clown in the film.
Here's how McWeeny describes the plot, which he was able to see as a stage reading once:
It's the story of Helmut Doork, a circus clown who can no longer find work. He becomes bitter and after a public incident in which he denounces Hitler, he is arrested and sent to a prison camp. He begins to perform for the Jewish children being kept in the camp, and when he is ordered to stop, he defies the commandant, happy to have found an audience that appreciates him. The commandant realizes this could be useful, and he orders Doork to play specifically to the children being loaded onto the trains to the death camps. During one of his shows, he ends up onboard a train himself, and he ends up leading all of the kids, still laughing and cheering, into the gas chamber where they all die.
McWeeny called the script a "nightmare" and said there were "more gasps than laughs" at the stage reading he attended.
"It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic," Lewis said at Cannes earlier this year, according to Reuters, of the buried film. "You will never see it, no-one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work."
Lewis seen putting on clown make-up in the making-of footage. (Image: YouTube screenshot)
There were financial and legal issues surrounding why the film was never released as well.
So why all the attention for a slightly more than seven-minute clip showing some of the movie's making? McWeeny sums up why most people are probably still interested in it (emphasis added):
The premise is fairly audacious, and the idea that Lewis finished it, looked at it, and immediately ordered it to be buried forever only makes it that much more enticing. I am just as interested in art that fails as I am in art that succeeds, because I think those failures can be incredibly revealing about the artists and the decisions they were making. Jerry Lewis is someone I have grown up watching, and my feelings about him have changed repeatedly over the years. There were times I liked him, times I hated him, times I have considered him both overrated or unjustly overlooked, and when you look at his career as a whole, there's almost no way to dismiss that he is a major part of Hollywood's comedy and filmmaking history.
I love when we get these looks at things that might have been, at near-misses in filmmaking, and I'm not sure why this surfaced now or how, but I'm thrilled to get this peek at something so long-rumored. It gives me new hope that maybe, somehow, we'll someday see the entire thing.
Making a paper airplane. (Image: YouTube screenshot)
The footage itself seems to have originated on the channel unclespokums with the YouTuber writing that the sound is "chronicled by a Flemish program!"
He describes it as "the closest we can get so far to the actual film!"
Watch the footage (Content warning: some strong language):
It is unclear how unclespokums, whose channel "showcases rare animation from yesteryear," came by the footage in the first place.