By Lee Zachariah

In this famed 1972 film once marked never-to-be-released, director, Jerry Lewis (who had worked for a decade to get the film made, at great personal and financial cost), plays a once-great German circus clown arrested during WW2 by the SS after he’s caught making fun of Hitler. Sent to a concentration camp, he is eventually used by the Nazis as a Pied Piper figure, leading the children into the gas chambers. Popular legend has it that the film was never shown to the general public due to its extraordinary badness. The real reason is much blander: a legal battle over the film’s rights between director Jerry Lewis and producer, Nat Wachsberger, resulted in the film being permanently shelved. It’s known that Lewis has a copy of the finished film in his office; it’s rumoured that the film’s negatives are still held by its backing studio. According to an edition of The LA Times on August 6, 2015, Lewis has allowed the film, along with some of his other movies, to be preserved at The Library Of Congress. Upon this deal, Lewis advised the Library to not screen the film until the year 2025.

So, we may eventually get to see The Day The Clown Cried, but right now, the legends continue about its content. The few who have seen it and spoken publicly about it have strong and mostly negative things to say. “There’s a scene where it’s so cold in the concentration camp barracks that the clown – named Helmut Doork – pisses ice,” comedian, Patton Oswalt – who obtained a copy of the script and did live readings with comedian friends until Lewis issued a cease-and-desist order through the courts – wrote for Vulture. The screenplay (by Lewis, from an original script by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton) suggests a film that is less about humour than it is about pathos, and which lives somewhere between Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful. The tone of the end result is known by only a select few, but reports suggest that if Lewis ever gets his way, the film will eventually be released to the public. “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself,” comedian, Harry Shearer – who has seen The Day The Clown Cried – has said. “But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.”

Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival. To buy tickets to films in the sidebar, head to the official website.


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