Behind the Scenes: Jerry Lewis' 'Holocaust Clown' Movie


Only a few years ago, news that footage of Jerry Lewis’ legendary lost film The Day the Clown Cried had been unearthed and then posted on the internet would’ve sent me into a day-long movie-geek freakout.


Judging by the avalanche of online reaction, there are still some folks eager to view even short scenes from this infamous 1971 mess-terpiece.

I’m just not one of them.

Legend has it that the only surviving copy of The Day the Clown Cried is locked in a vault, a casualty of international legal disputes and Lewis’ legendary perfectionism and/or Percodan dependency.

He recently reiterated what he’s maintained for decades:

The movie will never be released to the public.

Oh, come on, you’re thinking. Sure, this is a Jerry Lewis movie we’re talking about, but how bad can it be?

Well, it’s about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp who leads children, Pied-Piper-style, into the gas chambers.

So there’s that.

Now, plenty of fine movies have wacky-sounding premises:

Does “intrepid archaeologist keeps Nazis from using the Ark of the Covenant as a laser beam” sound like a beloved box-office blockbuster?

Does “Vietnam vet commits movie history’s most tedious bank robbery to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation” scream “critically acclaimed classic”?

(Then again, sometimes “all midget Western” really is just an “all midget Western.”)


So some people might object: Is the plot of The Day the Clown Died really that berserk?

There were concentration camp orchestras, right?

What about Maus? What about Hogan’s Heroes?

If Mel Brooks can make The Producers, what’s so crazy about this?

And no discussion of The Day the Clown Cried since 1997 fails to bring up the Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful as evidence that:

a) it’s possible to make a tasteful film about a man clowning around during the Holocaust, or

b) it’s impossible to make a tasteful film about a man clowning around during the Holocaust

Then there’s the Jerry Lewis factor.

He’s one of the most hated men in American show business history — a “strange and singular bird.”

In the hands of an artist like Fellini, you permit yourself to muse, The Day the Clown Died could be a minor masterpiece or, at the very least, a noble failure.

But Jerry Lewis?

He’s one of the reasons it’s possible that over the years, the film’s sheer awfulness has been exaggerated.

Or not.

Actor Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, This Is Spinal Tap) is one of the few individuals who has actually seen The Day the Clown Cried.


Here are his thoughts:

The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think “My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling. (…)

The only thing in Jerry’s oeuvre that really is like it is a wonderful thing that he did early in the telethon. It was a dramatic tape of an LA actor who hosted the Popeye show, and Jerry shot it. The guy plays Muscular Dystrophy. It’s a staged reading: (scary voice) “I am Muscular Dystrophy, and I hate people, especially children. I love to make their limbs shrivel up!” They showed this for several years before cooler heads prevailed. In its sense of misplaced dramaturgy it was the closest I ever came to seeing anything that would be a real precursor to the clown movie. (…)

If you say “Jerry Lewis is a clown in a concentration camp” and you make that movie up in your head, it’s so much better than that. And by better I mean worse. (…)

With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. 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. ‘Oh My God!’ – that’s all you can say.”


Frankly, I don’t think the actual movie could possibly live up (or is it “down”?) to Shearer’s description, so why not just let it go at this point?

Anyhow, here’s the breathtakingly boring seven minutes of celluloid that has (other) cult-film nuts in a tizzy this week:


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