The auteur responsible for The Disorderly Orderlies might not be the obvious choice to make a movie about the Holocaust but that’s apparently what happened. For the handful of people who have seen Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried — his unreleased 1972 film about a washed-up clown named Helmut Doork who amuses a boxcar of Jewish children all the way to an Auschwitz gas chamber — say that the movie is far, far worse than you might imagine.
“This film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object,” said Harry Shearer in a 1992 Spy Magazine article about the movie. “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.” (Below you can hear Shearer tell Howard Stern more about the film.)
There is reportedly only one copy of the movie and that print is under lock and key. Lewis is adamant that the movie is never going to be seen by the public while he still has a say in the matter. “It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic,” Lewis told an audience at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. “You will never see it, no-one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”
Its mind-boggling awfulness and its inaccessibility has placed The Day the Clown Cried into that rarified pantheon of legendary lost films like the original cut of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. Only the film is purposefully kept in obscurity. Every once in a while, a new fragment of the movie will pop up on the internet only to be quickly quashed.
The latest glimpse of this famously wrong-headed production comes in the form of a seven-minute clip of a making-of documentary on the film that aired on Flemish TV. You can watch it above. There’s a longer section here.
The clip opens with Lewis in clown face doing his rubber-faced slapstick shtick. It’s not especially funny out of context. In context one can only imagine that the routine would be about as hilarious as a whoopie cushion during the My Lai massacre.
Later, the documentary shows Lewis behind the camera and he seems every bit the auteur. The voice over notes that Lewis is working “as a clown, actor, director, conductor and producer.” Lewis is even seen telling his French sound engineer how to use his Nagra tape recorder.
But perhaps the most surprising moment in the clip is when that 1960s power couple Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg are seen hanging around the set. There really does seem to be something with the French and Jerry Lewis.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.