Behind-the-Scenes Footage of Jerry Lewis’ Ill-Conceived Holocaust Movie The Day The Clown Cried

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Auschwitz Cap­tured in Haunt­ing Drone Footage (and a New Short Film by Steven Spiel­berg & Meryl Streep)

Mem­o­ry of the Camps (1985): The Holo­caust Doc­u­men­tary that Trau­ma­tized Alfred Hitch­cock, and Remained Unseen for 40 Years

Anne Frank: The Only Exist­ing Video Now Online

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.


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  • Bill W. says:

    Peo­ple for­get that back in the 70’s when HBO first appeared, this was one of the movies that chan­nel played over-and-over again…along with oth­er ter­ri­ble movies like ‘Cabaret’, ‘Being There’, ‘The Jazz Singer’, etc…

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