The Day The Clown Cried: the movie Jerry Lewis doesn’t want you to see (not that you’d want to)

Not many people have seen Jerry Lewis' The Day The Clown Cried. And David has a good idea as to why that is...

Legendary comedian Jerry Lewis is known for a lot of things. When he first exploded on the scene in the late 40s with Dean Martin, they were the rock stars of comedy. Whether performing onstage or starring together in movies, they were the hottest act in show business.

When Lewis went solo in the late 50s, he had big success writing, directing and acting in a number of classic comedies, peaking in 1963 with the original Nutty Professor. (Julius Kelp, the uber nerdy title character, was the inspiration for Professor John Frink on The Simpsons.)

In modern day, you still see Lewis every Labor Day raising money on his telethon for muscular dystrophy, and you see his comedic influence continue through generations of funny people, from Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld.

As hilarious and groundbreaking as Lewis has been at his best, he’s also been equally unfunny, schmaltzy, heavy-handed and tasteless at his worst, and it’s hard to think of a better example of this than The Day The Clown Cried.

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In the annals of bad movies, there is one film that still stands as the crown jewel of the realm. More than three decades after it was made, the urban legend of Jerry Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried still continues to grow, which is pretty amazing considering very few people have actually seen it (hence it turning up in our list of high profile films that never had a proper release recently).

The storyline alone is enough to make your jaw drop. Lewis plays Helmut Doork, a German gentile clown who’s hauled off to the concentration camps for making fun of Hitler, and he’s forced to entertain the children he’s imprisoned with before they’re marched off to the gas chambers.

Clown, which went into production in early 1972, was going to be Lewis’ first serious role, and the film that would prove his mettle as an auteur to the critics. But the film has never been released because the rights to the screenplay expired, but Lewis went ahead with the production, and when he showed the finished film to its screenwriter, Joan O’Brien, she was appalled with the end result and refused to renew the rights again.

Throughout the years, Clown has been the butt of many jokes. In 1980, it was nominated for a Golden Turkey Award, which was the original Razzies that celebrated the worst movies in history (Ed Wood became a household name when he got the bird in their Worst Director category). Clown was nominated for The Worst Movie You Never Saw, and adding insult to injury, it couldn’t even win that award (the prize went to Billy Jack Goes To Washington, which after many years finally got a DVD release).

In 1992, it got a big write-up in Spy Magazine, and Harry Shearer, one of the chosen few who’ve actually seen the film, said, “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.” (Actually, this would make a great pull quote for the DVD cover).

And this past April Fool’s, Clown was listed on Aint-It-Cool-News’ upcoming DVD list, along with the even more unlikely box set release of Traci Lords: The Early Years.

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Shawn Levy, who wrote King Of Comedy, the essential Jerry Lewis biography, certainly understands why there’s still fascination with this film. “Jerry Lewis is still such a strange and singular bird that I think the very concept is intriguing,” he says. “And the people who’ve seen the film and spoken about it – Harry Shearer, say – are so vivid in their description that they’ve made it a holy grail. I think the interest in it is the inconceivable oddness of it.”

As for how many people have actually seen the film to date, it’s difficult to say. According to one guesstimate, it’s as low as eleven, but Levy says, “There’s apparently a mostly-complete copy in the vaults of the studio where it was shot (they held on to it for legal reasons, as they were never paid entirely for use of their facilities). So it could be ten or twenty or two hundred folks. But Jerry is said to have the only complete version, so access would have been very limited.”

One also has to wonder that, if it ever does become available at the local Best Buy, how much interest is there in actually seeing the thing? Levy says, “I’m sure it would make a brief, if shallow splash upon its release. As for DVD, they sell literally everything on disc now, so there’d be some sales, but I don’t think National Treasure 2 or whatever’s new at Blockbuster this week is in danger.”

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