One of my favorite pieces of Hollywood lore is the story of Jerry Lewis’ secret, abandoned comedy about a German clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. That jumble of plot descriptors makes such little sense, the very idea of the movie is fascinating. The fact that Jerry Lewis has said publicly and unequivocally that it’s so bad, and he’s so embarrassed by it, that “no one will ever see it,” is only fueling the fire of curiosity.
The Day the Clown Cried centers around a clown named Helmut Doork, who was imprisoned during WWII for making fun of Hitler. He’s then given the horrifying job of entertaining children before they’re sent to the gas chambers.
That actually sounds like it could be the basis for a pitch-black film, something dark and cutting that could rip out your heart and smash it all over a movie screen. But from the sound of it, that is not the movie that was made. Lewis himself told Entertainment Weekly back in 2009, “It’s [either] better than Citizen Kane or the worst piece of shit that anyone ever loaded on the projector.”
The movie reached a new sort of cult status when, back in 1997, Patton Oswalt somehow got his hands on a copy of the shooting script and started staging readings at the old Largo theatre in Los Angeles. You should really read the whole account (which Patton included in his last book, and also released as an excerpt on Vulture), but the gist of that story is that when the readings garnered too much attention, they were slapped with a cease and desist order because some producer wanted to make the movie with Chevy Chase and he felt these reading were besmirching his product. Yes, the whole thing is utterly ridiculous.
Anyway, until now, all we had were the lore of Patton’s readings, a few horrible quotes from Jerry Lewis himself, and these short behind-the-scenes clips:
But now we may all get the chance to see the movie Jerry Lewis swore we’d never lay eyes on. According to an LA Times piece about “mostly lost” films, the possibly sole remaining copy of The Day the Clown Cried has ended up in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The catch? The library has reportedly agreed not to screen or share the film for ten years. Still, just knowing it exists is pretty exciting for those of us who had resigned ourselves to only having our own made-up fantasies about what this incredible horror show could actually be. And now we have ten years to decide what will disappoint us more: if it isn’t the masterpiece we hope it is, or if it’s not the disaster we know it can be.
Via Vanity Fair.