The year was 1972, and Jerry Lewis had already established himself as a comedic legend. However, the man was beginning to tire of his own shtick, and Jerry Lewis movies were starting to come out much less frequently. Lewis wanted to branch out into more serious endeavors, and the end result of this mid-career crisis was The Day the Clown Cried, one of the most unfortunate projects in the history of cinema – a film in which Lewis plays, regrettably, a clown in a WWII concentration camp. There have been plenty of infamous film flops, but The Day the Clown Cried was unique in how poorly conceived it was from start to finish.
There’s nothing worse than a comedy that makes its audience too uncomfortable to laugh, and that’s definitely the case with The Day the Clown Cried. Jerry Lewis was attempting to show the human side of the Holocaust, and that’s admirable, but he tried to do so by lightening up the Holocaust, which is generally not a great idea. Thankfully, Lewis eventually saw reason and buried The Day the Clown Cried so deeply that only a handful of individuals have seen it, which has made it into something of a cinematic urban legend. Only this time, the legend is, unfortunately, true.
Jerry Lewis’s intentions when filming The Day the Clown Cried were honest and honorable. He was approached about the project and offered the chance to both direct and star in it, which could open up some future directing opportunities for him. Tired of playing the same role over and over again, Lewis wanted to branch out, and he thought a more serious role might be just what he needed.
Lewis was also serious about portraying the Holocaust, and he honestly thought that the script for The Day the Clown Cried did a fine job of showing the event’s human side. While preparing for filming, Lewis studied the Holocaust in depth, including taking tours of Auschwitz and Dachau and losing 35 pounds in six weeks to more accurately portray a concentration camp victim.
The insanity of the script for The Day the Clown Cried should have been obvious from the start. Jerry Lewis would be portraying a down-on-his-luck clown named Helmut Doork who winds up in an internment camp as a political prisoner after drunkenly insulting the Führer. Doork ends up performing some of his old acts for a group of Jewish children imprisoned in the same camp as him, adding a little levity to their life of horror. The Nazis don’t like this, so they ship Doork and the children off to Auschwitz, where Doork is eventually ordered to lead the children into a gas chamber. In order to keep the children from being afraid in their final hour, Doork clowns it up right to the last minute, choosing to stay in the chamber and die with them. The children laugh; the clown cries; and everyone in the audience shuffles uncomfortably.
Everyone who saw the film agreed that it was a disaster of epic proportions. Lewis himself thought it was highly embarrassing. The film’s writers claimed the script had been drastically altered from their original vision, which was meant to be a more serious tale of redemption. Others didn't seem to know whether it was meant to be a tragedy or a really, really dark comedy. The worst criticism aimed at the film is that, overall, it makes the Holocaust out to be not that bad of a thing. The concentration camp inmates seen in The Day the Clown Cried are free to roam about, play sports, and have fun with one another in an incredibly spacious setting that more closely resembles a kids' summer camp.
One of the few individuals to have seen the film, The Simpsons talent Harry Shearer, describes it as being like “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 reason you’re not able to add The Day the Clown Cried to your Netflix queue right now is that it was, mercifully, buried. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are multiple individuals who claim responsibility for pulling the plug on the Clown. Jerry Lewis himself says he has the film locked tightly away and: “No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.” His own website, however, refers to the film as being “tied up in litigation.” The film’s writers agree with the litigation story, claiming that it is they who have fought against the release of this cinematic travesty.
Either way, the fact the film was hidden from public view so thoroughly has only ensured its status as a legendary movie artifact, a Holy Grail of bad cinema. The list of people who have been allowed to view it is quite short, and, aside from a short segment leaked onto the Internet in 2016 (which has since, again, become unavailable), the general public has never, and probably will never, see it. Despite what morbid curiosity might say, that’s probably for the best.