Two words to make you leave the page in disgust or read on with extreme curiosity. If you’ve got any sense, you will have done the latter, because Jerry Lewis’ 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried is probably the only occupant of that very niche genre, and it’s also one of the best films you’re never going to see.
The script was written in the sixties by publicist Joan O’Brien (who worked for Elvis Presley and Ronald Reagan amongst others) and critic Charles Denton and soon found a producer despite its challenging content. Jerry Lewis, however, was not the first name on the list for the lead role of Helmut Doork, a failed clown who finds himself sent to a Nazi prison camp. The role was offered to other contemporary stars like Bobby Darin, Milton Berle and Dick Van Dyke, before reaching Lewis, and even then he wasn’t so keen.
When producer Nathan Wachsberger contacted Lewis he replied “why don’t you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? My bag is comedy, Mr. Wachsberger, and you’re asking me if I’m prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber? Ho-ho. Some laugh — how do I pull it off?” How indeed? The role was at first glance impenetrable, but later Lewis softened, saying “it felt like such a challenge, a challenge to show people that there’s more to me than that.”
Lewis wanted to prove that he was more than a comic performer. He wanted to prove that he could tackle serious themes, and above all he realised “that thing that all men must get some time: the decision to either be a part of something that should be spoken or not.” In the end, that was his downfall.
The film was co-financed between Wachsberger and the French and Swedish governments, but it soon turned out that Wachsberger had far less money than he’d claimed. The financial burden of keeping the cameras rolling fell to Lewis himself, and by the time the film was finished endless disputes and lawsuits over who had control of the film delayed its release. What’s more, Lewis had made some alterations to the script during production, alterations that O’Brien wasn’t happy with. She refused to authorise its release, but it seems like Lewis had exactly the same feelings about the final product: “In terms of that film I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I’m grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anybody see it. It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful, but I slipped up. I didn’t quite get it.” Nowadays the film lives on in rumour and occasional live performances, such as this infamous production involving comedy legends Patton Oswalt, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk – but what was it about the filmed version that made it just so controversial?
The Day begins with Helmut Doork (Jerry Lewis) playing second fiddle to the lead clown in his circus. Past his best, Doork turns the mock failure that is a clown’s prime material into real tragedy as he ruins the night’s show and gets himself demoted. One drunken outburst at a bar’s painting of Hitler later, and Doork finds himself in a Nazi camp along with other “political” prisoners.
What follows is a stretch inside this prison where we learn a lot about Doork’s character. He is weak, self-centred, and his confidence is shot. He constantly, and naively, pleads with guards that he isn’t meant to be here and asks for a pardon. None ever comes. The emotional weight of his situation grows as day by day we see the mundane reality of life in this Nazi prison camp; as Hannah Arendt famously put it: “the banality of evil”.
This section feels the most autobiographical of the film, as Doork (and by extension Lewis) questions his existence as a performer and his need to entertain people. Indeed, in a rare in-depth interview about The Day, Lewis was asked why the film had not been released, and replied that “I’m not defending, protecting, or diving, or anything about one anything. I’m guilt-ridden about… most of this is about me. The whole film is about me.” It seems that instead of any concern about potential controversy the film could stir up, Lewis was simply ashamed that he had put his own perspective as a comic performer ahead of the collective nightmare of the Holocaust and its victims.
His concern is understandable, and of course right now it seems unlikely we’ll ever see the finished film to judge for ourselves, but in script form at least, this comic journey is an essential and valuable part of the story. Because the Holocaust is the nadir of our recent history and it can be brought into most powerful relief only when contrasted with the most contradictory emotions. Love against hate. Laughter against fear. Comedy against tragedy.
These juxtapositions make a sickening mix. The result is a black comedy that dares to find humour in this bleakest of contexts. Understandably, this tone was a challenge for the few people to have seen the finished film, including Harry Shearer, who said that “seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. 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.”
Do you see the moral conundrum? Even for a comic as renowned and respected as Shearer? Because what Lewis attempted with The Day was so audacious and brilliant that it’s hard to believe it would have succeeded except as a cult film. In reality, it would have probably ruined his career – and that’s where the tragedy is in this saga.
What The Day’s script demonstrates is the stunning power of comedy, not through the laughter following a single punchline or pratfall, but as a concept in itself. Laughter is the best medicine and it’s also the best weapon. As one of Doork’s fellow prisoners says, “when you rule by fear, laughter is the most frightening sound in the world.”
Doork discovers this when he’s entertaining a crowd of Jewish children in the prison and the laughter he teases from each and every prisoner and guard leads the commandant to ban him from performing. Doork isn’t even mocking the Nazis directly, he’s simply clowning around – but in this environment, any ray of light must be extinguished in order to crush any remnant of hope.
Eventually, the Nazis realise that using Doork is the only way they can keep the children quiet, and he is selected to entertain them during a long train ride. None of them know the destination until they arrive: Auschwitz. In the final pages, Doork leads the children into a gas chamber and decides to stay to comfort and entertain them as we slowly, heartbreakingly, fade out. He had a choice. Abandon the children to the cruel reality of the guards and their brute terror or stay with them and make their final moments as happy and innocent as he could.
Doork chooses to show that happiness and joy can still exist under the shadow of evil. That no amount of cruelty and hatred can crush the human instinct to help others. And that in the end, comedy and comfort may not be strong enough to defeat evil on their own, but they can still be a little light in the darkness.
Do you think The Day the Clown Cried would have been one of the best films never made or a horrific embarrassment? Do you think Benigni did it better with Life is Beautiful? And was Jerry Lewis right to never release the film? Tell us your thoughts below and don’t forget to share this if you enjoyed it.
You can find the script for The Day the Clown Cried here: http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/the_day_the_clown_cried.html