On Saturday, the YouTube user Uncle Sporkums uploaded seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from a cinematic white whale. The Day the Clown Cried starred and was directed by Jerry Lewis, and was viewed by some as an attempt to gain critical legitimacy in the U.S. (Lewis, of course, was already revered in France.) That is, the movie was viewed that way in the abstract: The movie itself was viewed by no one. Or almost no one: After finishing it (or perhaps coming very close to finishing it), Lewis, for some reason, locked the footage away, and refused to release it. Reportedly only a handful of people have ever seen the film.
So this behind-the-scenes footage shot in 1972 for a Danish TV show, which includes what look like takes for the movie, is the most that all but a few people have ever seen of the film, in which Lewis notoriously plays a clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp—a clown who apparently leads children into a gas chamber in the film’s notorious final scene.
We only get a few glimpses here of what the movie might have looked like—and while they are not particularly promising, there really is not enough to verify the few reports of the movie’s artistic success or failure. For years, there were various theories about why the film was never released: Some suggested there were financial reasons that the movie could not be put in theaters, others said Lewis feared the movie would upset American audiences. But earlier this year, Lewis—who had defended the movie in the past—said, “It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful, but I slipped up. I didn’t quite get it,” adding, “It will never be seen. Sorry.”
This is more in line with what Harry Shearer told Spy magazine in the early ’90s, after seeing the movie thanks to a friend who used to work for Lewis. “This movie is so drastically wrong,” Shearer said, “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 … 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.” (Shearer later expanded on his reaction to the movie in an interview with Howard Stern.)
Supposedly the movie has never been destroyed, so some will no doubt continue to chase this white whale. Until then, you can always read the script.