Footage Surfaces of Notorious, Unreleased Jerry Lewis Movie About a Clown in the Holocaust

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 12 2013 12:00 PM

Footage Surfaces of Notorious, Unreleased Jerry Lewis Movie About a Clown in the Holocaust

lewis_clown
Jerry Lewis in costume for The Day the Clown Cried

YouTube

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.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 3:53 PM Smash and Grab Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 20 2014 3:40 PM Keeping It in the Family Why are so many of the world’s oldest companies in Japan?
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 5:03 PM Marcel the Shell Is Back and as Endearing as Ever
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.