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

Jerry Lewis in costume for The Day the Clown Cried


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.


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.


The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

An Unscientific Ranking of Really, Really Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Oct. 23 2014 11:51 AM It Seems No One Is Rich or Happy: I Looked.
Lexicon Valley
Oct. 23 2014 10:30 AM Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 11:34 AM Louis C.K. Crashes a Brad Pitt Interview on Between Two Ferns
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
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.