The Nutty Jew
BBC South looks back at Jerry Lewis’ unreleased Holocaust drama
By Don Stradley
Jerry Lewis was no longer a top drawer movie attraction when he journeyed to Stockholm in 1972 to shoot The Day The Clown Cried. His brand of comedy (in America at least) had been knocked aside in those days by Woody Allen’s neurotic introspection and Mel Brooks’ farts. The idea that Lewis’ next project was to play Helmut Doork, a clown in a concentration camp whose job was to lead children into the gas chambers, was seen as just another misfire in what had become a prolonged backslide. It wouldn’t be until his great supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy that Lewis became respectable again. He’s since developed into a sort of living legend, enjoying a popularity that ebbs and flows. In BBC South’s The Story of The Day The Clown Cried, we see clips and stills of Lewis in Stockholm, filming what was to have been his magnum opus. But Lewis, 42 at the time, looks tired in those pics, weighed down, as if being so close to men in Nazi uniforms, even if they were just actors, was draining him.
The documentary is hosted by David Schneider, a Jewish comic from the U.K. His focus is on whether it’s acceptable to make such a movie in the first place. He interviews several Jewish intellectuals (history professors and the like) asking whether its reasonable to make a film about the death camps, and if someone like Lewis could temper his silliness long enough to make a serious picture. Since very few have seen the thing – Lewis has the only copy in existence – there’s a lot of conjecture that goes nowhere. The people Schneider interviews seem to agree that all is fair when it comes to art, and that no subject should be off limits. But not even Schneider is sure if Lewis was making a comedy – he wasn’t – and the people interviewed have no idea, either. Schneider’s as well-meaning as a flu shot, but for someone who is obviously interested in the subject, he appears to know very little about it. We learn that Lewis had a falling out with the film’s Swedish producer, but there’s no mention, for instance, that the story’s author, Joan O’Brien, was never compensated for the story rights and had a lot to do with keeping the film from being shown.
Perhaps the most fascinating clip in the documentary is early on when Lewis, in civilian clothes with a typewriter in front of him, tells a reporter that the movie is about a famous circus clown who is no longer at the top of his game, and becomes a better person when he learns to care about others. The clip is intriguing. Is Lewis talking about himself? He was, after all, at a career nadir. Also, Lewis seems angry at discussing the movie, and abruptly cuts the interview off. What the documentary doesn’t touch on is that Lewis had been eating nothing but grapefruit for six weeks to achieve the emaciated look of a war prisoner. He was also, as an actress from the film recalled, difficult to deal with because he was taking pain medication for an ongoing back problem. Drugged up and starving, Lewis was in no shape to direct a film. There’s a clip of Lewis in recent years, addressing the movie. “It was bad, bad, bad,” he says. “I was embarrassed and ashamed.”
Schneider and BBC South gain a lot of mileage out of some newly discovered photos taken on the set, many not seen for decades. What I learned, contrary to what has been said over the years, is that the film doesn't look bad, or cheap, as many have claimed. Judging from the photos, Lewis captured the bleak atmosphere of the camps, and there doesn't appear to be much funny business going on. Schneider and his interviewees try to deduce a plot from this handful of pictures, which is strange considering the movie’s plot has been fairly common knowledge for years. From what I’ve heard, it could’ve been a very touching, gritty movie. But I don’t know any more than anyone else does, and though the documentary is tidily made and thoughtful, I know nothing more having seen it. I suspect it will only add more misinformation to the movie's murky legend.
Lewis has donated his film collection to the Library of Congress, advising the Library to not screen The Day The Clown Cried until 2025. Perhaps Lewis thinks he’ll be dead by then, or that some of the rabid curiosity over the movie will have dissipated. The latter is doubtful, partly because people love the idea of a major failure, and also because some, myself included, think it might be better than its reputation. Yet, I also think curiosity is just a distant cousin of gluttony, and that some things should be left as they are, sealed away in vaults, enjoyed only in our imaginations.