As the entertainment world mourns the passing of famed comedian Jerry Lewis, one question is on the minds of the star’s many fans: Will “The Day The Clown Cried” finally see the light of day?
The 1972 Holocaust drama — which Lewis wrote, directed and starred in as a past-his-prime circus clown in a Nazi concentration camp — was never released in theaters, leading to wild speculation about its tone as well as quality.
The star initially hoped the film would allow him to break out of his goofball reputation and show his skills as a dramatic actor. Instead, Lewis publicly disowned the film — whose release was further complicated by legal issues.
Despite Lewis’ death on Sunday at age 91, there’s no sign that “The Day the Clown Cried” will be screening in public anytime soon — though clips of the project have popped up on YouTube over the years.
Two years ago, the comedian donated a copy of the film to the Library of Congress — possibly the sole copy in existence — on the condition that it not be screened in any form until 2025. At the very earliest, that’s when we may finally see this infamous drama in full, but other legal problems may still stand in the way.
The initial reason why the film was never released in theaters was because Lewis could not secure the rights for the film from Joan O’Brien, an actress and writer who co-wrote the original script with Charles Denton.
According to Shawn Levy’s biography of Lewis, “King of Comedy,” the movie’s producer Nat Waschberger lost the option on the film shortly before filming began, leading Lewis to spend $2 million of his own money to get the project done. When O’Brien saw a cut of the film, she refused to approve it, and an agreement for release was never reached. O’Brien passed away in 2004.
Perhaps in eight years time, the Library of Congress may finally introduce the world to one of the most mysterious projects in cinematic history — or at least make it available for scholars to watch.
Lewis repeatedly vowed to any fan or journalist who asked him that he would never release “The Day The Clown Cried,” often curtly shutting down further discussion of the subject during interviews.
In 2013, Lewis said in a Q&A in Los Angeles that he was “ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anyone see it.”
But in an interview with Entertainment Weekly seven months later, Lewis said he was proud of the film, though he maintained that he would still not release the one and only copy he had of the film.
“Who am I preserving it for? No one’s ever gonna see it,” he said. “But the preservation that I believe is that, when I die, I’m in total control of the material now. Nobody can touch it. After I’m gone, who knows what’s going to happen? I think I have the legalese necessary to keep it where it is. So I’m pretty sure that it won’t be seen.”
In a 1992 article for Spy Magazine, comedian and “The Simpsons” voice actor Harry Shearer claimed to have seen a rough cut of the film and revealed its shocking ending: Lewis’ character is coerced by the Nazis to lead children into a gas chamber, where he tries to lighten their final moments.
The films ends with the kids laughing at his antics. This ending was confirmed last year when a half-hour, cobbled-together cut of the film was leaked onto YouTube. That cut has since been taken down, though other clips can still be seen.
“This movie is so drastically wrong,” said Shearer. “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. ‘Oh My God!’ — that’s all you can say.”
In the years since, films like Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” have gotten audiences accustomed to the Holocaust being used as a backdrop for fiction, with Benigni earning comparisons in some corners to “Day The Clown Cried” for his performance as an Italian Jew who acts like a clown in a concentration camp for the sake of his young son.