No stranger to controversy, Jerry Lewis bit off more than he could chew with his 'lost' dramedy about the Holocaust, The Day The Clown Cried.
21 Sep 2009 - 12:12 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

CHILDREN: What's the matter, Doork? Where are we going this time? Will you stay with us? Why must we go away again?

HELMUT: They ... they want us to move to another building ... where there'll be more room ... to play and ... do lots of things ... see ?

As the European spring of 1972 began to warm the continent, America's favourite clown, Jerry Lewis, assumed acting and directing duties on an adaptation of screenwriters Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton's screenplay, The Day The Clown Cried. The film started shooting on April 5 in Stockholm.

Lewis cast himself in the role of Helmut Doork, a once-revered German circus clown who drunkenly slanders the Fuhrer in the presence of Gestapo officers. Despite his vows of allegiance to the Fatherland, Helmet is taken to a concentration camp and held as a Jewish sympathiser.

Though he went on to star in and direct the film, Lewis had at first baulked at the idea, even though his Hollywood career was on the decline. According to Shawn Levy's acclaimed biography of the star ('The King Of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis'), Lewis' response was: “Why don't you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn't find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet. My bag is comedy”. But an overnight reading of the script changed his outlook. "I thought The Day the Clown Cried would be a way to show we don't have to tremble and give up in the darkness. [The Clown] would teach us this lesson."

The Day The Clown Cried allowed for exploration of his 'sad-clown' persona, but with overt elements of tragedy, and within an historical setting that Hollywood had not fully explored. Soon it became his passion: along with producer Nathan Wachsberger, Lewis toured the actual sites where the wartime atrocities were committed; he fought hard to have the interiors shot at Europa Studios, where the legendary Ingmar Bergman had shot many of his films; the cast was a collection of Swedish and French actors at the peak of their respective careers.

HELMUT: Now Ladies and Gentlemen, watch very closely and you shall marvel at the wonders I will unfold ...

The lengthy shoot soon encountred problems. Wachsberger proved to be far less reliable than he first seemed – he procured Lewis and proceeded with the film's pre-production with no legal right to do so. His claim to ownership of the script had expired, and tension grew between the producer (who had made base-camp in the south of France), the star/director (who heard of financial problems when crew members complained of bouncing pay cheques) and the screenwriters (Joan O'Brien told an interviewer in 1974, “Jerry knew the option had expired, but he decided to go ahead.”)

During the arduous shoot, Lewis was suffering physically and mentally. In the grips of a well-publicised addiction to Percodan, his temper frayed and his inability to control the unwieldy production was evident. Sven Lindberg, a Swedish actor cast in a pivotal role as a Nazi officer, grew close to the star director, and was concerned. "It was clear he was not in good order those months here in Sweden," he told Spy magazine. Lewis himself, who had put his own money, health and industry standing on the line, acknowledged the strain. "I almost had a heart attack," he told The New York Times. "Maybe I'd have survived. Just. But if that picture had been left incomplete, it would have very nearly killed me."

During the editing process, it became apparent that the finished product was becoming something quite unfathomable. Joshua White, a television director who was a close friend of Lewis and one of the few people to have ever seen the finished film, recalled the horror the small audience felt at the first screening. “The scenes were so dramatic – it was, after all, set in a concentration camp – that they were beyond his range. He played this rage because that's what he was filled with then. He never really commits to the character. He's always just Jerry.”

HELMUT: Now, we're ready ...everybody line up behind me ... Hold it! Circus parades are neat and very straight ... let's keep that line upright and steady ... Here we go ...

By all accounts, the ending was the most unwatchable element of the film. Lewis' character had become the camp's clown, amusing both Jewish prisoners and German political agitators in a neighbouring internment camp, much to the Nazi's delight. The camp commandant takes advantage of Helmut's affinity with the Jewish children in the most horrific manner – he threatens to kill Helmut if he does not agree to help lead the children into the gas chamber.

For Lewis, it was a life-defining moment. "I was terrified of directing the last scene. I had been 113 days on the picture, with only three hours of sleep a night. I had been without my family. I was exhausted, beaten. When I thought of doing that scene, I was paralysed. I stood there in my clown's costume, with the cameras ready. Suddenly the children were all around me, unasked, undirected, and they clung to my arms and legs, they looked up at me so trustingly. I felt love pouring out of me. I thought, 'This is what my whole life has been leading up to.' “

Lynn Herschberg, who profiled Lewis for Rolling Stone in 1982 and watched the final moments of the film with the director in his private screening room, described the scene. “It's very Pied Piper-ish. There are 10, 15 children. They're like, seven or eight years old. Helmut rounds them up. They're in a yard. 'Where are we going, Helmut? Where are we going?' He's telling jokes and stories to the kids and singing songs. He does a lot of Jerry schtick – you're supposed to laugh at his routines yet be appalled by the horror. The children are cheerful because he's Helmut the Great. They're tugging at his clothes. Now he's standing in front of the oven. The children just march in a door. And then he sort of stands there on the outside and starts to cry. One tear rolls down the clown makeup – they make an art-direction point of it. And then he goes in himself ....”




Co-star Lindberg was understanding of Lewis' motivation. “My impression was that it was very serious for him to do this, because he's a Jew. He thought this film would explain something about the horror of the Jews.” Joshua White, however, was not so forgiving: “To see this film that was so important to him (but) that was almost incompetent was just sad. He endowed it with great sadness. But it is so awful – you can't even laugh at it. It's so hopeless, you just don't feel anything good for Jerry.”

For screenwriters Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton, who shopped the script around Hollywood for a decade, and had attracted the likes of Milton Berle, Dick Van Dyke and Tab Hunter at various stages of development, it was a crushing experience. "It was a disaster," O'Brien said of the film years later. "Just talking about it makes me very emotional." Denton concurred: “The original story was a tale of horror, conceit, and finally, enlightenment and self- sacrifice. Jerry had turned it into a sentimental, Chaplinesque representation of his own confused sense of himself, his art, his charity work, and his persecution at the hands of critics.”

The film became embroiled in litigation over rights and finances, claims and counter-claims, all of which have conspired to bury the film in the annals of film-making legend. It is thought that, perhaps, two prints of the film exist – one within the vaults of the Swedish backers who largely financed the project and the other in a safe in Jerry Lewis' home office.

It was once a passion of Lewis' to get the film released in a completely-finished state – in his autobiography, he stated, "One way or another, I'll get it done. The picture must be seen, and if by no one else, at least by every kid in the world who's only heard there was such a thing as the Holocaust." But when asked recently by a loyal French-based Lewis fan site if the film would ever be seen, Lewis replied “You've got as much chance of seeing that film as you have of seeing the Chicago fire.”