The Day the Clown Cried: Jerry Lewis’ Invisible and Magnificent Film on the Holocaust
Among the vast cohort of invisible films, it is one of the most famous. It is also – on account of its subject, the holocaust, and its director-actor, the comic star Jerry Lewis – one of the most intriguing. Its title is The Day the Clown Cried, and, officially, it does not exist.
Although it was indeed written, filmed almost to completion, and even, to a certain extent, edited, not only has it never been finished, and thus never shown, but a complex combination of circumstances, in which its author ended up playing a singular role, assigns it to an almost eternal state of non-existence. It is a phantom film, a film in limbo. In light of its subject matter, this is rather appropriate.
The Day the Clown Cried is, in effect, a film-dream – or, more precisely, a film-nightmare. It relates the story of a German clown, Helmut Doork, played by Jerry Lewis, who accompanies Jewish children to the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Should I add that it is not a funny film? In truth, it is one of the saddest films there is. But, for the most part, it is a film where what is at stake is laughter, where what it means to make people laugh, to be funny, to have the job of being funny is explored. This is a subject on which Joseph Levitch – better known by the name of Jerry Lewis – possessed some knowledge in 1971, when he threw himself into this project, after more than 30 years as a stand-up comedian, actor and comic director.
If The Day the Clown Cried does not exist (at least officially), the same can not be said for its script, which is even available online.1
The film itself rather faithfully follows the broad narrative contours of this script, which contains a phrase that could well have become the film’s tag-line: “When terror reigns, a burst of laughter is the most frightening sound of all.” These words are uttered by Reverend Keltner, Helmut’s cell-mate. At this point in the story, we have seen how the latter, once the greatest clown in Europe, has fallen into disgrace, becoming a foil before being fired from the circus. While drowning his despair in alcohol, he takes it upon himself to insult a portrait of Hitler. Arrested by the Gestapo, he is sent to a concentration camp for political prisoners.
Until then, Helmut had only been interested in his personal situation. Despite living in Nazi Germany, he was only concerned with his lost glory and the humiliations inflicted on him by the head of the circus and its new star clown.
Deported, he proclaims that he is a great artist of international renown, and refuses to speak to the other prisoners. In order to overcome their fear and boredom, they ask him to make them laugh, and thus to prove his claims. When Helmut contemptuously refuses, they become aggressive, and resort to beating him up in order to force him to make them laugh. Only Reverend Keltner sides with the clown and tries to protect him.
Shortly afterwards, on the other side of the barbed wire fence that marks the boundary of Helmut’s camp, a new camp intended for Jewish children is set up. The political prisoners are absolutely prohibited from relations with the children, but when he half-heartedly performs sketches after being threatened by the prisoners, Helmut notices that he makes the children laugh. Stimulated, the clown now launches into a complete routine, which everybody enjoys: the children wearing yellow stars, the political prisoners wearing red triangles, and even the German guards looking on from their watch-towers. The camp commandant, however, is not laughing, and brutally interrupts the routine. Later, Helmut and Reverend Keltner are violently beaten by the SS, and another prisoner is thrashed after having helped the clown distract the children. This is one of the rare truly violent scenes of the film, whose other moments of violence are always treated in a stylised manner, and in which, indicatively, we never see any blood.
Until then, Helmut behaved as if he understood nothing about the broader situation, guided only by his egoism, and, subsequently, his irrepressible desire to make audiences laugh at any occasion that presents itself. For the Nazis, he is an easily manipulated puppet, and will remain as such until close to the end of the film.
Helmut Doork is not a sympathetic character, and he is not a hero. Nor, however, is he a bastard.
The question of knowing the extent to which the main character should be good, or bad, is one of the factors preventing The Day the Clown Cried from being completed. The original screenwriters, Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton, had written the story with a much more negative character in mind. They were furious that Jerry Lewis, who made major changes to the script, transformed Helmut into a more ambivalent figure.
The most probable reason is that Lewis wanted Helmut to resemble himself. If, in the beginning, The Day the Clown Cried, was already an ambitious project, dedicated to the Holocaust but with a clown as the main character, it became even more ambitious when Jerry Lewis took over. While remaining “a film on the Holocaust with a clown as the main character”, it also became a paradoxical meditation on comedy, spectacle, and Jerry Lewis himself. The screenwriter no longer recognised the Helmut they had created.
And yet, this evolution, far from impoverishing the film, makes it deeper and richer. The critical power of the original framework (Holocaust + Clown) is still active. But now the film goes well beyond it, because it is no longer a question of “those who reign by terror”, but a much broader spectrum of characters, institutions and social relations. It interrogates the very process whereby people are made to laugh, whatever the political situation, and it is preoccupied with the possibility of the instrumentalisation of laughter, or the spectacle more broadly, by political power of any kind. Initially prohibited from entertaining the Jewish children, Helmut then receives a contrary order from the SS commander: amuse them in order to keep them calm until they meet their fatal destiny.
The clown obeys, for three reasons: he believes he will be freed if he fulfils the task that he is assigned; he is happy to have a public who appreciates him; and he is happy to bring a bit of joy and levity to the children, amidst the darkness that surrounds them.
In fact, Helmut becomes their guardian, and even their shepherd, a shepherd who will accompany his flock unto death. And while he initially sought a personal benefit, at the last minute he decides to stay with the children and enter the gas chamber alongside them, leading them along like the Pied Piper of Hamelin (a figure that is referred to several times in the script), but with the essential difference that he chooses to die with them.
Here an essential aspect of the film is at play, one which is present throughout the film but which only acquires meaning at the end, and which partly explains the misunderstanding surrounding The Day the Clown Cried that ended up rendering it invisible.
Jerry Lewis does not dance around the subject matter, the extermination of Jews by the Nazis, including the mass killing of children. A line of dialogue insists on this fact: “Children? You mean Jews!” This marks a radical difference with La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997) by Roberto Benigni. The Day the Clown Cried does not use the death camp as scenery in order to further dramatise a fable that could be just as well situated in any other detention facility. He openly confronts the Holocaust, with the only acceptable ending for a storyline in this context, no matter how perturbing it may be: death. This is exactly what Steven Spielberg carefully avoids doing in Schindler’s List (1993), preferring to tell the history of a genocide through the story of those who escaped it, in order to retain the sacrosanct happy ending. A happy ending at Auschwitz…
The reasons preventing The Day the Clown Cried from being completed are complex. They revolve around the project’s producer, Nathan Wachsberger, who brought the script to Jerry Lewis. He convinced him to make the film and act in it. Later, however, he was unable to financially guarantee the shoot, and stopped paying the actors and technicians while they were working in a Swedish military barracks used as a set to represent the concentration camp. As a result, Jerry Lewis had to pay the cast and crew out of his own pocket in order to prevent the shoot being cancelled, before some of the rushes were blocked by a Swedish laboratory when he could not cover their bills. These factors also relate to the screenwriters, above all Joan O’Brien, who remained the owner of the screenplay’s rights, and who insists that Jerry Lewis never paid what he owed her. Later, another producer, Michael Barclay, bought the rights and tried to make a new version of the film. This project was pursued for several years: for a while Richard Burton’s name was attached to it, while in the early 1990s, Robin Williams and then William Hurt were successively announced as the main lead. Although it never came to anything, the existence of this new production based on the script helped prevent the possibility of showing Jerry Lewis’ film, as he was prohibited from circulating a work that had the potential to be a competitor to a film that is even more invisible than his own, since it was never made.
Moreover, hostile commentary about Lewis’ film began to circulate, even though it did not exist! The film’s poor reputation is primarily due to an American comedian, Harry Shearer, who had the opportunity to view some of the material that was shot and in the process of being edited, and who thought that what he saw was atrocious. He took pleasure in making this as widely known as possible, notably by participating in a round table organised in 1992 by the magazine Spy in order to beef up an articled signed Bruce Handy and titled “Jerry Goes to Death Camp”2. Although we do not know how well the other participants knew the film, everyone on the round table was unanimous in affirming that this film that does not exist was horribly bad and absolutely unacceptable.
On the contrary, with this film Jerry Lewis has accomplished a gesture that is inscribed in the lineage of two of the great works of the history of the cinema: The Great Dictator by Chaplin (1939) and To Be or Not To Be by Lubitsch (1941).
Like these two films, he affronts the most sombre aspects of modern barbarity with the means of comedy, and thus interrogates the spectacle itself, as well as its relations with oppression and totalitarianism. Chaplin’s and Lubitsch’s films had also been poorly received upon their release, in a very different context admittedly: on the eve of World War II for the first, in the middle of the war for the second.3 The Great Dictator is clearly, if not the model, then at least the main predecessor that Jerry Lewis could have had in mind, or even measure himself against, and it is intriguing that Lewis met Chaplin, whom he idolised, for the first time when he was about to begin location scouting for The Day the Clown Cried, as he recounts in Jerry Lewis in Person4 It must not be forgotten that Chaplin, even though he was at the summit of his glory, had to combat the establishment, in both Hollywood and Washington, in order to realise a project that nobody wanted.
Among the innumerable reasons Jerry Lewis had to admire Chaplin, one of the most important is what he himself called Chaplin’s “cruel and terrifying comedy” in The Total Filmmaker, a book he published in 1971, at the moment he was working on The Day the Clown Cried.5. In certain respects, we can say that, with The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis tries an even more radical, discomfiting operation than what Chaplin managed to do by playing the roles of the dictator Hynkel and his counterpart, the little Jewish barber: to wit, the vertiginous fusion of the two characters in the single body of Helmut Doork.
All this does not entirely explain why The Day the Clown Cried aroused such rejection among its scarce spectators, beginning with Shearer. Putting aside any supposition of manipulation to the benefit of other interested parties in the matter, the most evident response is: because it does not respond to what we feel that a Holocaust Movie should be, nor what we feel that a Jerry Lewis Movie should be. It is neither serious and sentimental like the former are supposed to be; nor is it as funny as the second ought to be. This, of course, is a sign of its success.
The bizarre nature of Lewis’ film is not its weakness but its strength. It is evident that Jerry Lewis intentionally made the film in this dissonant tonality, even if it was clearly affected by its production problems. And, as is often the case, the “production problems” themselves could have become a contributing factor to the project of the film, if an excess of legal and financial obstacles, as well as ego conflicts, had not ended up scuttling everything.
At the beginning of 1973, Jerry Lewis still believed that a solution could be found. He even announced that the world premiere of the film would take place at Cannes that year, followed by its US release. In 1981, when Jerry Lewis in Person is published, he recounts certain episodes from this painful experience, but concludes: “In any case, I know that the film will come out.”
After that point, and in the wake of both legal troubles and attacks on the quality of the film, as well as its ethical merits, following the lead of Shearer and others, the filmmaker affirmed that he had drawn a line under this matter, and refused to speak about it, except to denigrate it.
Contrary to what Lewis has come to insist, his film does not, however, mark a rupture in his career, nor a regrettable parenthesis; rather, it was an attempt to radicalise what we can pinpoint as having guided his entire professional life, above all during the period in which he obtained total control over his films: from The Bellboy in 1960, up to and including The Day the Clown Cried, the continuity is incontestable.
This continuity consists both in a sense of the tragedy of existence and the impurity of the cinema (or the spectacle more broadly considered), which defines the singular position Jerry Lewis has in show business, inside which he has not ceased to situate himself. This paradoxical position is both the source of a project as extreme as The Day the Clown Cried, and the reason why the film never saw the light of day.
It seemed that The Day the Clown Cried was buried for all eternity. In 2013, however, matters looked like they were beginning to change. It was then that a YouTube clip appeared featuring an extract from a Flemish television programme on the filming, in Paris, of the opening circus scenes (in which several French actors participated, waiving their appearances fees in homage to the great comedian, notably Pierre Étaix in the role of the new star clown who had supplanted Helmut, as well as Armand Mestral, Claude Bolling and even Serge Gainsbourg, not to mention the great Bergman actress Harriet Andersson, who played Helmut’s wife)6.
Shortly afterwards, Entertainment Weekly published an interview with the filmmaker by the Australian journalist Chris Nashawaty where, for the first time in years, Jerry Lewis agreed to talk about this experience.7 Perhaps the clown has not said his last word.
Translated from the French by Daniel Fairfax. Reprinted, with kind permission of Jean-Michel Frodon, from an article for the website Slate.fr. A variant of this text appeared in English as “Jerry Made His Day” from The Last Laugh: Strange Humours of Cinema, Copyright © 2013 Wayne State University Press, with the permission of Wayne State University Press.
- See http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/the_day_the_clown_cried.html. ↩
- Bruce Handy, “Jerry Lewis Goes to Death Camp”, Spy, May 1992, https://books.google.fr/books?id=bsf3-GfE_JoC&lpg=PA42&dq=the+day+the+clown+cried&pg=PA40&redir_esc=y&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false ↩
- The Great Dictator was released in 1940 but it was conceived before the war began, and when it came out in the United States it was addressing itself to an isolationist country. ↩
- Herb Gluck (ed.), Jerry Lewis in Person (New York: Atheneum, 1982), p. 279. ↩
- Jerry Lewis, The Total Filmmaker (New York: Random House, 1973) ↩
- See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFE1WiIQ6x4. ↩
- See http://www.ew.com/article/2013/08/19/jerry-lewis-day-clown-died ↩