Jerry Lewis died on Sunday at the age of 91, leaving behind at least one big mystery: the fate of The Day the Clown Cried, an unreleased 1972 Holocaust film that Lewis directed and starred in. It tells the story of a fictional German clown, Helmut Doork, who is sent to a Nazi concentration camp as a political prisoner and ends up entertaining Jewish children at an adjoining death camp. In the film’s climax, Helmut distracts the children with jokes and pratfalls as he leads them to the gas chambers, ultimately joining them inside. You will be only partially relieved to know that this was intended to be Lewis’s first dramatic role.
Lewis shot the film mainly in Sweden, but due to money troubles (not enough) and rights issues (very tangled), as well as personal problems (a Percodan addiction), The Day the Clown Cried was never completed. It exists only in a rough-cut version that has never been publicly screened. The picture’s rarity, its unlikely (even ghastly) subject matter, and the fact that it was made by the writer-director-star of The Nutty Professor and Hook, Line and Sinker, has made The Day the Clown Cried arguably the most notorious “lost” film in movie history—a kind of Holy Grail for connoisseurs of presumed bad taste.
Actors and comedians, notably Patton Oswalt, have produced staged readings of the film’s screenplay. In 2016, 30 minutes of footage from the film even leaked online. A year earlier, Lewis had donated his print of the film, along with the rest of his filmography, to the Library of Congress—with the proviso that The Day the Clown Cried not be screened until at least 2024. So there is hope for some, at least, that the movie will eventually see the light of day.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a then-definitive oral history of the making of The Day the Clown Cried for Spy magazine, which included interviews with several people who had managed to see Lewis’s print of the film, including the actor and writer Harry Shearer. I began work on an as-yet uncompleted update of this history several years ago—but in honor of Lewis’s passing, I would like to present this previously unpublished interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, who saw a print of The Day the Clown Cried in the early 2000s. Frodon, a former film critic for Le Monde and editor of Cahiers du Cinema, is French—and, perhaps needless to say, has a more positive view of the film than do its handful of American viewers.
Vanity Fair: So you’ve seen a rough cut of the film, some kind of work print?
Jean-Michel Frodon: Yes, I’ve seen what I suppose–of course, it is not possible to be totally sure—is the most complete version. It is not finished, obviously. Nevertheless, you can see what the film would have been. It tells the story from beginning to end in the proper order, and comparing it with the script, no major scene is missing. Of course there [is] some editing that could be done, and certainly sound work, and perhaps there are a few errors. But basically I can say I have seen the film.
What circumstances did you see it under?
A French film director, Xavier Giannoli, happened to own this video of it and asked me to his office to see it. This was a long time ago. I’m not sure the exact date, but I would say around 2004 or 2005. At this point he asked me to keep it secret, which of course I did. Until one day, he openly talked about having this print on a radio program. So I felt I had no longer to keep this secret. [Frodon did not know how Giannoli got his print, and Giannoli himself did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.]
So what did you think? Is The Day the Clown Cried any good?
Yes. I’m convinced it’s a very good job. It’s a very interesting and important film, very daring about both the issue, which of course is the Holocaust, but even beyond that as a story of a man who has dedicated his life to making people laugh and is questioning what it is to make people laugh. I think it is a very bitter film, and a disturbing film, and this is why it was so brutally dismissed by those people who saw it, or elements of it, including the writers of the script.
Having read both the original script [by Charles Denton and Joan O’Brien] and Jerry Lewis’s rewrite, my fear for the film would be that it uses the Holocaust as a way to redeem this unhappy clown, that there is an inherent imbalance and sentimentality in that conceit.
He’s not redeemed at all! First he’s suffering all the way through and then he dies. What kind of redemption is that?
Well, again, I’m only going off the scripts. But Helmut starts off as this very cynical character and by the end, there’s a line where he says something to the effect that he never had children, but now he does. Helping these children has given him purpose.
He is walking into the gas chamber to die with the children he took care of. This is not what you can call redemption. Maybe it is a moral redemption, but for what? He’s not guilty of much before, so he has nothing to redeem. Of course the film is connecting a genuine historical situation, and a dramatic one, with an individual situation, but for me this is a very meaningful way to do it.
Tell me about the experience of watching the film. It feels to me that if the script were fully realized, especially the ending, it would be almost impossible to watch.
I don’t know why it would be impossible to watch. There are many things that are difficult to watch. This film finds what I consider a cinematic answer to some real, serious issues, using a kind of stylized setting, both in the costumes and the sets. It’s not pretending to be realistic at all. Instead, it has a very obvious fairy-tale feeling—not fairy tale, but tale. There are no fairies here, but there details like in the Grimm brothers, like this kind of stylized background with a train rolling along the countryside where the children are being kept, and afterwards, when Helmut leads them [to the gas chambers] like the Pied Piper. So the film uses an unrealistic way to relay events we know about, events that have been shown so many times in very realistic ways.
In an essay, you’ve compared The Day the Clown Cried to Schindler’s List, where most of the main characters survive—and you make the point that The Day the Clown Cried is more honest about the actual events on that point, since everyone we care about in Lewis’s film dies.
One of the shocking things to me about Schindler’s List is that it was made to be as much of a crowd-pleaser as possible, with several tricks, one of them being addressing the evocation of the slaughtering of 6 million persons through the survival of a few of them. This is for me a very clever maneuver.
If The Day the Clown Cried had been finished and released in 1972, would it have been the first mainstream film to deal directly with the Holocaust? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any earlier ones. In at least that sense it might have been pioneering.
It would depend on what you would call mainstream. There were several films about the Holocaust made in Eastern Europe in this time, which maybe doesn’t entitle them to be called mainstream. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis [a 1970 Italian film directed by Vittorio De Sica] addresses the issue of the Holocaust, but it doesn’t show the camps.
Now that I think of it, there was also The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959. But as you say with The Garden of Finzi-Continis, it doesn’t portray the camps themselves. There were films about survivors, too, like The Pawnbroker in 1964.
There had been many images of concentration camps, but mostly in documentaries, not in fictional films.
What did you think of Jerry Lewis’s performance in The Day the Clown Cried?
It’s a very bizarre project. He’s not indulging himself, but he is self-caricaturing. He’s depicting himself as a clown who is a very unsympathetic character, as a man, and who is losing his professional abilities and making mistakes on stage. He is very selfish and totally stupid, which drives him directly to the camps. And there he has a very sick expression on his face. There are very long scenes where his expression almost totally dissolves, which is very different from what he used to do in his previous films. It’s as if he doesn’t know how to react. And then when he starts to perform again, he’s pretty much like a robot. It’s a very rare style of performance for him, compared to what he used to do. Especially in his facial work.
It sounds like there might be hints of the performance he would later give in The King of Comedy , where his character is very cold, even cruel.
Yes, absolutely. It does.
Can you remember any one particular scene, maybe with the children, where you felt he was showing something unusual or particularly powerful as an actor?
There are the scenes in the camps where he starts performing for the prisoners. Because at the beginning, he doesn’t perform for the children—he performs for his fellow prisoners. And in those scenes he is kind of at a distance to his own performance, because he despises the situation. It is insulting for him to have to perform under these conditions. And then, while there is this very bizarre interaction with the prisoners, there are also the children, who are beyond the barbed wire [in another part of the camp]. And the evolution of his understanding of what he’s generating for these audiences—the prisoners and the children, and also the German guards—is very interesting. For me, one of the many elements that draw such negative reaction to the film in the U.S. is that this performance is very far from what is expected from him. There is this idea in the U.S. that we know what he is supposed to do as a comedian—and that is not what he does here.
I wonder if there would be a similar reaction today if it was announced that Adam Sandler, say, was going to do a Holocaust movie—that this is just not appropriate material for this particular performer.
I don’t know, because Roberto Benigni received approval, generally speaking, even I believe in the U.S. and Israel [for Life Is Beautiful, his 1997 Oscar-winning comedy set in a concentration camp]. I’m not sure what would happen if someone made The Day the Clown Cried today.
Source: Vanity Fair