As the recent uproar surrounding Joker has shown, some clown movies are no laughing matter. Todd Phillips’ grim character study of the iconic DC villain has been shrouded in controversy since it was announced, but at least the film is out there for everyone to see and form their own opinions.
However, the same can’t be said for another controversial clown movie. The Day the Clown Cried is a Holocaust drama made in 1972 that Jerry Lewis co-wrote, directed, and starred in. At the time of this writing, only a handful of people have ever seen it.
The Day the Clown Cried was Lewis’ attempt to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Having been dubbed “The King of Comedy,” his cinematic output was synonymous with laughter, but the actor/director wanted to make a prestige picture that would grab the attention of the Academy come awards season.
The film’s story follows Helmut Doork (Lewis), a clown who is imprisoned during World War II for joking about Adolf Hitler and the Gestapo. Following his arrest, he is sent to a political prison camp, where his clowning antics capture the attention of Nazi officers who subsequently find a way to exploit his talents for their own nefarious purposes.
The Nazis use Doork to entertain the child prisoners of Auschwitz, keeping them amused and calm before escorting them to the gas chambers to meet their deaths. The clown agrees to obey the Nazis for three reasons: he believes he will be granted his freedom if he obliges, he is happy to be appreciated for his talents, and because he wants to bring joy to the doomed children.
In the original script, penned by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton, Doork is an unsympathetic character who’s depicted as a selfish alcoholic. After all, he prioritizes his own self-interests and, as a result, is complicit in the horrors of the Holocaust.
However, Lewis rewrote the story to make Doork more morally ambiguous and give him a pseudo-redemption arc. While he was still responsible for leading children toward their horrific fate, in the end he chooses to enter the chamber with them and meet his own tragic end. Of course, Doork was still complicit in the deaths of many children, which makes sympathizing with him difficult.
The premise alone is enough to make people recoil in horror. For a start, using a clown — a symbol of humor — to tell a story about the Holocaust could be interpreted as being in poor taste. And without the context of a completed film to base one’s judgment on, the movie has gained a controversial legacy that’s been built on people’s assumptions more than anything else.
At the time, public perception of the film was that it would poke fun at the Holocaust. With Lewis being so known for his slapstick and irreverent comedies, many believed that The Day the Clown Cried would be in a similar vein, albeit by problematically exploiting a sensitive topic.
As noted by Spin magazine’s Bowman Hastie, Lewis was repeatedly criticized for making the movie, despite other Holocaust-themed films — namely Life is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar — later milking the atrocity to similarly tell the creators’ own self-centered stories without much objection from the masses. Hastie writes:
“All three movies shamelessly use the holocaust — and the impending death of children — as a vehicle for the star’s most base, maudlin ideas about his own beneficent selflessness and humanity. But only Lewis has been vilified for it.”
The idea that The Day the Clown Cried is wrongheaded was further established when comedian and actor Harry Shearer — who claims to have seen a print in 1979 — told Spy magazine that it’s “so drastically wrong, 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.”
O’Brien and Denton weren’t fans of Lewis’ vision, either. According to the rumors, the latter never wanted the film to be released because the protagonist became a sympathetic figure.
Furthermore, O’Brien claimed that Lewis turned the film into a Chaplinesque comedy, which was nothing like the story she and Denton originally envisioned. That said, contrary reports have stated that the film isn’t a comedy at all. Even though the film incorporates humorous elements, it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the Holocaust by any means.
On top of feeling embarrassed about the quality of the film itself, Lewis was disgusted at himself for making it in the first place. He revealed later that reading the script repulsed him, but playing the central role was even worse.
Many have speculated that Lewis chose to make the film the way he did because he was under the influence of a painkiller addiction that clouded his better judgment. However, it’s also worth bearing in mind that Lewis was Jewish, so his desire to make a Holocaust movie might have come from a personal place. Perhaps to find a way to understand the events, rather than make light of them.
In a 2013 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lewis revealed that he never intended to offend anyone. He also suggested that the film’s legacy has overshadowed his original intentions, in turn making the piece very misunderstood:
“For it to become what it has become seems unfair — unfair to the project and unfair to my good intentions.”
Toward the end of his life, Lewis found some joy in the film’s mystique and infamous legacy in the history of cinema. In 2015, he even donated a copy to the Library of Congress under the condition that it not be screened before 2025. Maybe we will see the full movie eventually (there is some footage online), and then we can decide for ourselves if it was worth all of the ballyhoo.