Controversial Jerry Lewis film to screen in public for first time after 52 years

The Day the Clown Cried, a passion project for its star and director, reached mythical status after he refused to release it in his lifetime

US comedian, director and singer Jerry Lewis on set of The Day the Clown Cried, March 22, 1972. Photo: AFP
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One of cinema’s most sought-after films is set to be screened in public for the first time.

Comedian Jerry Lewis’s controversial holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried, shot in 1972 but never released due to myriad issues with the production, has never been made available in any form, leading the project to reach mythical status in the global film community.

The project, potentially in a semi-unfinished form, is set for a June screening due to a stipulation from Lewis himself. Several years before he died in 2017, a copy was given to the Library of Congress in the US with an agreement it could not be screened in any capacity until this year, though it has since been reported that it may be a rough version.

The film tells the story of a German circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for mocking Adolf Hitler and is then forced to lure children to their deaths as punishment.

In addition to directing the film, Lewis plays the role of the clown Helmut Doork. The film’s cast also includes French and Swedish actors.

Why the film was never released

While there were several alleged issues during the shoot itself, problems reportedly arose between Lewis and producer Nat Wachsberger once filming stopped, the main catalyst for the film being shelved.

Lewis was reportedly unhappy with the film’s financing and announced that Wachsberger did not fulfill his obligations. Hearing this, Wachsberger threatened to sue Lewis for breach of contract, resulting in a fallout between the two that caused Lewis to leave with a rough cut of the film, according to a 2018 feature in The New York Times.

While never shown in public, Lewis showed it to some friends and colleagues in private over the years. Harry Shearer, one of The Simpsons' voice actors, told Spy Magazine in 1992 that he watched the rough cut and branded it a “perfect object”.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2018, Chris Lewis, Lewis’s son, said: “It was something that was very close to his heart."

At other times, however, Lewis denounced the film. In 2013, footage of Lewis surfaced on YouTube in which he stated: "It was bad, and it was bad because I lost the magic. No one will ever see it, because I'm embarrassed at the poor work."

Lewis apparently had a change of heart, as an agreement was reportedly struck with Rob Stone, the library's moving image curator, in 2014 for a screening 10 years later.

Some have suggested that part of his mixed feelings is the personal cost the film's production took on him. After shooting wrapped, Lewis reportedly found out that cheques from the producer were bouncing and that staff went unpaid. In attempting to close the gaps himself, Lewis lost approximately $2 million, according to his memoir.

Chris recalls the ordeal, saying: “I know my mom was unhappy that he sold our beachfront property on Vancouver Island.”

Where and when will Jerry Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried screen?

No details have been announced however, in 2015, film archivists told New York Post the screening would be held at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Centre, Virginia in June of 2024.

Who will be able to attend is not yet clear. Many have hope that it will receive wider distribution than a single screening, though no announcement has been made as of yet.

Lewis said “the picture must be seen” in his autobiography from 1982.

Looking back at cinema's lost works

The Day the Crown Cried is an example of one of the many films that were once thought lost for ever or not fit for public screening.

Similar films include 1976’s Chess of the Wind by Iranian director Mohammad Reza Aslani.

Until it was rediscovered in 2020, the film could only be watched on low-quality VHS tapes. Since then, the film has been restored and screened around the world.

One of the best-known lost films is The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928. After being lost for years, a copy was found in a Norwegian hospital in the 1980s. The film is now considered one of the most important historical film artefacts.

London After Midnight, a 1927 horror film directed by Tod Browning starring Lon Cheney, is still a veritable white whale for fans after the last known copy was destroyed in the 1965 MGM vault fire.

Other films that have not yet screened because of filmmaker stipulations include 100 Years starring John Malkovich. The short film is from 2015 but has been placed in time-locked safes which won’t open until 2115, 100 years after the film was made.

Updated: April 01, 2024, 12:45 PM