Controversial Jerry Lewis film to be given to scholars – after 52-year wait

Library of Congress does not have complete cut, but is preparing surviving materials for academic purposes

Jerry Lewis, left, jokes with actor Pierre Etaix during the shooting of the film. AFP
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One of cinema’s most sought-after films will be made available for academic research later this year.

Comedian Jerry Lewis’s controversial holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried, filmed in 1972 but beset by production issues, has never been made available in any form. In the global film community, the project has become the stuff of legend.

Earlier this year, The National reported that the story was set to screen, in a potentially unfinished form, in June. This was based on a 2015 report in the New York Post, in which a film archivist told the newspaper that a screening would be held at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Centre, Virginia.

Jerry Lewis, who died in 2017, gave his footage to the Library of Congress in 2014, stipulating that it could not be screened for 10 years after the donation occurred.

However, the Library of Congress has stated it will not hold a screening, following Lewis's reported wishes, telling Indiewire that nothing is currently planned for this year.

The institution also confirmed it does not have a complete cut of the film. The report reveals what is in the institution's possession for the first time – the Library of Congress has several unedited scenes from the film, as well as sound reels that might not align with the footage in question.

The surviving footage will not stay in the vaults, it reveals. Rather, the materials “will be made available to scholars for research later this year”, reports Indiewire.

Additionally, while there are currently no plans for a screening, that does not preclude such an event from occurring either this year or at a later date.

What is The Day the Clown Cried about?

The Day the Clown Cried 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. Lewis played the part of the clown, Helmut Doork.

Lewis had mixed feelings about the film, only showing pieces of it to close friends. After watching it, The Simpsons star Harry Shearer said it was “a perfect object”, adding: “This movie is 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.”

In an interview with The New York Times in 2018, Chris Lewis, the comedian'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 him 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.”

It is not known whether another surviving copy exists elsewhere, besides the footage that Lewis himself possessed.

Updated: April 02, 2024, 2:46 PM