Like many of my friends, I have a cinematic longing. In these days of being able to access just about every supposedly obscure piece of media, there is still one that remains out of reach. My friends and I occasionally speak about it in hushed tones, and occasionally watch scraps of this piece of work as they appear on YouTube.
Still, though, I have not seen it all. I want to see it all. My friends want to see it all.
I speak, of course, of The Day the Clown Cried.
I first learned of The Day the Clown Cried while reading The Golden Turkey Awards, a 1980 tribute to what authors Harry and Michael Merced considered some of the worst movies ever made. This was the way I first heard of the legendary Edward D. Wood Jr. film Plan Nine from Outer Space, and it was the way many others first heard about the film as well.
At the beginning of the book, the Medveds confessed that one of the films mentioned was a complete hoax. That turned out to be something called Dog of Norway. When I first read the book, however, I was sure that The Day the Clown Cried had to be the film.
“Oh, no,” a friend of mine said. “It’s real. It’a very real.”
You can’t blame me, though, and I’m sure there were others at the time who you couldn’t blame. How to believe that Jerry Lewis made a film in which he plays Helmut Doork, a clown who entertains children in a concentration camp before the children are led into the gas chamber? How to believe that this was supposedly Lewis’s passion project, one that he worked on for years and years?
Yet it is real. It is very real.
Many years ago, the now defunct Spy magazine devoted an article to the film, complete with memorable illustrations by brilliant artist Drew Friedman. The article consisted of interviews with a select number of people who actually got a chance to see the film, including comedian Harry Shearer. To a person, they described it as terrible, but not fun terrible, the way that Plan Nine From Outer Space is terrible. No, this was silent, awkward terrible, the kind that exudes a kind of dumb struck fascination.
Embarrassed by the film, Lewis insisted that there would never be public release or screening (the screening Shearer attending was limited to perhaps a dozen people). Nonetheless, Lewis has backed away from his pledge somewhat. In 2015 he gave a copy of the film to the Library of Congress, under the condition that the film not be screened until June of 2024.
And so I count down the days, and wonder: is it really going to be that terrible? Yes, back when I first read about it, the whole thing sounded like a subplot in The Producers. Yet now, as Lewis is actually properly remembered as a genius (yes, really) who pioneered numerous advances in filmmaking (such as the director looking at monitors to evaluate shots and so forth), I wonder if I may find myself, six years from now, being a lot more kind to the film than I would have been when I first read about it.
For there was, of course, a film whose plot was remarkably similar to Lewis’s film: Life is Beautiful, in which a father in a concentration camp keeps his son protected from the true horror of their situation by turning the whole thing into a game. I remember watching that film—I didn’t care for it—and saying, not quite aloud, “this is The Day the Clown Cried.”
So I count down the days, and become increasingly interested in how I’m going to react to it. Will it just be all bad, or will it instead be a not-so-good film that was nonetheless ahead of its time?
I wonder. And, like many of my friends, I wait.