Behind-the-scenes footage from the production ofThe Day the Clown Cried.
There it was, buried several paragraphs deep in a Los Angeles Times article, a golden nugget that has long lay glimmering in the Technicolor daydreams of film scholars and comedy fanatics:
[Library of Congress moving-image curator Rob] Stone also let the group in on secrets, like the Jerry Lewis collection he had just acquired on behalf of the library.
Did he really have the film negative of "The Day the Clown Cried," an unreleased Holocaust comedy that Lewis regretted making? Yes, Stone said, but the library agreed to not show the film for at least 10 years.
There is good reason cinema obsessives may have lingered long over Rob Stone's innocuous admission: some believe The Day the Clown Cried is one of the worst movies ever made.
The synopsis alone is jarring: a drunk and broken German clown named Helmut Doork makes fun of Hitler and is sent to a concentration camp. After further tribulations there, Herr Doork is tasked with amusing Jewish children as they wait for transit to a new, more horrific destination. The clown ends up trapped in a boxcar with his charges as they are taken to Auschwitz.
To the casual movie fan who has never heard of Clown this may sound like a hoax or a joke. It's real. The script for The Day the Clown Cried is freely available online.
Harry Shearer, who created so many great characters on The Simpsons as well as This is Spinal Tap's zucchini-toting bassist Derek Smalls, had the rare chance to see Lewis's boondoggle. Shearer's characterization of the movie, quoted in a May, 1992 article in SPY Magazine, has contributed to its status in the pantheon of brilliantly glowing Hollywood dumpster fires. Shearer said Clown was "really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object." The film's "perfection," Shearer said, lay in the feeling that "its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced."
In his book Silver Screen Fiend, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt published a hilarious account (excerpted for Vulture) of his devotion to Clown's awfulness. In the late 1990s Oswalt began producing staged readings of the script. They hummed along quietly for a while, pleasing relatively small crowds, until the readings were publicized in L.A. Weekly. Only then did Oswalt discover that some in Hollywood were still interested in the script as a legitimate property worth a reboot. A would-be producer and, in Oswalt's words, "Kale-Salad-Eater With Rage Issues" confronted the comic outside a venue just before a reading was to commence.
Oswalt wrote that after some spittle-flecked invective, the producer said, "It’s an important story, and it needs to be told the way it was originally written, and I’ve got Chevy Chase interested in it, and you have no! Fucking!! Right!!!"
"Chevy Chase," Oswalt wrote, "In clown makeup. In Auschwitz. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to see that film. If shutting down my reading could do anything toward helping that become a reality, I felt like it was my cosmic duty to man up and disappoint my audience."
Chevy Chase must have decided the project wasn't worth his time. But in 2025, Patton Oswalt will finally get to witness the misbegotten comedy and pathos of Jerry Lewis's legendary and terrible "perfect object."
"Knowing The Day the Clown Cried will be viewable after a decade," Patton Oswalt told Maxim in an email, "is like a ten-year health and fitness incentive for film freaks like me."
Photos by Mike Flokis/Getty Images