When Jerry Lewis died last August at the age of ninety-one, it was widely believed that his controversial, unreleased 1972 Holocaust drama, The Day the Clown Cried, would never see the light of day. It looks like he will not be getting his wish. Set in a Nazi concentration camp, the film features Lewis, who also wrote and directed the picture, as Helmut Doork, a German clown who dons his makeup in Auschwitz in order to entertain the imprisoned children. Over the years, trickles of information have come out about the film. In 1992, Harry Shearer, one of the few to see the whole movie, told Spy magazine, “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. 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. ‘Oh my God!’ — that’s all you can say.” At Cannes, Lewis explained, “It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic. You will never see it, no one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”
Photographs, clips of the film, which also stars Harriet Andersson, Jonas Bergström, Claude Bolling, and Pierre Étaix, and even a draft of the script have leaked out, spurring people’s interest even as fiercely Lewis protected it. “But who am I preserving it for?” Lewis told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. “No one’s ever gonna see it. But the preservation that I believe is that, when I die, I’m in total control of the material now. Nobody can touch it. After I’m gone, who knows what’s going to happen? I think I have the legalese necessary to keep it where it is. So I’m pretty sure that it won’t be seen. The only thing that I do feel, that I always get a giggle out of, some smart young guy like Chris [Nashawaty] is going to come up with an idea and he’s going to run the fucking thing. I would love that. Because he’s going to see a hell of a movie!” Lewis fans, film historians, and curious onlookers will finally get to see The Day the Clown Cried when it is revealed to the world on April 31, kicking off the inaugural “WWII on Film” festival, being held at the Documentary Institute of Manhattan. Tickets are going fast for what might very well be the film’s only public screening ever. As Lewis also said, “Don’t you understand how dramatic it is to be a comic? To be a fool, to get people to laugh at this show-off? Milton Berle could take Laurence Olivier and stick him under the table if he wanted to. And so could I.” Yes, it’s all fools’ gold, especially on a day such as today.