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Askew Review 15

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Since first publishing Askew Reviews #1 a few years ago, I have received numerous letters and emails concerning Jerry Lewis’ 1971 never released movie THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. The emails only intensified when I put Askew Reviews online. Therefore, I have decided to scrounge around and try to piece together some info on this movie for Askew’s inquiring minds. I am not sure how much of what I’ve found is accurate, so I will leave it up to you on how much you believe or not. I will only report what I have found. Just so you know, this movie has never been released and I can not get a copy. Rumors have it that Jerry Lewis owns the only print, a reel to reel, and it’s locked away someplace.
                In 1971, Nate Waschberger approached Jerry to direct and star in THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, based on Joan O’Brien’s book by the same name. The story is about a German clown named Helmut Dorque who is thrown into a concentration camp after he drunkenly impersonates Hitler in front of the Gestapo. While imprisoned, Helmut is forced to amusingly and cheerfully lead Jewish children into gas chambers where they will die. Jerry accepted, lost 40 pounds, and shooting took place in Stockholm, Sweden and in Paris, France. Soon thereafter, Waschberger ran out of money and Jerry stepped in to finance the rest of the production with his own money (reportedly $1 million). After filming concluded, Jerry learned that he did not own the rights to the movie because Joan O’Brien was never paid what she thought was a fair price for the script. This is where I have heard two different stories. Some say that Joan O’Brien to this day still refuses to accept monetary offers from Jerry for the rights, therefore the movie can’t be released. Others say the movie is so awful, Jerry Lewis refuses to let it see the light of day. However, I have read that Jerry himself has stated that he will release the movie in it’s entirety (after filming a few more scenes) or will produce a documentary using stills to detail the production and plot.
                While editing the film, it is said (as described in Shawn Levy's biography of Jerry Lewis, King of Comedy) Jerry became enraged when he discovered that a youngster in the film had looked directly into the camera during a crucial dramatic scene. Characterizing the child as "a sneaky little bitch," Lewis railed "I told her to keep her fucking eyes to the front. That it wasn't a beauty pageant . . .There's no room for Shirley Temple in a concentration camp."

Three other bits of info on this subject: 1) I heard an interview with an actor/comedian (who’s name escapes me)* who claims to have seen the movie back in the 70s. He said it was the worst piece of tasteless trash he has ever seen. He claimed not only is the story weak, but the production was unbelievably bad. 2) I also found a photocopy of the screenplay being auctioned off at The starting bid was $19.95 and there wasn’t any higher bids or interest in it. 3) Some say that Roberto Benigni’s 1997 movie LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL bears a striking resemblance to THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED in more ways than one. I have not seen Life is Beautiful, so I can't compare the two movies.
*The following comes from a reader named Bill Gibron "The comedian in question who saw the completed film was Harry Shearer, Mr. Simpsons and Spinal Tap himself. He wrote about it in an article for Spy Magazine a long time ago. Apparently, a friend of a friend has a bootleg copy of the film on OLD FASHIONED Video tape, and set up a screening. He indeed found the film tasteless, vulgar and totally inappropriate. His main criticism is the Jerry-ization of the material (I can imagine the pain now)."

Video footage and interviews
(added Aug 12, 2013)

Here's an online version of the screenplay

Below you will find four pictures from the movie, the cover of the screenplay, and a screenplay review written by Steve Puchalski, the editor and publisher of SHOCK CINEMA magazine.

THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED [Script review] 

 Although it's impossible to criticize a finished film on the basis of the script alone, I've seen more than enough Jerry Lewis films to know how badly he can stumble when starring and directing in moments of pathos. This script, which weighs in at a whopping 164 pages (since one-page equals approximately a minute of screen time, it's longer than THE ENGLISH PATIENT) was originally planned as a Summer '74 release, with much of it funded by Jerry's own private cash (after his producer ran dry). Alas, this flick has spent the last quarter-century in litigation limbo, after it turned out that Lewis didn't actually own the script, after all. While a Good Movie would have people clamoring to settle the case, I doubt anyone (with the exception of Jerry and his hardcore fans) cares if this ever sees the light of day. Scripted by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton (with "additional material" -uh oh- provided by Jer) and filmed in Paris and Stockholm, it's the circa-1940's story of Helmut Dorque (more often spelled as Doork), an old clown who's fired from a German circus. After drunkenly impersonating Hitler in front of the Gestapo, he's tossed into a prison camp, where poor Helmut is abused by bullying inmates and guards. Unfortunately, there's no reason to sympathize with the character, since he's an unbearable, self-pitying sort, who mouths off at the most inappropriate times. As years pass and WWII deepens, the prison becomes the home of Jewish women and children, with Helmut discovering THE CHILDREN NEED HIM AND LOVE HIM! With the help of other prisoners, he creates a make-shift clown suit and make-up, and begins entertaining the tots. When Helmut is beaten by a guard in front of the children, he even pretends that's it's all part of his comedy routine. Later, Doork is used by the Nazis to keep a boxcar full of children quietly amused, only to accidentally (oops!) winds up in Auschwitz, where this "Judas goat" leads the smiling kids straight into gas chambers.  Proudly labeled "A Family Film" on its intro page, this is a painfully obvious story, overflowing with stock characters, sledgehammer discussions, and maudlin monologues. Still, if played totally straight (and in the hands of a more appropriate director), this had a slim chance of working. There's no chance here, since script-notes explain how even dramatic moments (like being abused by a guard when Helmut refuses to eat, or trying to get dressed when his clothes are totally frozen) "will work comically as well." It's easy to imagine Jerry doing his worn-out, slapstick schtick in the middle of a supposedly-gritty concentration camp=97and just how embarrassing it must be. More than simply misguided, this makes you question your own tolerance for cinematic swill.  -Steve Puchalski






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