It’s not Orson Welles’ long-lost original cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” It’s not Erich von Stroheim’s original eight-or-nine hour version of his 1924 epic, “Greed” (which only 12 people are purported to have seen before the studio cut it to 140 minutes) But it is 30 minutes of footage related to another one of cinema’s holy grails, Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried.” The footage was posted online last week. The half-hour cut was assembled from the unreleased feature film and a German documentary about the film's production.
“The Day the Clown Cried” has been a more than 40-year punch line and object of much speculation and fascination among Lewis fan (and detractors), film buffs in general, and those who love nothing more than a high camp train wreck. Lewis directed and stars in the film as a German clown in Hitler’s Germany, who is placed in a forced labor camp after expressing anti-Nazi sympathies. His captors force him to entertain the children, ultimately leading them to their deaths in the gas chamber.
The Swiss-French co-production was the very definition of fraught. When financing collapsed, Lewis paid to complete the project with his own money. It has been the subject of rights battles ever since.
In life, as in comedy, timing is everything. Lewis is now applauded as a dramatic actor for his Oscar and Emmy-worthy performances in “The King of Comedy” and on an arc of “Wiseguy.” But this was 1972, and Lewis’ previous film, "Which Way to the Front," a WWII misfit service comedy, had tanked at the box office. This was a passion project for Lewis, who lost a reported 40 pounds for the role. For decades, he bristled when the subject of the film came up.
Comics, though, have had a field day at the unavailable film’s expense. Harry Shearer, of “This is Spinal Tap” and “The Simpsons” fame, is one of the few who have seen the complete film. He wrote a now legendary article for the former “Spy” magazine that contained this assessment: “This movie is so drastically wrong.” Before he was shut down with a cease-and-desist order, comedian Patton Oswalt directed live readings of the script starring the likes of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross at Largo, an ultra-hip L.A. performance space.
Lewis turned 90 this year, and he seems to have made some sort of peace with the film. Last year, he donated a negative of the film to the Library of Congress with the proviso that it could not be screened publicly for ten years. In a 2013 interview, Lewis reflected that he was “ashamed of the work” and grateful that it remained unreleased. “It was bad, bad, bad,” he conceded.
But good for him for making it and for having the courage and commitment to work against type. To paraphrase Woody Allen in “Annie Hall,” an artist is like a shark; he or she has to keep moving forward or they die. Allen dealt with this creative conundrum in “Stardust Memories,” in which a filmmaker known for his comedies wants to make a serious movie “I don’t want to make funny movies anymore,” he proclaims.
The 30-minute post doesn’t yield a fair verdict of the complete film, but again, timing. After Roberto Benigni’s love-hate “Life is Beautiful,” in which a father in a concentration camp clowns around in an attempt to shield his son from the Nazi horrors around them, and the Robin Williams misfire, “Jakob the Liar,” in which his Jewish shopkeeper spreads hope in a Nazi-controlled Polish ghetto, perhaps the world is ready for “The Day the Clown Cried.” Barring any other leaks, we'll have to wait until 2025 to see if the film is, as Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman questions, is "outrageously awful or ahead of its time."
Who knows; Lewis might have the last laugh.