The Jerry Lewis Movie That's Past The Point Of Taste
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What if “Springtime for Hitler” was made with a straight face?
All great comedians have, at some point, attempted to walk the tightrope of good taste while dealing with sensitive subjects. But for every Mel Brooks there is a Jerry Lewis, and for every The Producers there is The Day the Clown Cried. It's an unfinished, unreleased, Swedish-French film, directed by and starring Lewis as a clown imprisoned in a Nazi camp during World War II.
Every comedian throughout history has at some point asked the question, “where do we draw the line?” But in 1972, Jerry Lewis answered, “about 200 yards behind The Day The Clown Cried.” The King of Comedy tackled the most sensitive of subjects with the subtlety of a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon.
The film revolves around Lewis’ character Helmut Doork, a down-on-his-luck clown living in Germany at the beginning of World War II. After losing his job at the circus, Helmut begins a spiral of self-destruction that culminates in drunkenly mocking Adolf Hitler in a crowded bar. Helmut is arrested and sent to a Nazi camp as a political prisoner.
While incarcerated, he befriends a group of Jewish children and secretly performs for them to keep their spirits up, against the wishes of his Nazi captors. After he is caught defying the orders of the commandant, Helmut is placed in solitary confinement and offered a deal to escape a grim fate.
The commandant instructs Helmut to lead the children in Pied Piper fashion onto a train car so that they may be moved out of the camp. Only once they arrive in Auschwitz does Helmut realize what awaits the kids he’s grown to love, and the film ends with Jerry Lewis remorsefully walking a young girl hand-in-hand to the gas chambers.
If that sounds like a terrible, tasteless, and unwatchable attempt at mining humor from a topic that can only be handled with the deftest of touch, it’s because that’s exactly what The Day the Clown Cried was.
While the film was never released, rough cuts of the disaster circulated Hollywood for years as the stuff of legends. Actor Harry Shearer is one of the select few people in the world who has seen the film from start to finish, and when he spoke to Spy Magazine, he reported that, “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.”
To Jerry Lewis’ credit, he was in agreement with the general response, calling the film “an artistic failure,” saying “You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work."
He spent the rest of his life distancing himself from the project, working to ensure that his stillborn brainchild would never see the light of day. He passed away in 2017, and if you are an enthusiast of poor taste and wish to dishonor the memory of a titan of the telethon industry, please enjoy this selection of unedited footage from the set of The Day the Clown Cried.
Somehow, The Day the Clown Cried is not the only time someone tried turning “clowns in concentration camps” into comedy gold. There have been at least four separate attempts at bringing that premise into production, although none were as catastrophic in their failure as The Day the Clown Cried.
So how did Mel Brooks get away with writing a film in which an effeminate Adolf Hitler prances around a broadway stage while Jerry Lewis spent the rest of his life trying to escape the shadow of Helmut Doork?
Perhaps it’s because Brooks mocked indirectly-- “Springtime for Hitler” was a play within a play in intentionally poor taste. Maybe these topics can only be done tongue-in-cheek, and comedians going after the darkest periods in human history shouldn’t try to hit them right on the big red nose.
Top image: Den of Geek