What thread connects the varying projects elevated to ‘cult film’ status? There is no single definition to be sure, but you will appreciate the recurrence of exaggerated fascination developed by viewers for a specific film. At times this enormous interest is inversely proportional to the actual size of the audience. In other words: small audience plus huge fascination equals ‘cult film’. This logic necessitates including a film that has managed to become a true Hollywood legend and yet has been seen by less than 20 people.
The film is the notorious The Day the Clown Cried based on a story about a dislikeable, unsuccessful (and gentile) German circus clown named Karl Schmidt who was sent to Auschwitz for satirising Hitler and was subsequently used by his Nazi captors to lead unsuspecting Jewish children into the gas chamber. Yes, someone wrote it. Someone else read it and actually said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ Someone financed it and someone even shot it.
Sometime around 1972, director, star and egomaniac Jerry Lewis embarked on this bizarre and arguably questionable film project. Through a series of financial missteps, personal conflicts and legal complications, the film was never released. The production’s irregularities left the question of rights in a snarl: claiming that it is owed more than $600,000, the studio in Stockholm has held on to the negative; the screenwriters own the copyright and won’t allow its completion. In fact, only a rough cut was ever completed and that cut remains vigorously protected.
And so The Day the Clown Cried has become a source of unending rumour, an embodiment of wrong-headed egotism, a five-word joke and a holy grail for collectors of rare film clips. Countless people have been left to speculate, ‘Could it possibly be as bad as it sounds?’ The answer, as much as has been made available to the general public, is ‘yes’. Comedian and writer Harry Shearer actually viewed a cut of the film in 1979 and had this to say: ‘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.’
The script had actually been written ten years earlier by Joan O’Brien, a former PR woman, and Charles Denton, a TV critic for the Los Angeles Examiner. The Day the Clown Cried was supposed to be Lewis’ first serious film as both director and star: ‘a turning point in the career of one of the most unusual performers in history’, according to the movie’s press kit, adding that Lewis is ‘a 20th Century … phenomenon like atomic energy, moonshot, heart transplants, and hippies …’ Apparently he believed his own press to the point of rewriting the script, changing the protagonist’s name from Karl Schmidt to the more distinctive – and more ‘Jerry-Lewis-movie’-like – Helmut Doork.
The original story was supposedly a tale of horror, conceit and, finally, enlightenment and self-sacrifice. Jerry had turned it into a sentimental, Chaplinesque representation of his own confused sense of himself, his art, his charity work and his persecution at the hands of critics. Furthermore, he had used the clown theme as an occasion to work into the film some of the silent routines he had been performing in Europe.
The Lewis penned shooting script – some 164 pages – has been circulating on the Internet ever since Film Threat magazine procured and disseminated a copy. Not only is the writing incoherent and the technical cues baffling (the script specifically notes when things should be ‘played for laughs’), flourishes of vanity and discontinuity hindered the actual shooting. According to those who have seen it, Lewis the celebrity trounced Lewis the director on a number of points. He literally has slicked back hair throughout. In one scene Jerry is lying in his bunk wearing a pair of brand new shoes after theoretically having been in a concentration camp for four or five years.
The Day the Clown Cried is probably lost for ever. Lewis has a copy of the rough cut on videotape. He reportedly keeps it in his office, in a Louis Vuitton briefcase (because anything gauche would not suit this script). Over the years, he has screened it – or pieces of it – for a number of colleagues and at least one journalist. But there is hope for the rest of us. ‘One way or another, I’ll get it done,’ Jerry Lewis vows in his autobiography. ‘The picture must be seen, and if by no one else, at least by every kid in the world who’s only heard there was such a thing as the Holocaust.’
Director: Jerry Lewis
Writer(s): Charles Denton, Jerry Lewis, Joan O’Brien
Runtime(s): (not applicable)
Country: US, Sweden
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.