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At last, a glimpse of The Day the Clown Cried.
Jerry Lewis has sworn repeatedly over the years that he would never let the 1972 movie about a clown who led Jewish children to their deaths during the Holocaust, which he directed and starred in, see the light of day.
In the film, Lewis plays a down-on-his-luck German circus clown named Helmut Doork, arrested after drunkenly mocking Adolf Hitler and placed in a concentration camp awaiting trial. He later boards a train headed to Auschwitz packed with Jewish children, and, once there, is forced to perform for them, Pied Piper-style, as they are led to the gas chambers. Helmut joins them in the gas chamber in the film’s final scene.
The unseen film, its premise seemingly ripe for epic failure, has grown into a cult-obsession for cinephiles over the years. Those few who have seen it say it is as bad as it sounds: “You’re stunned,” says comedian and The Simpsons voice-actor Harry Shearer, who has seen the full film, of the movie’s awfulness.
In this unearthed footage from a Flemish news program, we see scenes of Lewis in full costume and makeup as Doork making a paper airplane. On the set, Lewis makes notes to his script as his friends, musician Serge Gainsbourg and his girlfriend Jane Birkin, look on.
“Look on the mirror: a picture of Jerry as clown with minute directions on how the make-up is to be applied,” says the narrator, translated by a YouTube commenter. “He has made a series of pictures of every character beforehand, and in the movie they have to correspond to this image.”
“In terms of that film, I was embarrassed,” Lewis, now 87, told an audience last January at Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theatre. “I was ashamed of the work and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all and never let anybody see it. It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been powerful, but I slipped up.”
“It will never be seen,” he added. “But I’ll tell you how it ends.” The line drew huge laughter.
Lewis, a beloved figure in France, appeared at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in support of his latest film, Max Rose. In it he plays a jazz pianist who re-examines his life after the death of his wife.
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