PlotLewis plays a washed-up German circus clown named Helmut Dorque during the beginning of World War II and Holocaust. Although he was once a famous performer who toured America and Europe with the Ringling Brothers, Dorque is now past his prime and has little respect. After getting demoted for causing an accidental mishap during one performance, he shares his problems with his wife, who advises him to stand up for himself. Before he can summon the courage to defend himself, he overhears the lead clown Gustav telling the ringmaster to fire Helmut, or else he will resign, to which the showman reluctantly agrees. Distraught, Helmut is caught by the Gestapo for ranting about Germany and drunkenly mocking Adolf Hitler in a bar. After an interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters, he is imprisoned in a Nazi camp for political prisoners. For the next three to four years, he remains there while hoping for a trial and a chance to plead his case.He tries to keep his bravado up among the other inmates by bragging about what a famous performer he once was. His only friend in prison is a good-hearted German named Johann Keltner, whose reason for being interned is never fully revealed but is implied to be his outspoken opposition to the Nazis. The others goad Dorque into performing for them, but he does not, realizing that he is, in fact, terrible. Frustrated, they beat him up and leave him in the courtyard to sulk about his predicament. Suddenly, he sees a group of Jewish children laughing at him from the other side of the camp, where the Jewish prisoners are being kept away from everyone else. Feeling delighted to be appreciated again, Helmut performs for them and gains quite an audience for a while, until the new prison commandant orders that he must be stopped.After the SS guards break up his latest performance, they knock him out cold and start beating the children away from the barbed-wire fence. Horrified, Keltner fights off one of the guards, but he is quickly cornered and beaten to death. Dorque, meanwhile, is placed in solitary confinement. Seeing a use for him, the commandant assigns him to help load Jewish children on trains leading out of the internment camp with the promise of a review of his case. By a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally accompanying the children on a boxcar train to Auschwitz, and he is eventually used, in almost Pied Piper fashion, to help lead Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.
Offered his freedom if he fulfills this request, Helmut reluctantly obliges to do so. Leading them to the "showers", he becomes increasingly dependent on a miracle, only to learn there is none. After all the children go into the chamber, he is so filled with remorse that he goes into the room himself to entertain them. As the children laugh at his antics, every one of them dies quietly of the effects of Zyklon B.
Jerry Lewis - Helmut Dorque
Harriet Andersson - Ada Dorque
Anton Diffring - Captain Curt Runkel
Ulf Palme - Johann Keltner
Pierre Étaix - Gustav the Great
Tomas Bolme - Adolf
Jonas Bergstrom - Franz
Bo Brudin - Ludwig Lars Amble - Concentration camp guard
ProductionIn 1971, while performing at the Olympia Theatre, Lewis met with producer Nathan Wachsberger, who offered him the chance to star in and direct the film with complete financial backing from his production company and Europa Studios. Before he had been given the offer, several stars like Bobby Darin, Milton Berle and Dick Van Dyke were also approached, but declined. Lewis was initially reluctant to take the role, especially after reading the script, stating in his autobiography Jerry Lewis in Person, "The thought of playing Helmut still scared the hell out of me." In addition, he felt that he was wrong for the part, due to the strong subject matter. He asked Wachsberger:
"Why don't you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn't find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet. My bag is comedy, Mr. Wachsberger, and you're asking me if I'm prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber? Ho-ho. Some laugh — how do I pull it off?"
After rereading Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton's first draft, Lewis felt that he would be doing something worthwhile in portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. He immediately signed on to the project, but, in order to make it, he first had to arrange to perform at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for a month, in order to fulfill the four-weeks a year contract. In February 1972, he toured the remains of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps and shot some exterior shots of buildings in Paris for the film; all the while reworking the script. He reportedly lost forty pounds for the concentration camp scenes. Principal photography began in Sweden on the film in April 1972, but the shoot was beset by numerous problems. Film equipment was either lost or delivered late, and the necessary money was nowhere in sight. Lewis was repeatedly assured that money was forthcoming by Wachsberger, who did not appear at all on set.
Wachsberger not only ran out of money before completing the film, but his option to produce the film expired before filming began. He had paid O'Brien the initial five thousand-dollar fee, but failed to send her the additional fifty thousand due her prior to production. Lewis eventually ended up paying production costs with his own money to finish shooting the film, but the parties involved in its production were never able to come to terms which would allow the film to be released. After shooting wrapped, Lewis announced to the press that Wachsberger had failed to make good on his financial obligations or even commit to producing. Wachsberger retaliated by threatening to file a lawsuit of breach of contract and stated that he had enough to finish and release the film without Lewis. Wanting to ensure the film would not be lost, Lewis took a rough cut of the film, while the studio remained holding the entire film negative.
Lewis reportedly has the only known videocassette copy of the film, which he keeps locked away in his office. The location of the original film negative is unknown. He refuses to discuss the film at all in interviews, and reporters are warned in advance not to bring up the subject of the film in his presence. Occasionally, the film is shown at exclusive screenings organized by longtime Hollywood insiders. Their source for the film is unknown. Several years ago, a man mentioned the film to Lewis during one of Lewis' motivational speeches, indicating that the man had heard the film might be eventually released. Lewis replied to this comment with "None of your goddamn business!"
Criticism and changesAlthough never seen publicly, the film became a source of legend almost immediately after its production.
In May 1992, an article in Spy magazine quotes comedian and actor Harry Shearer, who saw a rough cut of the film in 1979:
“ 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. ”
Shearer also goes on to point out why Lewis would make the film: he believed "the Academy can't ignore this." Upon seeing the rough cut, he told Lewis the film was "terrible", which reportedly made him furious. When asked to sum up the experience of the film overall, he responded by saying that the closest he could come was like
"if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You'd just think 'My God, wait a minute! It's not funny, and it's not good, and somebody's trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly-held feeling." The article quoted Joan O'Brien as saying the rough cut she saw was a "disaster"; it also says she and the original script's other writer, Charles Denton, will never allow the film to be released, in part due to changes in the script made by Lewis which made the clown more sympathetic and Emmett Kelly-like. In the original script, the protagonist was an arrogant, self-centered clown named Karl Schmidt, who was "a real bastard," according to O'Brien. Her script reportedly had him trying to use his wife, who knew the ringmaster, to get him a better gig, and he apparently informed on nearly everyone he knew after being interrogated for mocking Hitler. She stated that the original draft was about the redemption of a selfish man, but that Lewis practically changed the entire story into a Chaplinesque dark comedy.
Later eventsIn the early 1980s, Lewis' comeback film Hardly Working proved to be a hit in Europe, and Europa Studios announced their plan to edit the film negative of the film and release it. O'Brien stopped this from happening, stating that it could never be released.
Later, Jim Wright revealed to the press of his plan to produce a new version of The Day the Clown Cried, and he mentioned he had Richard Burton in mind for the title role. Despite major buzz about the project, nothing concrete came through the planning stages. By 1991, producer Michael Barclay announced that he and Tex Rudloff (apparently with the help of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff were preparing a joint production of Clown with the Russian film studio Lenfilm. Allegedly, Robin Williams had been offered the leading role and given a copy of the script. Jeremy Kagan, who made The Chosen, reportedly was slated to direct the film, but once again, the idea was dropped before it was officially "greenlit". In 1994, William Hurt was considered to play the role, but nothing major came to fruition.
Discussion of the film in the mainstream press was rekindled in the late 1990s due to the release of two films with similar themes, Life is Beautiful in 1997 and Jakob the Liar in 1999. The latter starred Robin Williams, whose name had previously been attached to the planned re-make. A film scheduled for release in 2009, Adam Resurrected, adapted from Yoram Kaniuk's 1968 novel of the same name, has also drawn comparisons.
For his part, Lewis never gave up hope that his unseen pet project would finally see the light of day. According to a chapter in his autobiography, Jerry Lewis in Person, he was still trying to clear the litigation so he could return to Sweden for some pick-up shots of the exterior of buildings, edit the rough cut, have a score and title created, and get it released. "One way or another, I'll get it done," he writes. "The picture must be seen, and if by nobody else, at least by every kid in the world who's only heard there was such a thing as the Holocaust."
In a rather obscure joke, the film (and Lewis) are the subject of a sketch from Animaniacs entitled "Heart of Twilight" that also spoofs Apocalypse Now. It features Lewis (as Mr. Director) as a Colonel Kurtz-type character making a movie called The Wretched Clown against the wishes of the studio in an isolated sound stage.
During an interview with Jason Rimkus for his novel Not Enough Indians, Harry Shearer was asked about the film and what it was like seeing it. He then made a confused face, then a shocked one, which refers to his astonishment at how the film handled comedic and tragic elements. In Jon Stewart's America: The Book, a parody of a U.S. high school civics textbook, one of the secret sections located beneath the White House is indicated to be a screening room for this film.