Film: The Day the Clown Cried

Jerry Lewis as a clown! What a great idea for a movie—it's set WHERE?!!
In 1972, Jerry Lewis directed a film about a Holocaust-era German clown entertaining Jewish children in a concentration camp.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.

The script was co-written by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton with Lewis overseeing the final treatment. It was to star Lewis himself, although he was very reluctant to take the project initially. He ended up heading the project in order to pave the way for a career as a serious actor and director. While the subject matter obviously raised more than a few eyebrows, the production was marred by other factors contributing to its Development Hell. Equipment was lost, production ran out of money, and the option to make the film had since expired (the script had been floating around Hollywood for ten years). Lewis opted to pay for the film himself but the producer and script writers could not come to an agreement, so he attempted to leave production. The producer, Nat Waschberger, threatened to sue Lewis for breach of contract. Enough of the film had been completed by this point that it was edited together despite the legal issues. However, Lewis took the only tape and locked it away, never to be seen outside of a few private screenings.

The story involved Helmut Doork (Lewis), a circus clown in Nazi Germany who once had a stunning career throughout Europe. Now down on his luck, he finds himself on the verge of a forced retirement. One night, in a drunken stupor, he rants against Germany and even mocks Hitler. This lands him in prison where his troubles get worse.

After suffering abuse from the prison guards, he wanders to the Jewish section of the camp. Through the chainlink fence, he notices a group of Jewish children. He performs for them and finds that they appreciate his act, filling him with a sense of hope. The head of the camp does not approve at first but soon gives him the job of loading the children into trains for "deportment". Doork agrees on the condition that he is able to make an appeal. One night, due to a mishap, he is loaded onto a train along with the children. He soon realizes that the children are to be executed. He puts on a brave face and entertains them all the way to the gas chamber. Filled with remorse, he agrees to enter the gas chamber with them where he dies.

The script is available online. Some of the cast members and some of the very few people who have seen the rough cut of the film (including Harry Shearer) were interviewed for a Spy magazine article which is available here. Some behind-the-scenes footage from a Flemish film review show from the 1970s has also found its way online.

Has the examples of:

  • Artistic License – History: There was never a clown in any Nazi camp who performed for children, with acceptance of Nazi camp leaders.
  • Children Are Innocent: Doork finds redemption in the laughter and joy of children.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Many people, on hearing the story, have made comparisons to the 1998 movie Life Is Beautiful ("La Vitá e Bella") with Roberto Benigni, which did win some Oscars by the way. So one can only wonder what could have happened if this picture was released to the public?
  • Downer Ending: It's about a clown entertaining children as they're led into the gas chambers. How do you think it's gonna end?
  • Final Solution: It is set in a concentration camp.
  • Gallows Humor: A comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Certainly the Nazis didn't bother with using clowns to lure children into gas chambers. Guns and attack dogs were sufficient.
    • Though YMMV on this, as using the children's innocence against them is arguably more sinister than being brutal beforehand.
  • Non-Ironic Clown: Though used for sinister motives.
  • Oscar Bait: Why Lewis made the film.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: This is one of the most infamous and talked about movies ever made ... that practically nobody has ever seen. It has gotten to the point that it is treated as a joke rather than an actual existing movie.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Seems to be the focal point of the climax.
  • Sad Clown: The title alone. Also, Doork is depressed even before getting arrested.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Doork gets drunk and does a impromptu routine based on this. It lands him in prison.