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Film / The Day the Clown Cried

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One of the few stills that have been released.
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In 1972, Jerry Lewis directed a film about a Holocaust-era German clown entertaining Jewish children in Auschwitz.

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 Troubled Production. Equipment was lost, the 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 the production entirely. He ended up staying on after the producer, Nat Waschberger, threatened to sue Lewis for breach of contract. By that point, enough of the film had been completed 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.

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The story involves Helmut Dorque (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 Adolf 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". Dorque 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.

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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. There was also a BBC documentary about this film, which can be viewed here. In 2015 (two years before his death), Lewis donated copies of all his movies to the Library of Congress, with a stipulation that this film could not be screened for ten years, meaning that The Day the Clown Cried will have sat on The Shelf of Movie Languishment for 53 years. Make sure to add more tropes when 2025 rolls around!

Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller once tried to have a public reading but they were quickly shut down by an Army of Lawyers.

The rough cut of the movie has been screened privately for select Hollywood insiders and has gotten mixed reactions. A French film critic loved it. Fellow comedian Harry Shearer once saw the film and in a subsequent interview with Spy magazine compared the viewing experience to suddenly encountering "a black velvet painting of Auschwitz":

"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."

Compare the movie's concept to the premise of Life Is Beautiful, which is a comedy about the Holocaust that similarly takes the actual massacre seriously, as well as Jakob the Liar. Compare and contrast the movie's history to that of The Star Wars Holiday Special (the big difference being that The Star Wars Holiday Special actually aired on TV once and can easily be found online in bootleg form).

Tropes:

  • Children Are Innocent: Dorque finds redemption in the laughter and joy of children.
  • Downer Ending: It's a Holocaust movie. There's not a happy ending, even if the protagonist hopes against hope for one.
  • Driven to Suicide: Helmut, who is a Sonderkommando, decides to die with the children he's just brought into the gas chamber.
  • Final Solution: It is set in a concentration camp.
  • Gallows Humor: A comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp.
  • My Nayme Is: Helmut Dorque's last name is spelled "Doork" throughout the script for the sake of making the intended pronunciation clear.
  • Non-Ironic Clown: Though used for sinister motives.
  • The Not-So-Harmless Punishment: Tired of beating the everloving crap out of Helmut every time he entertains children at the concentration camp, they make him the Sonderkommando for children. In order words, he's forced to carry out corpses of children from the gas chambers. At the climax, he's expected to induct children into the gas chamber, something real Sonderkommandos were never asked to do. It's no wonder Helmut decides to hop in with them.
  • 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.
  • Reveal Shot: The time period in which the film is set was kept ambiguous early on, only revealing itself while Dorque is drowning his sorrows at the bistro, with the camera pulling back to reveal a wall of World War II photographs.
  • Sad Clown: The title alone. Also, Dorque is depressed even before getting arrested.
  • Survivorship Bias: Averted. See Driven To Suicide.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Dorque gets drunk and does a impromptu routine based on this. It lands him in prison.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Sonderkommandos were regularly Killed to Uphold the Masquerade, so this was Helmut's likely fate had he not killed himself.

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