Jerry Lewis certainly left his mark as one of the great comedic stars of the twentieth century. In fact he left his mark twice on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, receiving not one but two stars. As with many things that shine brightly, this story also has a darker side. Ryan Tubridy is joined by Shawn Levy, author of King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, to tell the intriguing story of the never-released film that triggered Lewis’ explosive temper. The film is called The Day the Clown Cried and is loosely based on a true story of a clown who was sent to Auschwitz as punishment for mimicking Hitler. The clown was tasked with leading children to their death inside gas chambers, a shocking departure from Jerry’s usual slapstick. Things on set in the early 70s went from bad to worse.
“While Jerry was shooting this film in Sweden, he ran out of money, his producer died, it turned out the producer didn’t have the rights to the material. Jerry and the Swedish studio each held onto a copy of the unfinished film. It has never been seen, not in public. A few people privately have seen it, perhaps twenty. Jerry showed it to the screen writer hoping to proceed with the project. She fled the screening room in tears. Jerry apparently donated the only copy he had to the Library of Congress in Washington DC about two years ago with the stipulation that it not be shown until 2025 so it’s this mythic thing.”
The film has been described as “a black velvet painting of Auschwitz… perfect and atrocious at the same time” and has been shrouded in a cult of mystery and mystique ever since. Jerry considered this his magnum opus and its failure was a cruel blow to his ego. Also, as a result of making this film, Jerry was forced to file for bankruptcy. While researching his book, Shawn learned just what kind of reaction any questions on the subject would elicit.
“I brought up the subject of The Day The Clown Died and he went ballistic at me. Like a military drill instructor, a red-faced football coach right in your face, I’ve never heard anyone yell at me in this fashion. Here it is, a legend of showbiz who I still have to think about every day for two and a half years to write the book. I apologised and he yelled again and I apologised again and he yelled a third time and then he grabbed my tape recorder and erased his tirade.”
This sort of reaction was nothing unusual. Shawn describes an interview from 1971 that he unearthed of Jerry mid-editing process.
“He was at this time addicted to prescription painkillers because he’d had a neck injury a few years prior. He was really in a state. In this interview he’s editing the film and he’s screaming and swearing truly, truly vilely about a child extra in the concentration camp scenes who keeps looking at the camera. He’s doing this in front of reporters. This was a period of his life where he was of the rails and perhaps being asked about it touched that wound that never healed.”
The film and its surrounding controversies continue to spark fascination but you’ll have to wait until 2025 to see it for yourself.
Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
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