So imagine a film about a circus clown used by the Nazis to beguile children in the death camps before leading them, pied-piper-like, into the gas chambers. Now imagine that the film stars and is directed by a comic actor of some renown. Now imagine that actor-director is not Roberto Benigni. Imagine it’s . . . Jerry Lewis.
Those of us who are Lewis fans have known about The Day the Clown Cried for years and years. Like Orson Welles’s Don Quixote, it was one of those mythical creatures you were never certain really existed.
For years we were told that The Day the Clown Cried was tied up in some legal mess, with European film companies or investors holding the thing hostage in a rights dispute.
Occasionally a rumor would leak that Lewis was close to gaining control and releasing The Day, which was filmed in 1973.
Now, according to Buzzfeed (stop laughing), it seems that Lewis always knew he was sitting on a pile of manure so potent it could kill poverty.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Lewis said of his great cinematic miscarriage, “It was bad, and it was bad because I lost the magic. You will never see it. No one will ever see it.”
OK. Below is a video in which snippets of the film, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of Lewis the director, are presented as part of a documentary for Dutch TV.
One particularly interesting segment has Lewis piecing together “temporary music” that will play live during shooting, to provide a kind of rhythm to the scene for the actors’ and crew’s sake. (It seems his inspiration was Chaplin.) This would become a conventional practice for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, who would “drop the needle” during takes to give the actors their beats. Of course the actual film score, even if a compilation of popular music, would be edited and synced in postproduction. (Lewis, who often directed himself, was the first filmmaker to videotape takes so he could play them back on set to watch himself and determine whether he needed another take of a scene. Say what you want about his goofy onscreen persona—he was a man who took his craft very seriously,)
*The Welles film, which was never completed, was finally released on DVD—or at least some of the extant footage was. It gives you a taste of what might have been but cannot be seriously considered a part of Welles’s legacy, unlike other projects that were butchered by studios: think The Magnificent Ambersons. Or maybe it can. Welles had such an unconventional career, and bore such an oversized talent, that even his half-finished “failures” are of historical and artistic merit. But keep in mind that Quixote was shot over 12 years, in Super 8, 16mm, and 35mm formats, with an international cast, and that the master himself deliberately mixed up cans of footage to confound anyone who might want to “re-edit” the film after he had finished the job. He was still working on his edit at the time of his death, in 1985.