When I started this project, I mostly began knowing what it wouldn’t be. I wouldn’t be writing reviews of contemporary features. I wouldn’t re-post the original work of others in an attempt to keep something, anything on the blog. And I wouldn’t re-publish anything I had written previously.
You see, I’ve been doing this for a fairly long time, though I have been very selective about where I would place my articles. There are many reasons why I chose to do this, but the most important one was this: I wanted to. I did want to write about the cinema, from time to time, but I didn’t want to do it on the internet. There is a not insubstantial body of work that I have produced in the last ten years, but I was going to leave that where it was, because I wanted this to be different from all of that.
Sure, it has been over a month since my last post, but that isn’t necessarily an indicator that I haven’t done anything. In fact, I’ve been working steadily on what I think of as this blog’s next official post, but it has proven to be a very difficult thing to write. Five weeks later, I’m over 3,000 words in and I’m not even close to the end.
Which brings us to today. Perhaps I can mine some of those old articles and present them here? I mean, there’s no law against that sort of thing. And, perhaps, I can link to another article somewhere else. Again, this seems perfectly permissible in the grand, blogging scheme of things. So, in the interest of pushing my own boundaries, and giving myself a little more time to finish The Neverending Post, allow me to present the first in what will initially be two posts supposedly breaking my list of “Don’ts”. Perhaps this will be a good thing.
What follows is something I published on January 11, 2011. The subject recently started receiving some fresh press, and I will link to one of those articles at the end.
My previous article ended with a teaser for what I had planned: “It’s horrifying. You’re going to love it.”
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
So much for the teaser, now onto our feature presentation. I promised you something horrifying, which sounds like my typical level of hyperbole, I know. This time, however, I’m not using hyperbole. What follows is probably one of the single most hideous things I’ve ever come across, potentially the very worst thing that has ever been done in cinema history. Worse than all of those Kate & Ashley movies combined. Worse than Irving Thalberg intentionally destroying the only extant, full-length, ten-hour version of Greed. Worse, even, than Erich Von Stroheim’s idea to make Greed a ten-hour epic in the first place. Worse than that Moonie-funded biggest-flop-of-all-time Inchon! Way, way worse than Battlefield Earth.
Still sounds like my typical level of hyperbole, doesn’t it? Well, let me take that typical level and push it right into the stratosphere: folks who’ve seen Salo? This is more horrifying even than that.
I know, I know: I’m overselling, here. There is no way that what I’m about to tell you can possibly be as bad as a movie starring Mary Kate & Ashley Olson. But, bear with me and we’ll discover together whether or not I’m really overselling.
A further word of caution, though: remember what I said three paragraphs above. I’m not using hyperbole. Though I have, and will likely continue to make light of this project, its subject matter truly is the stuff of nightmares. And if you find that you are especially sensitive to the subjects of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and clowns you just might want to stop right here. Oh, note that conjunction, too. I said, “and”.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Sometime in 1966, a project that had shopped around Hollywood for a number of years finally found a director who would sign to it. Reportedly, such luminaries as Dick Van Dyke and Milton Berle had already passed on it. And, eventually, so would the director who had signed on. In 1971, however, producer Eli Waschberger finally found a director AND a star and shooting actually commenced, the film was completed and then … it was never released.
The project? It was called The Day the Clown Cried, and followed the exploits of a clown named Helmut Dorque. Helmut was once a great clown, travelling with Ringling Bros., but had since fallen on hard times. After flubbing his act one night too many, he grows despondent and begins to drink in a local bar. The camera pulls back to reveal that Dorque isn’t a clown in just any ol’ time; instead, he is a clown in Nazi Germany — and, after impersonating Hitler in front of a group of Gestapo agents who (like the rest of us) don’t really see why any of this would be funny, he finds himself a clown inside a concentration camp.
Oh, and the director and star of this picture? Jerry. Lewis.
Desperate to be taken seriously as an actor, Jerry Lewis actually signed on and made something which by all reports could be (and has been) described as “The Nutty Professor Goes Auschwitz”. But, as Harry Shearer, one of the chosen few who has seen it has said, “If you say ‘Jerry Lewis is a clown in a concentration camp’ and you make that movie up in your head, it’s so much better than that. And by better I mean worse. You’re stunned.”
And that’s because The Day the Clown Cried isn’t just about a clown in a concentration camp. No, it is about a clown who wishes to curry favor with his captors, and to do this, he performs for the Jewish children in the camp so they will trust him, and follow him in Pied Piper fashion into the ovens to their little dooms.
Okay. It isn’t quite as cut and dried as that. Initially, the Nazis don’t want him performing for the children, and he’s doing duckwalks to make them laugh while others are getting their brains blown out right beside him. No, really. And, well, once he’s done this for about a third of the movie, when the time comes to throw the children in an oven, hey, why not use the clown? Or, so I guess. The script doesn’t really make the Nazi’s reasoning very clear. Because, well, first of all, they’re throwing children into an oven. And second of all, they’re throwing children into an oven using a clown who is apparently the only person on the planet they trust. It’s a bit difficult to frame that concept in a manner that would, you know, make sense.
Now, now: in Lewis’ defense, the idea of humor and Nazis getting together and having a bit of fun has a rich history, from Bugs Bunny cartoons, to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, to Hogan’s Heroes. But did I mention that this movie is about a clown who leads children into an oven?
I don’t really think that statement can be over-emphasized.
But, wait. Let’s take this just one horrifying step further, again in Lewis’ defense: who’s to say that the Nazis never did anything like this? Who’s to say that they didn’t, at some point, use a clown to gain the trust of children just so it would be easier to kill them? Personally, I’d think that anyone willing to do anything like this to another human being probably wouldn’t take too much time to worry about the victim’s ease and comfort. But, clearly, this is the kind of thought that Lewis was hoping would drive the story: we might be seeing some actual horror that really happened. Which makes it all the more horrible. And, somehow, funny?
Really and truly, I have no clue. The producer’s rights to the story expired just before the film started shooting, which meant that the rights would have to be renewed before the film could be released. Upon seeing the final product, the story’s original writer refused, suggesting that what Lewis had filmed bore no resemblance to her original story, which was meant to be a tale of redemption. Her Helmut Dorque (strangely renamed “Doork” in the final script) was an odious man, who rolled everyone he knew over in an attempt to save his own skin. In leading the children into the ovens, and thus sparing them the psychological trauma of that, he redeems himself and becomes a good person. (Whereas I’d say any destination that lies at the end of a road on which you lead children to their deaths is probably “damnation” and not “redemption”, but perhaps that’s just me. . . )
Lewis, however, had re-written the script into a dark comedy surrounding a far more likable character. Clearly, Lewis’ Helmut Doork is a character with whom we are supposed to identify; just a normal guy doing the best he can and, like the rest of us, failing to meet the lofty goals he’s set for himself. Far from ratting out everyone he knows when confronted by the thought of being placed in a concentration camp, he pointedly refuses to name names. He is, at turns, reprehensible and likable, something which might be said about anyone. He is Everyman, in a concentration camp. Being funny.
To this day, Lewis maintains on his official website that it is the legal wranglings around this project that keeps it unreleased. Reportedly, he keeps the only known VHS copy of the film locked in a safe in his office, and snarls at people who have the temerity to mention the project in his presence.
And for good reason.
Because I’m such a nice guy, I’m going to include a copy of what purports to be the final shooting script. That way you can experience the pathetic beauty of this project for yourselves. (Note: I’ve removed the script for what should be obvious reasons, but it is readily available online.) I’ve also found something claiming to be the original script by the writer who was so horrified at the treatment her script received … but I don’t see many differences between the two. In the supposedly earlier one, a reason is given to explain why the kids must die, but, really, the lack of this in the latter doesn’t really mar the story any more than it already was. As one of my co-workers put it, “You had me at ‘Clown in a concentration camp’, but to add that it’s a comedy?”
To be fair, I’ve seen Lewis deliver serious roles, and he isn’t all, “WAY-HEY Prutty laydee!”, but it is seriously difficult to read the script without keeping Lewis in mind — and if you’re thinking “Lewis”, there is no way to think of the performance charitably.
Read the script, or don’t. Either way, if you are anything like me, just knowing that not only does the story exist, but so does the film, will make the world a slightly crueler place. . . .
And, so it was, five years ago. A few days ago, The AV Club published a short piece on this movie, which includes a video of all of the footage that has surfaced online. They also mention that Lewis has given the film to the Smithsonian with the stipulation that it not be shown until June of 2024. Perhaps seeing the finished project will encourage me to eat some of my words. Perhaps not. See you in 8 years to find out. . .