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Over forty years after completion and The Day the Clown Cried, a movie directed and then abandoned by its star, acclaimed comedy Jerry Lewis, still remains unseen, yet the picture has now been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. The legendary picture, which told of a clown arrested and sentenced to a concentration camp during the Second World War, was not the first film to show a popular comic actor making light of Nazi atrocities – Charlie Chaplin had already directed a satire on the Third Reich in his 1940 classic The Great Dictator – but the project marked a dark transition for the performer.
Having first launched his career as half of a double-act alongside Dean Martin, Lewis is perhaps best remembered for his early 1960s comedies The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor. Throughout his career he had directed many of his own pictures, with both One More Time and Which Way to the Front? released shortly before production began on The Day the Clown Cried, a project that seemed so offbeat and unpredictable fans were unsure on whether to expect a disaster or a masterpiece.
‘But to pull of such projects successfully, you need an intimate understanding of your target,’ explained critic Robin Askew in The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See. ‘These were qualities conspicuously lacking in the jaw-dropping festival of wrongness that was Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried.’
In a 1992 article published in Spin, twenty years after production came to an end, writer Bruno Handy stated, ‘Were it ever released, the film would surely provoke as great a stir as a rediscovered Balanchine ballet or an unearthed Van Gough.’ While the film has yet to be presented to the public, its inclusion in the National Film Registry certainly shows promise.
‘A film so absolutely awful that its humiliated writer-director locked it away almost as soon as he finished shooting it reportedly will join some of the greatest movies ever made Monday,’ declared a recent piece published by the New York Post, in which they branded it the ‘worst movie ever made,’ a title usually reserved for Edward D. Wood Jr.’s 1959 schlock classic Plan 9 from Outer Space.Yet while Lewis willingly donated the sole print of the movie to the Registry, the eighty-nine-year-old star has insisted that it not be screened to the public no earlier than June 2024, with Lewis having submitted the film last summer. This would mean that the picture would remain unseen for over half a century, despite a known copy in existence.
‘Some connoisseurs of kitsch have speculated that the sight of the comedian doing his trademark shtick in a concentration camp was so horrific that the movie was mothballed,’ explained author Joe Williams in his tome Hollywood Myths: The Shocking Truths Behind Film’s Most Incredible Secrets and Scandals. ‘Others have suggested that the subject matter was so unnerving for Lewis that he insisted that the film not be released until after his death. The reality is that the movie is trapped in a typical Hollywood standoff between Lewis, the screenwriters and the investors.’
UPDATE: Despite earlier discussion of The Day the Clown Cried being added to the National Film Registry, when the list of inductees was announced by the Library of Congress in late December 2015 the film was omitted. Titles that were included, however, included the Peter Sellers drama Being There, the ’50s 3D flick House of Wax and Frank Darabont’s modern masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption.