Any true afficianado of film can likely give you a list of “lost” films that they would love to see. If you’re a fan of cult films, that list is likely more detailed. Two of which that have always piqued my particular interest are Lon Chaney’s 1927 silent thriller, London At Midnight, and Jerry Lewis’ 1972 Holocaust film, The Day the Clown Cried.
I’ve honestly given up all hope of ever seeing London At Midnight as the last known copy is said to have been destroyed in the infamous MGM vault fire of 1967. The Day the Clown Cried is another story.
The film takes place in Germany at the beginning of World War II and follows the tale of Helmut Doork, once a famous clown for the Ringling Bros circus who toured the world, now past his prime and underappreciated. Doork has an accident at the show and the Head Clown talks to the circus owner to have him demoted. His wife advises him to stand up for himself, but upon returning to the show, he overhears the owner’s plans to fire him. As one does, he heads to a bar where in order to get some laughs, he drunkenly mocks Adolph Hitler and is summarily arrested by the Gestapo and interred in a Nazi camp for political prisoners.
Over the next few years, he attempts to hold onto his pride, bragging about his earlier fame, and attempting to perform for his fellow prisoners. Instead he is mocked and beaten. After one such beating, Helmut finds that he is being laughed at by a group of Jewish children through the barbed wire fences at the encampment next to his. Seeing a new audience, he begins to perform for them until the prison head orders him to stop and forbids any form of fraternization with the Jewish prisoners. Not being able to bear seeing the children so miserable, he secretly continues until he is discovered which causes him to be beaten once again by the SS and his only friend killed for attempting to defend him. He’s then placed in solitary confinement to await his judgement.
The prison Commandant eventually sees a use for him, he is to assist in leading the children onto a boxcar to be transferred to Auschwitz. If he does so, his case will be reviewed for his release. Unfortunately, in the bustle, he is accidentally loaded onto the train with the children.
Having been brought this far, the guards then use him to lure the children to the gas chambers. Hoping for a miracle to save them, but ultimately filled with remorse for allowing himself to be used in such a manner, he ends up staying with the children. The film ends with them all in the “showers”. Helmut entertaining the children, them laughing, as the movie fades to black.
A lot of the films of the 1970s were very bleak. However this was Jerry Lewis. Famous comedian. Famous goofball. It held a different sort of levity.
Very few people have ever been allowed to see this film. The reason? Upon it’s release, Jerry Lewis himself felt that the film was too dark and bleak. He claimed it awful and refused to ever allow it to be released. However, in 2015, Lewis relinquished the only copy to the Library of Congress under the condition that it not be allowed to be screened for another 10 years. Perhaps, morbidly, the now 90 year old Lewis figures that he’ll likely have passed away and not have to face the press any longer.
Alas, while surfing the web this morning I saw something in my feed that I could hardly believe. Several sites claiming that The Day the Clown Cried has leaked online! I was dubious to the validity of it, but searched more nonetheless. Although there have been many documentaries about it, news reports, bits and pieces, etc. The complete film itself has never been released. It ends up that there exists a condensed, 30 minute version put together for a German documentary called Der Clown. The film portion had been posted on vimeo about two months ago, but never made public until very recently.
There’s a German narration over this so a lot of it is hard to understand, there are narrative cards to help progress the story however. This seems like the closest we’ll get to seeing this film for the next 9 years.