“The Day the Clown Cried” (1972; Partially Found)


Here’s one I’ve been acquainted with for many years, now. The much maligned holocaust drama starring, re-written, and directed by, Jerry Lewis. In fact, this is pretty much what got me into the hobby I’m in today. Needless to say, this unfinished, unreleased film has been all over the news, I don’t even need to repeat the synopsis, so let’s begin with a small history of how I became aware of it.

In the early to mid-2000s I was searching for “lost films” in the category on Wikipedia. I came across the page for this film, and investigated. In what was probably rushed reading, not improper editing on the creator’s part, I believed it to be a documentary Lewis had produced on the subject of the holocaust, with his sympathetic retroactive reaction being the eponymous “clown crying” of the title. I apparently disregarded it and moved on, I don’t know what happened after that, either the page was updated a great deal, or I searched somewhere else, and became aware of the actual plotline, and also of the quite unanimous mocking reaction of the media and public. It was around this time, related to another obscure film project, I became acquainted with fellow cinephile, “Don Alex” and his “Subterranean Cinema” website. Through this, I discovered the two drafts of the screenplay he possessed, and upon reading them, (Which are available for download at his new blog:https://subcin.wordpress.com/2014/05/03/the-day-the-clown-cried-first-draft/ )

I discovered that I greatly disagreed with the general consensus of how this film was perceived, mostly due to their general dislike of Lewis and how they assumed he’d approach the material, despite not even coming up with the actual concept.

Now, onto the history of the project itself. Around the early 1960’s, screenwriter and publicity agent, Joan O’Brien, (not to be confused with the young actress of the same name who’d appeared in a Martin and Lewis film), was currently representing, among others, Emmett Kelly, the famous “sad clown” of circusdom, when she had found herself watching documentaries regarding the horrors of the Nazi regime. She thought of the possibilities of combining the two, and so, collaborating with TV writer and newspaper columnist, Charles Denton, the two wrote the initial draft, under the title And They Began To Laugh… worldcat.org/…reenplay-19/oclc/23862005,.

Apparently, the project, with its now common title, had started off as a proposed made-for-television film, as Denton explained in the August 5, 1962 issue of the Hartford Courant

Why writers leave TV.
“The Day The Clown Cried,” by this pillarist and collaborator Joan O’Brien, was nixed by most of the major TV drama producers ‘ as too -controversial. The first movie producer-who read it, bought it. Which may or may not mean that you can sell people something you can’t use to sell them products.

The script apparently almost immediately found favor with Hollywood producer Henry T. Weinstein, who coincidentally, was also behind the unfinished Marilyn Monroe film, Something’s Got To Give , and put it into pre-production,  casting in Spain and London, and the concentration camp sequences to be shot in Poland, as this July 1962 newsclipping Illustrates


According to the March 16, 1962 issue of Variety, Italian New Wave director Vittorio DeSica was interested in directing, as well as casting Italian actor Alberto Sordi in the lead, although nothing came of it. In still another issue in August 22, it was reported that actor and dancer Gene Kelly was being sought for the lead.

Whatever happened, happened. Perhaps having to do with a quote from Weinstein, recounted in the December 20th 1962 issue of Variety,

“I’ll either have to up the budget or cut the script.”,

although it was recounted that he’d relented on this past statement.

Nevertheless, the project was then apparently temporarily shelved. Two years later, in October 1964, it was announced that Sir Alec Guinness (misspelled here), was planning to not only star in the picture, but produce it as well:


This, apparently fell through for whatever reason as well. For the rest of the 1960s many other performers’ names were associated with the project, from Milton Berle, who, according to the March 16, 1966 issue of the Detroit Free Press stated:

begins shortly in Amsterdam with Milton Berle which she hopes will signal a big-time comeback. “The Day the Clown Cried” features Berle as a famous clown of Jewish extraction who is forced by the Nazis to lead children into the gas chambers of a Dutch concentration camp.

According to the July 26 issue of The Hartford Courant, it was supposed to co-star Veronica Lake, and a young,  local Dutch actor named Adrie Jensen.

To Karl Malden


And in his 2004 autobiography, “When Do I Start?” he recounts:

“The Day the Clown Cried” was a heartbreaking piece about a German clown in World War II. When we meet him, he is a cocky obnoxious braggart. One night, he is drunkenly mouthing off about the Nazis and he lands himself in a concentration camp as a political prisoner. Since he’s a political prisoner and not a Jew, he thinks he is superior to everyone there. One day, quite by chance, he happens to make some children in the camp laugh when he accidentally falls in the mud. Because he is still a clown, a performer, and can’t resist the sound of their laughter, he begins to do a little routine for them, there in the mud, until more and more children have gathered round, all laughing and forgetting their surroundings for a few brief moments.

He Develops a relationship with the children in the camp, which causes him to evolve from a self-centered loudmouth to a man willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. At the end of the picture, he volunteers to lead the children – who have grown to love and trust him – into the gas chamber; because he knows they will go unafraid if he takes them. It was a redemption story of such power, that you could not help but weep over it.

These were both parts that I ached to play and I shopped both projects around town with increasing frustration for a good year apiece, only to learn that I am not a salesman. There is a talent to being able to sell something and I clearly didn’t have it. No matter how much passion I had for these two stories, I couldn’t get the projects off the ground. Maybe I wasn’t willing to stick with them long enough – three, four, maybe five years. Sometimes I think I should have tried harder because both stories have haunted me ever since. Selfishly, I guess I felt each, in its own way, could have been the thrill of a lifetime.

Even Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, as of 1965, was being considered, according to the April 20th edition of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

Al Lewis of “The Munsters” sticks with the heavy makeup bit this summer to make a VPI Productions movie called “The Clown Cried.”

And also, as previously reported, Dick Van Dyke and Bobby Darin, with exploitation movie makers Paul Mart and Loel Minardi, being attached as the producer and director with Berle in 1966, attempting to produce it via their United Pictures Corporation company.

Yet for one reason or another, the project never entered into actual production. It was also around this time in 1967, that O’Brien attempted to revise the screenplay with input from authors Peter Bernais and Richard Eamer, again under the new temporary title of “Clown”. Pages of the script itself can still be seen on this now closed auction


By the time we enter the 1970s, aside from Variety’s mention in their May 20th, 1970 issue of Earl Bellamy being considered to direct, Lewis enters as well. Having claimed to have also been sent the screenplay at one time or another during the 60s, and turning it down repeatedly on account that he was “not right” or “not ready” for such a film. Ultimately, after producer Nat Waschsberger a offered him the project with the conditions that he could also re-write the script to suit his particular abilities, as well as direct. With those allowances, combined with the underperformance of his last film, Which Way to the Front?, he decided to take it.

The location shooting, as with Berle, was set for Yugoslavia, as Lewis got to work re-writing O’Brien and Denton’s script, changing character names, motivations and even the ending to his tastes. (The draft that is currently widely available online.) Little did he realize that Waschsberger’s option on the script had actually expired..

In order to appear like an underfed, emaciated concentration camp prisoner, Lewis lost 35 pounds on a grapefruit and water diet, as well as wearing deliberately oversized wardrobe. In-between this time frame, Lewis revised his re-write of the script into a final shooting draft in which the weaker elements of his earlier edition were removed or changed.

Principal photography began in late March 1972 at Paris’ Cirque D’Hiver for the circus sequences in the prologue. Then, for reasons currently unknown, whether due to cost, or better accomodations, shooting locations for the main part of the story, were moved from Yugoslavia to Sweden in April. Bromma and Sundbyberg for the concentration camp and train station sequences, with the interior sets being filmed at Europafilm Studios in Stockholm. It was by this time that Lewis realized the crooked business dealings Waschsberger had allowed to go on, putting him at odds with O’Brien and Denton.

What followed was the drama of the film being partially incomplete, without major establishing shots, credits or a score. The legal battle with the screenwriters due to their unhappiness with Lewis’ alterations and not having the script license renewed. The negatives being locked away, Jerry becoming bitter about the project over time, which culminated in the film being donated with Lewis’ other work to the Library of Congress with a ten year viewing restriction.

However, that isn’t to say that Lewis possesses the only copy, despite what he has said to the press. There’s the matter of French director Xavier Giannoli ,who’s revealed that he owns an incomplete copy and has shared it with fellow critics in his circle, one of whom had written an article about it. In addition, an archived page from a French website revealed that during a period in the 1980s, Lewis was said to have handed out workprint copies to members of the French press. The missing sequences represented by brief black screens. There’s also the case of various behind the scenes footage surfacing, such as these two episodes of the Flemish television show, Premiere Magazine.

In addition, several new documentaries, including the German production “Der Clown” from earlier this year, have finally shed new light on the project, including exclusive interviews with Jerry and the cast, as well as clips from the actual film itself, which I was pleased to admit personally validated my view of its value.

My personal edit, with English subtitles, is available for viewing here:

What follows is my attempt to assemble a definitive cast list, most of which have been confirmed, while a few are educated guesses based on my research.

Helmut Doork – Jerry Lewis

Johann Keltner – Ulf Palme

Josef Galt – Curt Broberg

Alex Uhlmann – Ronald F. Hoiseck

Ludwig – Bo Brundin

Adolf – Tomas Bolme

Franz – Jonas Bergstrom

Herman – Fredrik Ohlsson

Stout Prisoner – Ake Lindman

Rothman ( Main Guard) – Lars Amble

Lieutenant Scharff – Jan Nygren

Colonel Bestler – Sven Lindberg

Captain Kurt Runkel – Anton Diffring

Gustav the Great – Pierre Etaix

Mr. Schmidt (Circus Director) – Armand Mestral

Anna Doork – Harriet Andersson

1st New Prisoner – Peter Ahlm

2nd New Prisoner – Lars Lind

3rd New Prisoner – Jan Masalmo

Barracks H Prisoner – Ralf Glaerum

Barracks H Prisoner – Jimmy McGann

Guard – Olle Bjorling

Guard – Thore Segelstrom

Auschwitz Guard – Egil Holmsen

Jewish Prisoner – John Elfstrom

Jewish Prisoner – Borje Reitschel

Jewish Prisoner – Tor Isedal

Jewish Prisoner – Ulf Von Zweigbergk

Jewish Prisoner – Michael Mansson

Jewish Prisoner – Sandy Mansson

Jewish Prisoner – Mats Norryd (Also Lewis’ Stand-In)

Jewish Prisoner – Dan Lindhe

Jewish Prisoner – Lasse Lundgren

Jewish Prisoner – Jan-Erik Kreigsman

Jewish Prisoner – Nina Younger

Jewish Prisoner – Peggy Sarno

Jewish Prisoner – Michael Rosenberg

Gestapo Officer – Heinz Hopf

Gestapo Officer – Carl Billquist

Bartender – Nils Eklund

Clown Performer -Victor Fratellini

Dwarf Performer – Roberto

Woman in Bar – Lilliemore Planck


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