Most of you have probably heard the news, but I do have some subscribers here who don’t follow social media and it’s quite relevant to our usual beat, so we share the news here on Travalanche. The HOLY GRAIL of unseen movies (okay, the Holy Grail for some of us, not including the unfinished works of Welles, or London After Midnight or the original Greed, etc) Jerry Lewis’s notorious 1972 clown-in-a-concentration camp movie The Day the Clown Cried will be available to be seen in a decade (theoretically). Lewis has just given the sole print to the Library of Congress, with the proviso that they keep it under wraps for a decade. By then, he’ll be 99 years old, and presumably no longer with us, so it’s kind of a safe gambit.
A couple of dopey-ass people asked me on Facebook why anyone would want to see THAT? Well, a hundred reasons, and if you have to ask, no amount of my talking will tell you.
As is well known, Jerry Lewis is the king of bad taste. His best films, I think, are like umami, containing a strong, tangy flavor of rottenness. Like many of his generation, he is at his worst just when he thinks he is being classy, artistic, significant and meaningful. “Sad clowns” are always kitsch. Black velvet paintings, Pagliacci: kitsch, kitsch, kitsch. Every comedian wants to do pathos, and when they do it’s almost always self-indulgent. (Chaplin, in my view, avoids the charge by cutting the heart-string moments to the bone. Time It. He’s not there to wallow. In fact you can make the case that his moments of pathos are strengthened by the fact that he uses them very sparingly, within the context of a vehicle that is primarily slapstick). But they all want to do this. More modern Sad Clowns in the Concentration Camp include Robin Williams and Roberto Benigni. The premise is intrinsically maudlin, however. It is a whirlpool from which the strongest swimmer could never escape. (I’m obviously not referring to the Holocaust itself, but to the cheesy premise of the sad funny-man. That’s my point. An event as momentous as the Holocaust deserves a far more thoughtful, serious treatment).
Think then what the Sad-Clown-Holocaust story might be like in the hands of Jerry Lewis, a man so insensitive he made an entire career out of portraying unsympathetic spastics? Trying to wrest the very concept of this movie into the realm of “taste” being an impossible task to begin with, Lewis has never had a tasteful moment in his life. I say this with considerable admiration for a lot of his work. But “subtlety” or a “gentle touch” or even “heart” are not among his virtues as an artist.
So there’s that. Do I want to see a car wreck? Yes, I want very much to see this car wreck.
Secondly — well, this is the movie that broke him, isn’t it? I don’t mean financially, I mean spiritually. I don’t say this callously. Yes, I want to make fun of THIS movie, but I have much positive to say about many of Lewis’s other movies. Perhaps, his heart was “in the right place” (as they say) when he made this movie, but his brain was not. KNOW THYSELF. The man’s skill set involves falling down a flight of stairs in slippery shoes and knowing the best way to capture it on camera. I would have loved it if he had NEVER retired. But he did, after this movie, and largely because of this movie. He was having some difficulty keeping up with the times. And this misfire seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. For someone who cares about him as an artist (and I do) this is therefore a must-see — a vital chapter in the story of his life.
Thirdly…well aren’t you curious??? I have known about this movie for over 35 years — I’m BURNING with curiosity! Nothing fuels interest like keeping a secret. And what if it’s good?! Ya never know! We all assume it’s bad, and all testimony indicates that it’s bad. What if it’s somehow brilliant? I bet the French will think so!
Here are some links to the copious press this has gotten:
There’s some actual footage of the film here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/footage-surfaces-jerry-lewis-infamous-604227
For more on slapstick comedians don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.