Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Jerry Lewis


Source: Sara Ivry, Tablet, January 6, 2016

There’s a sort of louche, menacing quality about Jerry Lewis—I’ve always thought so, anyway. Maybe it’s the tan or the bada-bing pinkie ring, or the warmth he seemed unwilling to summon even while hosting a telethon for muscular dystrophy. I found Lewis’ nasal parodic voice irksome and repellent. And his appeal—here in the U.S., or in France—has always perplexed me. I could never stand The Nutty Professor; the only film of his I’ve ever enjoyed is The King of Comedy and that’s partly because he plays a balls-out asshole, or perhaps he’s not “playing at all,” which is part of what makes that film so riveting.

Why speak of Jerry Lewis now, you ask? Because the BBC has just released a short documentary about Lewis’ never-seen 1970 Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried. Lewis flew to Sweden to shoot the feature, and when he was finished he took the reels with him back to the United States but never released the film. When asked about it, Lewis has asserted he would never screen it because it’s “bad, bad, bad.”

The BBC mini-documentary, The Story of the Day the Clown Cried, features stills from the film and show Lewis with a red nose and painted clown make-up in front of would-be barracks where he is directing would-be Nazis played by Swedish actors. Various Swedes are interviewed about the shoot and production. We learn that Lewis worked on this project for a decade before filming commenced. We find out that some actors never got paid. We’re told that Lewis gave reels of all his films, includingThe Day the Clown Died, to the Library of Congress with the caveat the institution is forbidden to screen the film until 2025 at the earliest.

And we’re treated to a single tidbit of fascinating trivia: While in Sweden, Lewis never laundered his drawers or socks—he simply threw them away after a single wear. One—by which I mean, me—wonders if that is a lifelong habit and where that kind of behavior came from.

Against the improbable background music of Massive Attack, the documentary’s host, British comedian David Schneider (himself the son of a Holocaust survivor) ruminates on the question of whether one can make comedy out of such tragedy, and if that’s what Lewis was trying to do. There’s no way to know, really, if the film was supposed to be comedy, or have comedic elements, so it’s a bit of goose-chase speculation.

Nevertheless, the query reminded me of a gutting joke the British writer Howard Jacobson included in his fantastic novel Kalooki Nights, which I read years ago: What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? A pizza doesn’t scream when you stick it in the oven. That’s the kind of joke (you) never forget. Which begs Schneider’s question: Is it appropriate to make entertainment out of this genocide? Beyond appropriate, is it possible? Fans of The Producers might say yes. That Lewis has refused to make the film public suggests a different answer.


Source: Richard Brody, The Front Row (The New Yorker), August 13, 2013.

Something of a cinematic miracle occurred this weekend: I was tipped off on Twitter by a friend, the critic Simon Abrams, about a post featuring footage from the making of Jerry Lewis’s unseen movie “The Day the Clown Cried,” from 1972. The story concerns a bumbling German clown, Helmut Doork (played by Lewis), whose mockery of Hitler lands him in a concentration camp. There, he tries to entertain a group of Jewish children. He is recruited by a commander, with promises of possible freedom, to continue to entertain them in Auschwitz; when he realizes that they won’t be merely imprisoned there but exterminated, he sacrifices himself to allay their fears and leads them into the gas chamber.

The plot is well-known because the script has long been available. The movie itself, though, has never been released. Shawn Levy explains the issues in his extraordinary biography of Lewis, “King of Comedy”: the story was conceived in the early sixties by the publicist Joan O’Brien, who then wrote the script with the critic Charles Denton. Lewis was recruited for the project by the producer Nathan Wachsberger, who, as it turns out, Levy says, “definitely didn’t have the rights to O’Brien’s material.” The producer also couldn’t afford to finance the film, and Lewis put his own money into the production. Lewis repeatedly expressed his desire to work matters out and release the film; O’Brien, who was unhappy with some of Lewis’s changes to the script, never authorized the release. (She died in 2004.) And, in 1993, when Levy asked Lewis about the film, Lewis responded to Levy by unleashing a torrent of verbal fury at him.

If ever there had been a chance for a release, it wasn’t helped by a 1979 remark by the comedian Harry Shearer, for whom Lewis privately screened the film: Shearer likened it to “a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz.” But, in this post, the writer and editor Brendon Connelly includes a clip from a public discussion with Lewis, who says that he himself will never let the film be seen because it’s “bad, bad, bad”; he says that he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed of the work” because he “slipped up”:

I didn’t quite get it. And I didn’t quite have enough sense to find out why I’m doing it, and maybe there would be an answer.

I haven’t seen the movie; but now I’ve seen these brief clips and I find them profoundly moving. When O’Brien came up with the idea for the film, the discussion of the extermination of much of European Jewry by Nazi Germany wasn’t as frequent and the historical documentation was far less copious than it is now. Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night” was published in 1960. Raul Hilberg’s crucial work of history “The Destruction of the European Jews” was published in 1961. The term “Holocaust” hadn’t yet come into frequent usage. And, even in the early seventies, when Lewis worked on the film, his attempt to confront the practical details of daily life in an extermination camp was, at the very least, unusual and original. (I can recall a visit by Wiesel to our synagogue on Long Island around 1973; what he told his audience seemed to hit them with shocking force.)

When Claude Lanzmann did research for the film that would ultimately be “Shoah,” he discovered (as he later wrote in his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare”) that

what was most important was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report. The day I realized that this was what was missing, I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival…. My film would have to take up the ultimate challenge; take the place of the non-existent images of death in the gas chambers.

The deft and exquisite physical comedy that Lewis performs in the clip foretells the final routine, inside the gas chambers. Even if the specifics of the script bear no relation to actual events, it is known—as Lanzmann shows in “Shoah”—that the extermination-camp guards in fact relied on ruses and extended false hope to lure prisoners into the gas chambers. There may be no comparison between Lanzmann’s patient and relentless pursuit of personal testimony as a touchstone of ultimate history and Lewis’s sentimental vision of a clown who sacrifices his life in the interest of the ultimate consolation. But each, in his own way, sought to film the unfilmable. For Lewis, performance—even unto complicity with the ultimate evil—is the definitive act of solidarity; for Lanzmann, the <href=”#folio=014″>bearing of witness—even unto the evocation of the agents of ultimate evil—is the definitive act of solidarity. But both imagined themselves into the gas chambers.

I haven’t seen any more of Lewis’s film than these brief clips; of course, his own assessment of the work, and Shearer’s, may be accurate. If Lewis remains determined not to show it, if O’Brien’s wishes are respected, and if rights issues remain unresolved, we may never find out. But if these clips suggest anything of the rest of the film, any tastelessness, sentimentality, or clumsiness of Lewis’s effort would be beside the point. He was working in the dark, in a self-inflicted state of moral shock, and attempting the impossible.