An Open Letter to Jerry Lewis: Release ‘The Day the Clown Cried’

[14 August 2013]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Dear Comedy Genius:

No, I am not being facetious. Yes, I understand that you get said compliment, on occasion, in a backhanded way, all the time. It’s become a running joke, a repugnant bit of ridicule that’s patently offensive to any film fan with half a brain. You are a genius. Sure, not every movie you made was a masterpiece. Yes, you played to the baser instincts of the genre. True, your ‘trained ape’ persona onscreen can be grating and a bit overbearing. But anyone who looks over your creative canon these last six decades, anyone who witnesses your growth as both a filmmaker and an artist understands that you are much more than a French cinephile’s talking point. You’re a brilliant director, a consummate performer, and a flailing egotist who has a right to believe in their own excellence.

Now, this may sound like forced flattery, but trust me, I believe these things… and I used to hate you. HATE. I know, a strong word, but as an angry 14 year old incapable of clear and/or rational thought, hormones raging along with other progressing adolescent personality flaws, I couldn’t stand you. The boarding school where I was educated screened My Friend Irma for us, and while I know this wasn’t a true depiction of your future cinematic talents, I was not impressed. I did catch The Errand Boy on WGN’s Family Classics and remember enjoying it. I also remember seeing The Disorderly Orderly and thinking it was stupid. Again, I was an adolescent. I really didn’t know much about film or classic film comedy back then.

Over the years, my appreciate for same has grown exponentially. I’ve gone from dismissing the Marx Brothers as creaky and old fashioned to celebrating their surrealistic perfection. I’ve reassessed the old screwball comedies as the brilliantly written satires of social norms that they are. And, I’ve come around on you. A lot. I’ve gone from Labor Day jokes about your channeled Las Vegas cheese to seeing you for what you really are, an entertainment god! You’ve got chutzpah. You’ve got moxie. You’re your own creation and, dammit, your work now stands alongside the titans of our times, the Keatons, the Chaplins, the Allens and the Brookses. You’re everything your Légion d’Honneur medal stands for, plus much, much more.

Again, I am groveling and I acknowledge that. Again, recognize that there is a point to all this effluent praise. I know you’re old (you turned 87 this year) and I understand you’re at the end of your career. You are probably set in your ways and don’t want some young whippersnapper trying to tell you what to do. After all, you’ve managed without my advice for nearly 70-plus years in show business. What can I tell you? Before I get to that, let me get to my reason for writing this letter out of the way. I have a request. It’s not a simple one, or an easy one. I’ve heard it can’t or won’t happen and there are numerous legal and personal pitfalls to overcome before it can happen, but here’s the appeal, nonetheless:

Please find a way to get The Day the Clown Cried a legitimate release. I don’t care if its theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, or laserdisc, just make this happen.


Here’s the reason I ask - I want to see it. I know, I know, you’ve heard that a million times. There’s probably not an hour in your teaming twilight years were someone, somewhere, doesn’t think they can convince you to offer up your unreleased Holocaust dramedy to the general public. You’ve rebutted all public pronouncements, using everything from logic to legitimate anger to explain away the demand. Clearly, this remains a sore spot in your oeuvre, a better left forgotten facet of a personal attempt of artistic growth that could never, ever be appreciated the way you want it to be.

I see that. Back, a couple of decades ago, The Day the Clown Cried was viewed as a prime example of your clueless belief in anything being comical. The story, which centered on a down on his luck circus performer who becomes a distraction for little children entering the Nazi’s death camps and gas chambers seemed almost sacrilegious. You dare defiled the memory of six million of your people by putting a positive spin on Hitler’s Final Solution? Without seeing a single frame, without knowing your approach or perspective on the material, everyone jumped to a conclusion and said sentiment was not good. If Hollywood today blames bad buzz for the failure of certain films at the box office, dissent among your peers for The Day the Clown Cried surely influenced at least part of the decision to store it away, unreleased.

And then there is the rest of the rumor mill, fueled by acerbic putdowns by individuals like Harry Shearer. For the longest time, he was one of the few people who had seen the film and he’s quoted as arguing for its sheer awfulness. Others with equally exclusive access have been less strident, suggesting that later works such as Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (that man isn’t worthy of holding your soiled undergarments) to Jakob the Liar have stolen your thunder, thereby making a release of The Day the Clown Cried a moot point, or a much easier one. For them, the combination of Buddy Love and a Concentration Camp, or Professor Julius Kelp mincing about for the sake of some suffering Jewish children just doesn’t make a whole lot of cinematic sense.

Here’s the point, some recently discovered footage, as well as a podcast from a pair of film critics who’ve actually stumbled across as PAL DVD version of the film (bootlegged from a Spanish source) has people looking at your labor of love in a new light. The reviewers, who fail to provide more than their own take on the title (no clips, no viable visual proof) have referred to it as a “masterpiece,” defending it against attacks and dispelling any truth to the “embarrassingly terrible” school of thought. Similarly, the YouTube footage argues for something more competent and less forced than many feared. Without specifics, however, without an individual frame of reference, we appear to be back where we were when this letter started. Few have seen it. You (or someone associated with the film) won’t release it, and the myth just goes on, and on, and on, an on…

Here’s the deal: you’re better than those who’ve since usurped your place. You’re light years away from the tired talents of Mr. Benigni, or Robin Williams (who starred in Jakob) and I would hate to think that they alone will carry the cinematic torch on this subject for the next few decades. As your genius lays dormant in a studio vault somewhere, these noxious pretenders to your throne continue to collect accolades. Even better, we’ve become a more forgiving film society. Thirty plus years ago, Heaven’s Gate sank Columbia Pictures. It was considered an unqualified disaster. Now, it’s getting more revisionist love than, perhaps it should. The longer you leave Clown in exile, the longer it will take said reversal of film fortune (if it’s necessary at all).

Of course, I understand if you have no control over the matter. I realize I will remain forever jealous of those privileged enough to lay eyes on this weirdly fascinating work. I’ll always have my memories (and DVD copies) of The Family Jewels, The Ladies Man, and The Patsy, among others, to keep me happy.  Just do me this favor, will you? Think about it. Think about how you, even at an advanced age, can set the agenda when it comes to this film and preserve its legacy the best way you see fit. It’s hard to do that when you’re gone, Jerry. It’s time to strike while the irony is hot, so to speak. For years, no one wanted to see The Day the Clown Cried and you were happy to accommodate us. Now, it’s a cinematic Holy Grail. Why not share it with us while we can share it with you. When you’re gone, it will be too late.

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