Jerry Lewis’ Notorious Unreleased Film – The Day The Clown Cried

Jerry Lewis The Day The Clown Cried holocaust movie
Jerry on set making the funny happen

Ever since hearing about it I’ve been fascinated with this movie and the notoriety attached to it. I think it was around the late 1980’s where I first learned Jerry Lewis had made a movie in 1972, but it was never released. But more interestingly was his vow to never have it shown to anyone….ever! Then when you learn it’s a film about the Holocaust with Jerry playing a clown it really starts to perk up your ears.

The Day The Clown Cried has taken on a mythic aura with movie fans. The fact that Lewis has hidden away the only copy of the film in a safe (from what I’ve heard) never planning to share it with the world you really start to get curious – just what kind of images are contained on that film???

The whole premise of the story just sounded very odd. It sounds like something that could quite easily veer off into really bad taste, awful decisions and from the moment of conception it getting onto the rails of a cinematic trainwreck. Who wouldn’t want to check this out!

In the late 90’s a renewed spotlight was cast on Jerry’s movie when Life Is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar were released. Both films were thought to have similar tones the suspected The Day The Clown Cried must have. Everyone just assumed that. No one knew for sure since no one ever got to see it Jerry’s film. Did Jerry beat those other movies to the punch all those years ago? Was he way ahead of his time?

Jerry Lewis directing The Day The Clown Cried 1972
Jerry on the set of The Day The Clown Cried

Around this time Harry Shearer came forward on Howard Stern’s radio show to talk about how he once was able to see Jerry’s hidden away movie.

I remember listening that morning and being riveted by Shearer’s description of the film. It was some strange miracle that Shearer actually got to check it out. At the time I had heard only a handful of people had seen it which included Lewis’ manager and his mom.

I wish I knew the details of how it happened, but Shearer was vague in order to protect the orchestrator of that screening that took place twenty years prior at the time.

Awhile back some behind the scenes new footage surfaced by someone who posted it on Youtube. Apparently it was part of some Belgian documentary or something. There was some excitement by movie fans to finally get to see some clips of the movie.

There had been a handful of clips that have floated around before, plus the script is out there, but other than some photographs not a lot of has actually been seen. It still amazes me the attention that these snippets of shots received.

Hardly Working Jerry Lewis stripper scene
“I like that!”

While watching it I noticed a lot of similar gags that Lewis had used before in his films. The trying to light a cigarette with a candle that keeps going out was one notable one. In fact, I started to think that perhaps a lot of the stuff he used in Clown that was shelved got folded into his 1980 ‘Comeback Film’ – Hardly Working.

Jerry was away from movie screens for almost a decade when he returned. He was back doing what he had always done best – bringing the funny to movie audiences.

I was actually taken to see Hardly Working in the theaters by Dad who liked Jerry and I guess figured I would get a kick out of his zany hijinks too. And I did – at the time. I thought when Jerry is a bartender and then starts hugging the legs of the girl dancing on the bar yelling “Oh I like that!” was the funniest thing ever. Hey give me a break, I was still sleeping with a night light with my blankie to protect me from the monsters under my bed at the time.

The basic rundown of Hardly Working is Jerry is an out of work clown when his circus shuts down. He goes through a series of jobs always messing them up. Then he stumbles onto a gig at the post office. He has run ins with his angry boss who has taken an instant disliking to Jerry and who by chance has a daughter Jerry has begun to schmooze.

Jerry proves he can be an excellent mail carrier, but decides he can’t ignore his clown roots. So he spends his final day as a mailman by delivering the mail in his full clown garb and gathering an excited crowd behind him as he thumbs his nose at the man and all his rules while bringing laughs and joys to all mail watchers everywhere.

I guess everyone thinks it’s funny seeing a clown deliver the mail. I never understood why everyone was so excited by this sight. The movie ends with Jerry heading out on the road with his lady by his side to join up with Ringling Brothers Circus.

Jerry Lewis Hardly Working stereotype Chinese cook
Jerry acting zany
in Hardly Working

Rewatching Hardly Working again. I realize what a horrible movie it is. It’s amazing to think it opened at number one its first week of release and made some decent money. Seeing it now…..I can’t find anything redeeming about it. Woof.

What the heck was Jerry doing with that bad Japanese character? They even used it as the poster for the movie. Forget the un-PC nature of it, it still was not funny. Someone graciously posted the entire film on Youtube for everyone to enjoy. And if you get curious and watch it don’t blame me for the experience.

Besides it stinking there are some interesting things in Hardly Working that might have come from the canceled Clown project. We have the cigarette/candle gag (although I think Jerry used that gag decades earlier). Scenes go back and forth between us wanting to laugh and tugging at our heart strings with sappy, badly played sentimental moments.

Jerry spills beverages on people with them making slow burns to the camera. Then right after his niece confides to her uncle that she wants to be a clown too and Jerry reassuring her that she can be anything she wants to be. It’s all painful to watch.

This is my personal reminder of a movie that some flicks deserve to be left in the past and I should never revisit them. I should have just enjoyed the foggy memory of laughing at Jerry grabbing the strippers legs when I was an innocent young tyke and forgetting the rest of the movie.

Hardly Working 1980 Jerry Lewis comedy
The happy and inspiring ending of Hardly Working

Anyway, the most important holdover between Hardly Working and The Day The Clown Cried I suspect is Jerry’s clown role. Based on what we know Clown ends with Jerry in full clown costume leading children into a gas chamber. It’s not the most uplifting ending and probably quite different than what Jerry fans would have been expecting to see. It’s not exactly like The Bellboy or Who’s Minding the Store. The faces on the audience leaving the theater would have been priceless to see.

In Hardly Working this ending looks like it might have been retweaked for a more uplifting, happy resolution to the story. Jerry in his clown makeup leads legions of kids behind him as he sets out to deliver the mail. The tone is obviously much different, but still both Jerry clowns have become a pied piper of sorts. Could it be that insipid ending to Hardly Working was a reworking of the dramatic close to his holocaust movie?

Eh, who knows? Well, I guess Jerry does.


A 30 minute documentary from the BBC covering the history of Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried


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1 Response

  1. Heiner says:

    This article reminds me of another misguided early-80ties-comedy-attempt by a master of his art: Billy Wilder's BUDDY BUDDY, far away from the fantastic french original, A Pain In The …" with Lino Ventura & Jaques Brel. Maybe that would be something for your remake-vs.-original-series.

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