THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIEDPerhaps it sounded like a good idea at the time "The Nutty Professor Does Auschwitz"?
Sometime around 1972, director, star Jerry Lewis embarked on a most bizarre and many would argue questionable film project. Not since "Springtime for Hitler" would the cinematic world be privileged to such a fun time romp through Nazi Germany.
The film in question is, of course, the now notorious and largely unseen "The Day the Clown Cried," a film about, of all things, a concentration camp clown whose job it is to lead children into the ovens .
In 1971, producer Nate Waschberger asked Jerry to direct and star in "The Day the Clown Cried," based on Joan O'Brien's book by the same name, about a German clown who was arrested by the Gestapo, interred in a concentration camp, and used to march Jewish children into the ovens. Jerry lost close to 40 pounds to play the role. The shooting began in Stockholm, but Waschberger not only ran out of money to complete the film, but he failed to pay Joan O'Brien the money she was owed for the rights to the story. Jerry was forced to finish the picture with his own money. The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation.
"The Day the Clown Cried" has been shrouded in mystery for years - the stuff of legend.
This comedic opus begins with a once great, now down and out clown by the name of Helmut Doork (played by Mr. Jerry Lewis) as he is fired from the circus where he is not appreciated. After being dropped, Doork heads to the local watering hole where he attempts to drown his sorrows. After a few pops, Doork begins to poke fun at Mr. Hitler, much to the chagrin of the Gestapo agents sitting in the bar. He is promptly arrested and sent off to a prison camp.
The next 25 pages read something like a really shitty version of "Stalag 17" as Helmut learns to deal with the prison camp hierarchy. He fumbles around like an idiot as the sadistic Nazi guard taunts him all the while waiting for alleged "release papers" that obviously will never come. His fellow barracks-occupants are less than endeared to him as he refuses to perform for them or try to make them laugh. For some reason he views his status as a clown as somehow being above performing for these men (an unintentional reflection, perhaps, of Lewis' notorious arrogance). He is far more concerned about preserving his legend as a great performer than he is of appeasing these men.
After alienating himself from his fellow prisoners, Helmut is disturbed to see Jewish men, women and children being brought into the camp. The loudspeaker announces "Fraternizing between Aryan and non-Aryan prisoners is strictly prohibited." As the men grow angrier at Helmut, he is forced to perform for them under threat of physical violence. His performance sucks and the men grow angrier with him. "If he's Germany's greatest clown, God help the Fatherland." Dejected, he exits the barracks and tries out his act alone in the prison yard. He hears laughter from the other side of the fence and sees that a small gathering of children are laughing at him. He takes some mud and makes an impromptu clown face. He basks in the glory of the children's laughter.
As the weeks pass, Helmut's audience grows to include some of the Jewish adults as well as some of his fellow political prisoners. A new prison Commandant arrives and is appalled that this clown is allowed to carry on. He orders the performances and any interaction with the Jews ended immediately. "When you rule by fear, laughter is the most frightening sound in the world."
For the days to follow the children stand against the fence and stare disappointedly at Helmut, unable to perform for them any longer. He seems more bothered by the fact that he no longer has an audience than the fact that the children are now sad. He defies orders and begins to perform once more. The SS men order him to stop. When he continues, they viciously beat him in front of the horrified children. Helmut escapes their grasp and begins to clown around again. The children laugh again but he is quickly subdued and thrown into solitary confinement.
While Helmut is in solitary, the Nazis come upon a uniquely Nazi dilemma - they have to get the children to another camp, as they are no use in a work camp. They have the children rounded up in a boxcar awaiting the train that will take them away, however the cries of the children are an annoyance. Since they want to get rid of the children while drawing as little attention to themselves as possible, they decide to send Helmut to the boxcar to keep the children quiet. In exchange for his performance, they tell him that his appeal for release will be reviewed. Helmut agrees to perform for the children and does so, making them laugh and convincing them that they are going to a "better place." He is accidentally locked in with the children when the train arrives and arrives with the children the next day at Auschwitz.
The Commandant at Auschwitz explains to Helmut what is done here - how the buildings without windows are ovens used to exterminate the Jewish children. He goes on to tell Helmut that as he has lead the children this far and that he now has a special bond with them, almost as if he is "one of them," he should lead them for the remainder of their journey. It is then, in the last ten pages of the screenplay, that the true dementia of the film truly takes hold. Helmut replies "No... no! I'm not one of them. I'm not! I'm a German. A loyal German. You can't kill me, I'm not one of them. I swear it. I'm not." The Commandant explains that he doesn't have to die, "I'm just asking you to lead them." Helmut looks unwilling to comply. "Not... even to save your own life?" Helmut gives in. "I'm glad to see you're not a self-appointed martyr. Just think! Now you're really one of us."
Helmut asks for some time with the children and they grant him a half hour. He joins the children in the room where they are being kept. "Now I want everyone to put on a big smile and sit down, because we're going to have more fun than we've ever had." Once more Helmut Doork clowns with the children. The guards come to get the children. The children want to know what is going on. Helmut tells them "They... want us to move to another building... where we'll have more room... to play. Tell you what. Let's make it a big circus parade. Everybody get in line behind..." With that, Helmut marches the children through the prison yard, all the while hoping for some miracle, and to the open doorway of the gas chamber. He stops outside the door and reluctantly steers the children through. A little girl stops beside Helmut and puts out her hand for him to take. At first he hesitates and the child pulls away, but he then takes her hand and walks through the door with her. The guards lock the door behind them and Helmut gathers the children around him. They all begin to laugh "until the chamber resounds with gentle laughter."
CUT TO: INSERT: "IF ANOTHER MAN'S CHILD IS THREATENED AND YOU MOVE NOT TO PROTECT IT, THE CHILDREN OF ALL MEN ARE IN JEOPARDY AND YOU STAND AS GUILTY AS THOSE WHO THREATEN."
FADE OUT: THE END
(from a review by Thom Bennett)
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"THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED"
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