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Jerry Lewis's lost "masterpiece"

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 3, 2009 10:12 AM

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Jerry Lewis finally won an Academy Award last month, his first. It was bestowed to recognize his humanitarian work on behalf of muscular dystrophy victims, not his comedy, but, still, it was treated as a lifetime-achievement award honoring his work in film. Is it not finally time, therefore, asks Scott McLemee (at Quick Study), to unveil the unreleased film Lewis made in the early 1970s: the Holocaust tragicomedy "The Day the Clown Cried"?

In the film, Lewis plays a fictional clown who, while imprisoned in Auschwitz, entertains the Jewish children before being ordered to guide them into the gas chambers (where he will follow). The screenwriters, by their own account, had envisioned the clown as a pathetic monster, but Lewis played him through "tripping, pratfalls, typical Jerry stuff," according to the journalist Lynn Hirschberg. She is one of the few people on Earth to have seen a substantial part of the film, which never made it past a rough cut; Lewis played the climactic scenes for her on a videotape he kept in a special briefcase in his office.

"I was appalled," Hirschberg once told Spy magazine. "I couldn't understand it. It's beyond normal computation." The actor Harry Shearer has also seen the film, which he described as "awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is."

In his 1982 autobiography, "Jerry Lewis in Person," Lewis declared: "One way or another, I'll get it done. The picture must be seen, and if by no one else, at least by every kid in the world who's only heard there was such a thing as the Holocaust."

If not now, when?


PS: See this page for photos of Lewis on the set of the lost film and two drafts of the script.

(Illustration: Spy magazine)

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