Release the “Clowns”

I never thought I’d get to see “The Day The Clown Cried,” which will probably stand as Jerry Lewis’ second or third most famous movie despite the fact that it’s never been released. I also never thought I’d get to see a commentary or documentary that treated the movie with as much dignity and respect as David Schneider does here.

He raises a point that has always merited discussion: is it even fair to have an opinion about a movie that’s never been seen, was never even completed, and which the director has worked hard to keep completely under wraps? No, of course it isn’t. It’s just way to hard not to. “Jerry Lewis did a movie set inside a concentration camp” is a phrase that spurs as much impassioned imagination as the orange light inside the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”

And then, of course, there’s Jerry’s recent comments about the film, during a public Q&A a couple of years ago:

Someone asked Jerry if the movie would ever be released.

“It’s very easy to sit in front of an audience and expound on your feelings,” he said, referring to the Q&A. “It’s another thing to have to deal with those feelings. And in terms of that film, I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all and never let anybody see it. It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful. But I slipped up. I didn’t quite get it. And I didn’t have enough sense to find out why I’m doing it, and maybe there there would be an answer. Uh-uh. It’ll never be seen.

“Sorry. I’ll tell you how it ends…

I’ve read that the production ran into financing issues, in addition to legal trouble when the creator of the work upon which the screenplay was based insisted that their rights to the story had lapsed. If that’s true, then my next obvious question is “Would the Jerry of 1972 have finished and released this movie, if he could have?”

I can’t speculate. I’ll say that he seems sincere in this Q&A. He’s forty years older, probably a lot wiser, and maybe he’s giving advice to the younger version of himself that the 46 year old Jerry Lewis might not have taken.

I can easily imagine “The Day The Clown Cried” being similar to that super angry email that you wrote but never sent because you didn’t trust the privacy of a public WiFi connection, and then you forgot about it until you rediscovered it a couple of years later. You can remember everything about that email, and even now, you think you were perfectly right to be this angry with this person…but you’re relieved and grateful that fate prevented this thing from getting out.

Jerry’s by no means one of my favorite filmmakers, though I respect his obvious love of the artform. Still, I always thought it was unfair to judge a movie that he never “finished.” Drivesavers recently told the story of the herculean efforts they undertook to recover “lost” writings of Gene Roddenberry. 200 floppies full of files, which he had written with an early CP/M-based computer whose OS and apps had been custom-made for him. The recovery wasn’t just a technical problem or a forensic problem…the challenge was practically an archaeological one.

His estate now has all of the recovered text. It’s hard to imagine that Gene left behind a complete, fully written and revised manuscript or screenplay for everything. Even any outlines would be, at best, the frameworks for a future work and not the work itself. I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people would love to read these things, but should we? The drafts of a work-in-progress have a certain “sanctity of the confessional” about them. I’ve written some stuff where I tried to stretch myself and explore The Gentle Cruelty of the Human Condition and it was just maudlin trash. Fair enough; I gave it a try and had enough objectivity about my work to see that it wasn’t worth developing further. It’d be wearying to spend the next forty years of my life being judged, partly, by this thing that I myself decided wasn’t any good.

You’ve probably heard that Jerry has donated “The Day The Clown Cried” to the Library of Congress, along with a trove of other personal papers (with the proviso that it wouldn’t be made available to the public in any form for ten years). That seems to be in line with the sentiments he expressed during that Q&A. He’s deliberately chosen to place that footage within the historical context of his life’s story, and not as part of his creative canon. It’s there for the benefit of film historians, not movie audiences.

Either way…I can’t not see this movie. I never thought I’d live long enough to see Star Wars: Episode VII or “The Day The Clown Cried.” I’ve managed to avoid drunk drivers and poisoned chalices long enough to see the first and now I’m quite hopeful about the second.