Jerry Lewis’s unlikeliest project was also his unluckiest — so unlucky that it might never be finished.
For a certain kind of movie buff, it is one of the last White Whales of lost cinema. In 1972, Lewis, best known at the time for mainstream comedies like “The Nutty Professor,” traveled to Paris and Stockholm to make a different kind of movie: a Holocaust drama called “The Day the Clown Cried,” in which Lewis, who was Jewish, plays a disreputable clown who winds up in a prison camp.
There, the clown provides entertainment to Jewish children — and is maneuvered into shepherding them into a gas chamber.
“It was something that was very close to his heart,” said Chris Lewis, 61, the fourth of the six sons of Jerry Lewis, who died last year at 91.
Like Orson Welles’s long-unfinished film “The Other Side of the Wind,” which for decades sat in a bizarre legal, financial and political purgatory, Lewis’s would-be opus remained unfinished when he died, his original vision buried with him. But recent rumors, along with Lewis’s death and the release last month of Welles’s film, gave fans reason to hope that “Clown” might soon be rescued, too.
For now, however, they will have to keep hoping.
The troubles of what may be the world’s most famous unfinished film began right away. First scripted by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton, the film was in production when, according to a 1993 biography by Shawn Levy, Lewis learned that O’Brien was never paid. The story rights hadn’t been secured.
[Read The Times’s obituary on Jerry Lewis.]
“My dad, thinking he had full artistic license, then rewrote the script the way he thought it should be, began shooting it, got about halfway through the production, then realized people hadn’t been paid,” Chris Lewis said.
In a 2005 memoir, Jerry Lewis said his producer had “skipped town” without paying for the rights and other expenses. Checks bounced and Lewis struggled to close the gaps. According to the memoir, he personally lost $2 million.
“I know my mom was unhappy that he sold our beachfront property on Vancouver Island,” Chris Lewis recalled. “Our house in Palm Springs, his boat — those things all went away to be able to put that money into the film.”
But a completed film never emerged, and its legend grew. Lawsuits and debts had apparently doomed it to perpetual limbo. Lewis seems to have retained only partial negatives, telling his son Chris that the remainder might be somewhere in France and Sweden.
Nonetheless, Jerry Lewis made a rough cut early on, and every so often, reports of a screening surface. In a 1992 article in Spy magazine, the comedian Harry Shearer said he saw a cut in 1979.
“This movie is so drastically wrong,” Shearer said, “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 2016, a 30-minute sample was leaked online. The next year, Vanity Fair published an interview with a French film critic, Jean-Michel Frodon, who said he saw a cut in the early 2000s. (He admired it.) Chris Lewis said he saw it in the early 1970s but does not know what happened to it.
“I can’t say I remember it being really great,” he said.
Jerry Lewis gave mixed signals about his desires for “Clown” throughout his life. In a 1982 autobiography, he wrote that “the picture must be seen.” In 2013, he told an audience at Cannes that “no one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”
Still, rumors have kept fans optimistic. When the Library of Congress acquired Lewis’s personal archive in 2015, an article in the Los Angeles Times, citing the library’s moving-image curator, Rob Stone, indicated that the library had whole negatives but had agreed not to release them until 2024.
The embargo part was true. The rest, less so. Stone clarified in an email that the library has only partial negatives: 13 cans (almost 90 minutes) of unedited camera rushes without sound. (It also has behind-the-scenes footage.)
“It’s kind of like nowadays when you go to a museum and they have this whole dinosaur and you find out that, well, no, really all you’ve got is the kneecap,” Stone said in a phone interview.
And copyright concerns persist: Stone said he had been contacted by someone describing himself as a rights holder, and he plans to consult with lawyers before deciding whether material can be viewed.
Despite the legal murkiness, outside interest abides. About 10 years ago, Bob Murawski, who edited “The Other Side of the Wind” (he shares credit with Welles), began writing to Jerry Lewis about the project.
Early inquiries with foreign studios dead-ended in a thicket of legal fears and uncertainty over who — if anyone — possessed the missing material. In 2010, Murawski’s lawyer finally heard back from Lewis, who, in apparent contradiction with earlier statements, insisted that he alone was preventing the release.
If that were true, Lewis’s death might have opened some possibilities. But Chris Lewis said he had no idea what the copyright situation actually was, or whether the missing material still existed. Anyway, the Lewis family has no opinions now on whether the film should ever be completed, he said.
Murawski, though, still has hope — and a good track record.
“It wouldn’t be the same without Jerry being involved,” he said. “But, I mean, Orson Welles wasn’t around on ‘Other Side of the Wind,’ either, and it was definitely a worthy project.”
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