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Few films that never played in theaters manage to become legends, but Jerry Lewis's The Day The Clown Cried is infamous for a reason. The comedian famous as The Nutty Professor and Dean Martin's goofy sidekick agreed in 1972 to direct and star in a movie about a German circus clown who isn't just sent to a concentration camp, but who entertains children on their way to the gas chamber. It's delicate subject matter that is almost impossible to pull off-- many would argue Roberto Benigni didn't even do it with the Oscar-nominated Life is Beautiful-- and at some point after shooting, amid conflicts with the producer, Lewis took the one copy of the film and refused to release it. Only a handful of people had ever seen a single frame of the film. Until now.
Above is a video that appears to be taken from a behind-the-scenes featurette about the movie, with Flemish narration and subtitles; It first emerged on the Belgian site Cobra.be but was just uploaded to YouTube, giving the vast majority of us our first look at Lewis on the film's set. The footage begins with a ringleader in the middle of a circus set, apparently from the beginning of the film before Lewis's character, Gustav, is imprisoned. Aside from Lewis performing several different clown acts, there's also footage of him explaining why he plays music on the set, and putting on his own clown makeup before stepping back in front of the camera. At the end of the footage you see him repeatedly attempting to nail a juggling gag, and his visible frustration when he can't pull it off.
Lewis, who at 87 still occasionally acts and makes public appearances, has been frank about his disappointment with the film; at Cannes earlier this year to promote his first screen performance in 18 years, Max Rose, he had this to say about The Day The Clown Cried:
"It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic," said Lewis. "You will never see it, no-one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work."
Of course, Lewis won't live forever-- and there's no evidence to suggest that, when he dies, The Day The Clown Cried won't finally be released. The full script is available to read here for those curious, but the quality of the project depends entirely on what's on screen-- Lewis's talents as a director, his star persona as a clown translated into this Holocaust story, and of course, the tightrope act of making kids laugh on their way to the gas chamber. Lewis is convinced he didn't pull it off, and I'm inclined to believe him. But this brief glimpse at the movie still makes me insanely curious to see the whole thing for myself.