Even if you hold a low opinion of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which opens today—like, say, Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz—you can perhaps take some consolation from the fact that the Holocaust-revenge-fantasy flick is likely not even close to the most vulgar, unseemly movie ever made about the Shoah. That distinction, rather, is said to belong to a never-released 1972 film called The Day the Clown Cried. As reported many years ago in Spy magazine, Clown is “the most notorious cinematic miscue in history.” Oh, and yeah: its director and star was Jerry Lewis.
Lewis plays a German-Jewish clown named Helmut Doork—suffice to say that we’re making absolutely none of this up—who is sent to Auschwitz, where his job is to entertain the children as they are marched to the gas chambers. So picture Jerry, complete with slicked-back hair but dressed as a clown, doing his schtick, while Jewish children—who all look suspiciously Scandinavian; the film was made in Sweden—are joyfully, laughingly walking unwittingly to their brutal slaughter. Life is Completely, Totally Tasteless. At the end, the clown, having led yet another group of kids to the “showers,” decides to enter with them. Fin.
According to The New Yorker, Lewis—who was battling a Percodan addiction during the film’s production—insists the film will never see the light of day (even as he also insists it is a masterpiece). So we have to rely on those unlucky few who have borne witness. “This was a perfect object,” comedian Harry Shearer told Spy. “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.” “I was appalled,” concurs journalist Lynn Hirschberg. “I couldn’t understand it. It’s beyond normal computation.” No word on how the French felt about it.