There’s a sort of louche, menacing quality about Jerry Lewis—I’ve always thought so, anyway. Maybe it’s the tan or the bada-bing pinkie ring, or the warmth he seemed unwilling to summon even while hosting a telethon for muscular dystrophy. I found Lewis’ nasal parodic voice irksome and repellent. And his appeal—here in the U.S., or in France—has always perplexed me. I could never stand The Nutty Professor; the only film of his I’ve ever enjoyed is The King of Comedy and that’s partly because he plays a balls-out asshole, or perhaps he’s not “playing at all,” which is part of what makes that film so riveting.
Why speak of Jerry Lewis now, you ask? Because the BBC has just released a short documentary about Lewis’ never-seen 1970 Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried. Lewis flew to Sweden to shoot the feature, and when he was finished he took the reels with him back to the United States but never released the film. When asked about it, Lewis has asserted he would never screen it because it’s “bad, bad, bad.”
The BBC mini-documentary, The Story of the Day the Clown Cried, features stills from the film and show Lewis with a red nose and painted clown make-up in front of would-be barracks where he is directing would-be Nazis played by Swedish actors. Various Swedes are interviewed about the shoot and production. We learn that Lewis worked on this project for a decade before filming commenced. We find out that some actors never got paid. We’re told that Lewis gave reels of all his films, including The Day the Clown Died, to the Library of Congress with the caveat the institution is forbidden to screen the film until 2025 at the earliest.
And we’re treated to a single tidbit of fascinating trivia: While in Sweden, Lewis never laundered his drawers or socks—he simply threw them away after a single wear. One—by which I mean, me—wonders if that is a lifelong habit and where that kind of behavior came from.
Against the improbable background music of Massive Attack, the documentary’s host, British comedian David Schneider (himself the son of a Holocaust survivor) ruminates on the question of whether one can make comedy out of such tragedy, and if that’s what Lewis was trying to do. There’s no way to know, really, if the film was supposed to be comedy, or have comedic elements, so it’s a bit of goose-chase speculation.
Nevertheless, the query reminded me of a gutting joke the British writer Howard Jacobson included in his fantastic novel Kalooki Nights, which I read years ago: What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? A pizza doesn’t scream when you stick it in the oven. That’s the kind of joke (you) never forget. Which begs Schneider’s question: Is it appropriate to make entertainment out of this genocide? Beyond appropriate, is it possible? Fans of The Producers might say yes. That Lewis has refused to make the film public suggests a different answer.