"I had been 113 days on the picture, with only three hours of sleep a night ... I was exhausted, beaten. When I thought of doing that scene, I was paralyzed; I couldn't move. I stood there in my clown's costume, with the cameras ready. Suddenly the children were all around me, unasked, undirected, and they clung to my arms and legs, they looked up at me so trustingly. I felt love pouring out of me. I thought, 'This is what my whole life has been leading up to.' I thought what the clown thought. I forgot about trying to direct. I had the cameras turn and I began to walk, with the children clinging to me, singing, into the gas ovens. And the door closed behind us."One of the greatest legends of Hollywood Failure is the unfinished, never-released Jerry Lewis magnum opus, "The Day the Clown Cried." The 1972 film would've featured Jerry "Awcmon Dean singus asong an' I'll clown thru it" Lewis as Helmut Doork, a German circus clown in WWII Deutschland who, after getting drunk and impersonating Hitler in front of a few critics disguised as SS Officers, gets thrown into a German prison, mistakenly sent to Auschwitz, and eventually is asked to clown for the little Jewish children as they march their way into the gas chamber.
Lewis had apparently decided, with or without the help of his painkillers, that this movie was going to be his greatest ever and even put up his own money to finish filming after the producer's funds ran dry. See, he was so moved by his first glance at the screenplay, apparently, that this is how he recounted the story in his overwrought 1982 autobiography:
"Why don't you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn't find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet. My bag is comedy, Mr. Wachsberger, and you're asking me if I'm prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber. Ho-ho. Some laugh -- how do I pull it off?"Oh how noble GLAAAVEN
He shrugged and sat back.
After a long moment of silence I picked up the script.
"What a horror ... It must be told."</i>
Of course, Lewis shut down production after the aforementioned 113 days, exhausted and broke and beaten by the location shootings. He'd taken on the role of director, lost 40 pounds for the part of Helmut, and he sank into lawsuits involving the producer and the woman who wrote the original book. As a result of the litigation, the film was never finished or released. There was a rough cut made, though, and Lewis has a copy on videotape that he still keeps around. Harry Shearer apparently got to see it one time, and of his experiences he remarked "...the closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You'd just think, 'My God, wait a minute! It's not funny, and it's not good, and somebody's trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling."
Well, now. If you haven't wanted to read the script before, I bet you want to now. And now you can. Oh, it's brilliantly awful. The dialogue is terrible, the Nazis are all one-dimensional stooges straight out of Central Casting, and the ending... well. You'll have to read it to believe it. And if you don't want to read it all the way through, just check out the cut. There's a lot to read behind it, but if you have a few minutes, you can marvel at the choice snippets here for you to read.
All good screenplays start with an epigraph that's not shown on-screen, right? Well, here we go:
I TOOK A CHILD BY THE HAND... TO LEAD HIM ON HIS WAY. I TOLD HIM OF THE LOVE OF GOD... AND TAUGHT HIM HOW TO PRAY. AND AS I SEARCHED FOR BETTER WAYS HIS GUIDE AND HELP TO BE... I FOUND, AS WE WALKED HAND IN HAND, THAT HE WAS LEADING ME. "THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED"So it begins. Poor Helmut Doork (yes, that's his real name), pride of the Circus a long time ago, is nothing but a hopeless washed up loser now. He gets yelled at by his circus chums, so he gets a few drinks and goes to yell at his wife, and they both speak in ellipses...
HELMUT If there is anything I don't need right now... it's your super- sentimentality... He flops down in the armchair and stares straight ahead... Again, Ada is hurt by his blasting her, but she's wise enough to know this isn't the man she loves... she has to get what's eating him out of there. ADA Helmut... what's tormenting your soul? Please let me help you... talk to me... I don't care what it is... I love you... I'm your friend... you can trust me to understand... HELMUT I can't trust anybody... I don't know how to trust anybody... ADA I'm not anybody! I'm your wife! Helmut, hearing these words, looks up at her and sees the beauty in her eyes, and he is affected by this. He stands up and takes her in his arms... almost breaking her in two.Break her! Break her! Then we won't have to watch the rest!
But noooooooo, Helmut has to get even more drunk and make fun of Der Fuehrer right in front of some SS goons! (Check the "DIRECTOR'S MEMO", too, it's priceless.)
HELMUT (gets an idea) I know why you're not laughing... Because things you hear, you have to think about... I'll show you something that you'll laugh at because all you'll have to do is watch... DIRECTOR'S MEMO!!! (INSERT CHAPLIN FOOTAGE) Helmut goes over to the bar, where a little man is standing drinking his beer. Alongside of the beer is a small plate with crackers and brown jam. Helmut takes a comb out of his pocket, dips it in the man's glass of beer, combs his hair down over one eye, takes a finger full of the brown jam and makes a shicklegruber mustache from it... and turns on the four men yelling: HELMUT Ve vill conquer the world... Heil me! Heil me! Heil me! He screams the last "Heil" and collapses on the floor. The four men get up and proceed to pick him up and carry him out of the bar. As they get to the doorway and exit we STAY on... Ada who has just arrived to see them pick him up and carry him away. She is shocked. We STAY on a CLOSEUP OF HER FACE showing the strain, pain and sadness as we: DISSOLVE TO: INT. LT. REICHER'S OFFICE - OUTER OFFICE - BERLIN GESTAPO HEADQUARTERS - DAYOh no! I wonder what the interrogator will make of our clowny friend.
REICHER (soft spoken) Are you Helmut Doork? HELMUT (nervously) Doork, yes sir, Helmut Doork! I am he! Yes sir, that is correct, Doork! REICHER And are you a clown in the circus? HELMUT (ego setting in and forgetting for a moment his trouble and danger) Not JUST A CLOWN! I am Helmut Doork, Premier Clown! I've clowned for the royal heads of many of our finest countries, why there were times when I had to... REICHER (breaking in) That was years ago... According to these papers you are now just a helper in the circus with little or no importance!! This stuns Helmut, his facade destroyed... His face drops along with his fear... HELMUT (meekly) Some things are only temporary... Lt. Reicher! Only yesterday, I had calls from one of the great circus owners in all of Europe... he... REICHER (breaking in, strong and angry) You are NOTHING!! You are a HAS BEEN!! You WERE A CLOWN... REICHER (continuing) You are now a prisoner of the State and that's not funny... Can you make something funny out of that, Clown?Oh, them Nazis hate unimportance, and so unimportant Helmut goes to Useless German Prison, where he is force-fed by a big bad Nazi guard who gets to chew up and spit out great scenes like this:
GUARD I'm surprised at you, Doork, you've been here two years now, you should have learned we, of the Third Reich, never acknowledge the weak, sniveling, begging of you swine... that's all you're good for... begging... pleading... praying... you're a disgrace to the human race. That's why we of the superior race must do away with all of you... The guard turns to the other men at the table, and goes into one of his mentally unbalanced tirades... GUARD And we will! We will! Do away with all of you. You're worthless pigs... with no courage, no guts, why if anyone did to me what I just did to Doork I would kill him! (turning to Helmut) Why don't you kill me, Doork? Go on... kill me... kill me... take the knife from the table and kill me... Helmut looks at the knife on the table, picks it up, holds it in stabbing style, thinks about it... and we know by his look, he would love to... HELMUT (with knife in hand) I would kill you... but I am getting my release any day now... and I won't do anything that would spoil my chances... Helmut digs the knife into the table top and buries his head in his hands... totally shook from the encounter... GUARD Your release? He begins to laugh, but hysterically. GUARD Release? They told me you were funny... but I never realized just how funny you are... RELEASE ???? And the hysterical laughter really echoes throughout the mess hall as the Guard makes his way towards the exit.Get it? Because he is a CLOWN and he is FUNNY!!!
So anyway he hangs out at the camp, blah blah blah, he meets some other prisoners, who get to make some really bad jokes:
UHLMANN I make love, not war! (goes giggly over what he just said) Hey, that's pretty good... I made that up... Make love, not war! I bet that would make a good slogan someday... GALT Aw, shut up!And eventually, one day, the Nazis ship a whole trainload o' Jews into the prison camp and separate things off, but not without some HoYay first for the slash fans in the audience:
GALT Well, Reverend, what do you think? Would a little belly-dancing be too much for the boys? Keltner studies Galt for a beat, then accepts his offer of a truce. KELTNER (moving over towards Galt) A little fun is what we need... so... if you'll all hold the noise down, I'll join in. A hushed cheer goes up from the men as Keltner stands besides Galt. Galt holds his hands over his head and nods for Keltner to do the same thing. The Reverend does, and now Galt begins undulating his hips. Keltner studies the move for a beat and then does the same thing but with comical awkwardness. Franz starts playing a slow sensuous rhythm on his harmonica. The men clap and whistle softly.And the new prisoners learn the Expository Legend of Helmut:
4TH NEW PRISONER Say, why don't we get the clown to do something? GALT A clown? Who's a clown?? HERMAN You've heard of "Helmut Doork". That's him down there! LUDWIG Don't waste your time. You'll never get the Great Doork to do anything.I SWEAR I CAN STOP LAUGHING AT THE "DOORK" JOKES ANY TIME I WANT TO.
And look, I can stop, cause here come de Jews:
On both sides of the fence, the prison inmates have assembled in the wet, forbidden yard. On one side are the regular prisoners, who watch the guards warily as they straighten their lines. On the other side are the new prisoners -- about two hundred frightened Jews of all ages, including thirty or forty children and a number of very old men and women. They stand in absolute silence as the loudspeakers blare again, except for the crying children. LOUDSPEAKER Attention! The Commandant issues the following special order: the north side of the camp is now temporary quarters for non-Aryan prisoners. Fraternizing between Aryan and non-Aryan prisoners is strictly prohibited. Any violation of this order will be severely punished. Heil Hitler... Repeating... ANOTHER ANGLE SHOOTING THROUGH the booted, outspread legs of a soldier guard in f.g. toward the line of prisoners behind him. One woman holds a child of about three who cries inconsolably. LOUDSPEAKER The Commandant issues the following special order: As the announcement is read, the guard's legs turn around, and he walks away from the CAMERA toward the woman. He stands before her menacingly, and she clutches the child closer to her in a futile attempt to hush its crying. LOUDSPEAKER The north side of the camp is now temporary quarters for non-Aryan prisoners. Fraternizing between Aryan and non-Aryan prisoners is... MED. SHOT - PRISONERS SHOOTING along line of prisoners from barracks H to show their various reactions as the announcement continues -- disdain, surprise, sympathy and relief. The guard stands with his back to the line at the end farthest from the CAMERA. Galt is near the CAMERA. GALT (under his breath) Jews!No, Galt, it's the Hat Brigade and YOU'RE INVITED!
God, it must be late. I have no idea what the hell that was supposed to mean.
Anyway, Helmut is coerced to perform in front of the other prisoners but fails miserably because he's so nervous, losing their respect entirely (hell, if they'd been watching the film, they'd have lost their respect ages ago...)
MEN If he's Germany's greatest clown, God help the Fatherland. Doork, the Great! You got paid for that? To go without food is bad enough, but to have to watch that! 2ND NEW PRISONER (accusingly) You're not the clown I saw. You lied. You're big all right. A big liar. 4TH NEW PRISONER (contemptuously) And I was going to tell my kids! UHLMANN He's no clown. Not even a bad one. HELMUT I am. I am a clown!Ring ring, Mr. Lewis, it's the Academy calling. They wanted to let you know you can keep the tuxedo in mothballs this year.
Helmut does see a passel o' Jewish kids on the other side of the separation fence, and starts to clown around for them and before you know it, they're laughing and pointing as children do when they see something funny. Because they can't acknowledge the existence of the funny without pointing it out to everyone exactly where it is. Anyway. The Nazis get wind of this and yell at Helmut and tell him he can't fraternize with the "non-Aryans" anymore, and he gets all sad. But then he's consoled with one of the best lines of the film:
FRANZ What happened? HELMUT (still bewildered) He says I've got to stop -- with the children. KELTNER (nodding) I've been expecting it. LUDWIG Because they're Jews? KELTNER Because of the laughing. HELMUT Why should that bother them? KELTNER When you rule by fear, laughter is the most frightening sound in the world.(That, by the way, is pretty much the exact premise of Disney's ToonTown Online, believe it or not.)
Well, Helmut and the kids just can't stay away from each other, and when the Nazis realize they've got quite a kid surplus on their hands, they agree the best thing to do is ship 'em all out by boxcar to glorious Auschwitz, superstar vacation destination. But how to keep the kids quiet and happy on the train before it goes off in the morning? Why, putting the clown on the boxcar with 'em, of course, and so Helmut has a touching, heart-to-heart scene with all the scared little kids:
HELMUT Now... what'll we do? There is a long moment of silence, then the little blonde girl with the rag doll speaks up timidly. LITTLE GIRL I want to see my Mommy. Helmut is brought up short. For a beat he searches his brain frantically for an answer. Then he goes to the child and kneels beside her. HELMUT You would? All right. LITTLE GIRL You know where she is? HELMUT She's right here with you. LITTLE GIRL I don't see her. HELMUT That's because you don't know how to look. I'll show you. Close your eyes. (to the other children) All of you... close your eyes. The little girl closes her eyes and one by one the other youngsters do also. The Czech children look at each other, then at the other children, then they too close their eyes. HELMUT Everybody's eyes shut? Now, think about your mommys and Daddys... There, don't you see them? Can't you see their faces? The children, marvelling at this feat, ad lib expressions of assent. HELMUT So you see! They're right here with you. All you have to do is look in your hearts. LITTLE GIRL (putting her hand over her heart) Does Mommy see me, Doork? HELMUT (deeply touched) Yes, she does. She has you safe in her heart, too.Of course Helmut's supposed to get out of the boxcar before it's sent on its merry way, but what's this?! O cruel irony of ironies!
INT. BOXCAR - NEARLY DARK Dim shafts of light from the two small square vent openings near the top on each side, gives the boxcar an eerie look. Helmut stops abruptly as he hears the slamming of the door. The children pile up behind him. HELMUT WAIT! He moves quickly to the door and tugs at it. Finding it locked, he pounds on it. HELMUT Open the door! Let me out... LET ME OUT! But the train NOISES drown his voice. Then the boxcar suddenly lurches and starts to move forward. Helmut's pounding weakens and stops. He turns from the door, his face reflecting his fright. The children, not quite understanding what has happened, gather around him, and pull on him. He manages to control his fear, and looking at the children, he manages a big smile. HELMUT Guess I'm going with you after all.Once there, he's given a welcome by the SS Captain in charge of Bad Ironic Foreshadowing:
RUNKEL Have you any idea where you are? Helmut shakes his head. RUNKEL Auschwitz. This is Auschwitz. (a beat) Mean anything to you? (before Helmut can answer) You may have observed we're enlarging our facilities. He moves over to the window and looks out, puffing slowly on his cigarette. RUNKEL Still a great deal of work to be done. (proudly) It's going to be our most efficient, most modern prison. (he turns and smiles) And, I might add, most unique.DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
Honestly, I've seen Bazooka Joe comics that telegraphed less.
So where does this leave us? Runkel asks Helmut to "just lead" the children into the gas chamber, and, well, he has no other choice, does he? He's not supposed to die with them, just lead them in and see them off with a spring in their step and a merry hey-hey and good god the pathos is just gonna drip and the audience, bless 'em, will be in tears up to the nosebleed seats in the balcony, and Lewis will be hailed as the greatest dramatic clown-in-a-concentration camp -- at least, until Roberto Benigni comes along. Let's see how the end of the film plays out. This is going to be tough, I'm warning you ahead of time:
CHILDREN What's the matter, Doork? Where are we going? You come with us this time. Where're they taking us. HELMUT (trying to think what to say) They... they want us to move to another building... where we'll have more room... to play. (a beat) Tell you what. Let's make it a big circus parade. Everybody get in a line behind... He picks up Willie and stands him near the door. HELMUT (continuing) ... behind Willie here. The children scramble up and begin forming a line behind the very proud Willie. Helmut looks around for the boy with the harmonica. HELMUT Now, where's our band? The harmonica? He sees the boy and goes to him. Helmut pantomimes playing the harmonica and points to himself. The boy smiles widely, fishes the harmonica out of his pocket and holds it up. HELMUT There we are? Everybody ready? Here we go. Helmut takes his place at the head of the line, like the Pied Piper, leads the youngsters out the door, playing a crude sort of circus parade music. The little children giggle excitedly as they troupe out. The older ones seem less certain, but as long as Helmut is with them, they feel secure.And now, the very ending of the film, as the kids are marching into the chamber:
MED. SHOT - HELMUT, CHILDREN SHOOTING over Helmut's shoulder down at the children as they file past him. Each one hesitates a beat before him and looks up at him. Their faces are wondering, but trusting. They smile tentatively. Only the little girl with the doll hangs back, waiting for something rather than fearful of entering. When all of the other children have gone in, she goes up to Helmut and wordlessly holds out her hand in a silent request to enter with him. In her eyes is the absolute certainty that he will. CLOSE SHOT - HELMUT - LITTLE GIRL'S POV He looks down at her hand for a long beat. MED. SHOT - HELMUT, LITTLE GIRL The little girl waits for Helmut, but he doesn't take her hand. Shyly, she begins to withdraw it. Suddenly, Helmut reaches out and grabs her hand, clutching it desperately as he needs her innocence to control the panic that is tearing at him. Holding on to her to steady himself, they walk together into the room, the CAMERA PANNING with them. CUT TO: INT. CHAMBER - DAY ANGLE to the door as Helmut and little girl enter. Suddenly, the door slams shut behind them. Helmut whirls to it instinctively, as if to shove it open or cry out for help, but he does neither. CLOSE SHOT - HELMUT His face is pressed against the steel door. He fights the panic within him. Then, he quickly wipes his eyes and turns back towards the children. Slowly he takes three chunks of stale bread from his coat pocket and begins juggling them, at the same time waggling his head from side to side, slowly at first, then more gaily. From deep inside him comes a tiny, tiny laugh. The CAMERA PULLS BACK SLOWLY to reveal the children in the f.g. Suddenly, Helmut tosses the pieces of bread high, high into the air and stretches out his arms to encompass all the children. As they gather around him, they take up his soft laugh, timidly at first, then more assuredly until the chamber resounds with gentle laughter. CUT TO: IF ANOTHER MAN'S CHILD IS THREATENED AND YOU MOVE NOT TO PROTECT IT, THE CHILDREN OF ALL MEN ARE IN JEOPARDY AND YOU STAND AS GUILTY AS THOSE WHO THREATEN. JOHN F. O'BRIEN FADE OUT THE END
It's truly one of the greatest and most horrible trainwrecks I've ever read in screenplay form or any other.