|04:02 am - The Day the Clown Cried|
"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...
If there is anything I don't need
right now... it's your super-
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.
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
I can't trust anybody... I don't
know how to trust anybody...
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.)
(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:
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:
INT. LT. REICHER'S OFFICE - OUTER OFFICE - BERLIN GESTAPO
HEADQUARTERS - DAYOh no! I wonder what the interrogator will make of our clowny friend.
Are you Helmut Doork?
Doork, yes sir, Helmut Doork! I am
he! Yes sir, that is correct, Doork!
And are you a clown in the circus?
(ego setting in and
forgetting for a
moment his trouble
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...
That was years ago... According to
these papers you are now just a helper
in the circus with little or no
This stuns Helmut, his facade destroyed... His face drops
along with his fear...
Some things are only temporary...
Lt. Reicher! Only yesterday, I had
calls from one of the great circus
owners in all of Europe... he...
(breaking in, strong
You are NOTHING!! You are a HAS
BEEN!! You WERE A CLOWN...
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:
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...
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
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...
(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
Helmut digs the knife into the table top and buries his head
in his hands... totally shook from the encounter...
He begins to laugh, but hysterically.
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:
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
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:
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
(moving over towards
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
A clown? Who's a clown??
You've heard of "Helmut Doork".
That's him down there!
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.
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...
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.
The Commandant issues the following
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.
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.
(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...)
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
You're not the clown I saw. You
lied. You're big all right. A big
4TH NEW PRISONER
And I was going to tell my kids!
He's no clown. Not even a bad one.
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:
He says I've got to stop -- with the
I've been expecting it.
Because they're Jews?
Because of the laughing.
Why should that bother them?
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:
Now... what'll we do?
There is a long moment of silence, then the little blonde
girl with the rag doll speaks up timidly.
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.
You would? All right.
You know where she is?
She's right here with you.
I don't see her.
That's because you don't know how to
look. I'll show you. Close your
(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.
Everybody's eyes shut? Now, think
about your mommys and Daddys... There,
don't you see them? Can't you see
The children, marvelling at this feat, ad lib expressions of
So you see! They're right here with
you. All you have to do is look in
(putting her hand
over her heart)
Does Mommy see me, Doork?
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.
He moves quickly to the door and tugs at it. Finding it
locked, he pounds on it.
Open the door! Let me out... LET
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.
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:
Have you any idea where you are?
Helmut shakes his head.
Auschwitz. This is Auschwitz.
Mean anything to you?
(before Helmut can
You may have observed we're enlarging
He moves over to the window and looks out, puffing slowly on
Still a great deal of work to be
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:
What's the matter, Doork? Where are
we going? You come with us this
time. Where're they taking us.
(trying to think what
They... they want us to move to
another building... where we'll have
more room... to play.
Tell you what. Let's make it a big
circus parade. Everybody get in a
He picks up Willie and stands him near the door.
... 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
It's truly one of the greatest and most horrible trainwrecks I've ever read in screenplay form or any other.