According to one of the few people who ever saw the finished movie, it is a “perfect object” of awfulness. It is perhaps the Holy Grail of moviedom, not so much lost as locked away from view, perhaps forever. It is Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried.

Lewis wrote, directed, and starred in the movie in 1972, but he never released the finished product. The reasons given for its disappearance vary, and could overlap; legal battles, rights issues, and the fact that the movie was about Jerry Lewis as a German clown who leads Jewish children into the gas chambers during the Holocaust. (His character’s name, as if the premise wasn’t horrifying enough, was Helmut Doork.) To this day (the clown cried), only a handful of people have ever seen the complete film (it was Simpsons star Harry Shearer who somehow did and supplied the “perfect object” quote above).

This recent BBC documentary, The Story of the Day the Clown Cried, gives fuller background about the movie and its disappearance.

Lewis’ white whale was last in the news in August, when it was revealed that the Library of Congress had acquired the director’s entire film archive, including a complete print of The Day the Clown Cried — on the condition that they not make it available to the public for at least ten years. So mark your calendars; you know what you’re doing in June of 2024!

But wait, like a beacon of weird, misjudged light in the darkness, 30 minutes of the film have suddenly appeared online. It’s cobbled together from various sources, mostly a German documentary about the making of the film. Missing material is filled in with title cards. Even in this form, The Day the Clown Cried is still hopelessly incomplete. But there’s more here than I’ve ever seen before. And for the next eight years, it might be the best we look we get at one of the rarest movies ever made.

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