Two months ago Kay Brown, a Tempe-based editor, used portions of Eric Friedler‘s Der Clown, a documentary about Jerry Lewis‘s never-seen The Day The Clown Cried (’72) that aired last February on German television, to create a condensed version of Lewis’s film, albeit German-dubbed with English subtitles. Brown posted her 31-minute video on Vimeo for limited viewing last April.
A friend sent me a link to Brown’s video yesterday morning, and I strongly felt that it was too important to keep private. I didn’t initially know it had been seen by tens of thousands on German TV earlier this year, but that, I felt, made it even more okay to post a link.
Brown wrote me this morning to say she’d yanked the video out of concern that Lewis’s attorneys might make trouble for her. After donating TDTCC to the Library of Congress Lewis stipulated he didn’t want the film seen until 2025. Apparently German broadcasting laws enabled the TV station, Das Erste (ARD), to air it without fear of legal consequences.
My response to Brown: “The Der Clown footage in question was broadcast to tens of thousands last February on Das Erste, and was therefore available to every Tom, Dick & Abdul who happened to watch it in their chalets and rent-controlled apartments from Hamburg to Dresden to Munich and a thousand places in-between, but if an edited-down version is seen over here via a single Vimeo file you could ‘get in a lot of trouble’, as you put it? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
“TDTCC is a kind of ghost cult film, one that has been written about and discussed (as well as mocked & derided in absentia) by film sophistos for at least two or three decades. Last year I nearly drove all the way down from Washington, D.C. to the Library of Congress film archives in rural Virginia with a vague hope that I might persuade the archivist to let me see stills from TDTCC, and then out of the blue actual scenes in some kind of narrative sequence turn up on Vimeo? What a trove!
“I’m sorry you took it down. It’s a fascinating piece. I’m glad I saw it. I now have a rough idea of how TDTCC plays and feels emotionally. It may not be anyone’s idea of a great or profound film, but it’s nowhere near as bad as I’ve heard it was so many years.
“Yes, the basic scheme is labored (one could call it faintly grotesque in its attempt to whip up emotions via the cold-blooded mass murder of an isolated group of small children) but it’s a bit more measured and shaded than I expected — not absurdly over the top but delivered in smoky, grayish tones, and crafted with a feeling of noirish, downbeat gradualism.
“After it’s finally seen in 2015 the consensus may be that it’s not a “successful” or a profoundly effective film but nor is it the gaudy wipeout I had expected. It’s somewhere in between.
“Thanks for assembling it. You performed a valuable service. You advanced the conversation.”
An hour later I reached out to Daniel Noah, director of Max Rose, a 2013 drama in which Lewis played the title role. Rose was slated to show out of competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival but was then yanked at the last minute. Rose is slated to be released in August by Mark Urman‘s Paladin Film. I asked Noah is he would mind passing along a message to Lewis.
Here’s how I put it: “Daniel — Jeffrey Wells here, three years after the Max Rose episode in Cannes. Asking for a small favor. I happened to see portions of Jerry’s The Day The Clown Cried on Vimeo yesterday — footage that was pulled from a German broadcast doc called Der Clown. I was surprised to discover that it’s not half bad in some respects and I’m thinking I’d like to call Jerry and share what I think.
“When it’s finally seen nine years hence the consensus may be that TDTCC has problems, but it’s certainly not the vulgar, embarrassing wipeout that Harry Shearer (who saw the whole film at Lewis’s invitation back in ’74, according to Lewis biographer Shawn Levy) has been calling it for years. Nine chances out of ten I’ll be blown off, but I want to at least try to tell Jerry that I was surprised to discover that TDTCC isn’t all that bad and in fact has qualities that are respectable and semi-restrained. Can you please help?”
I also wrote Shearer via his Facebook page and twitter account to see if he’d be interested in discussing The Day The Clown Cried to some extent. Silencio.