Clown Jewel

An appreciation of Jerry Lewis—flaws and all—and a plea to see his missing movie that became an unsolved Hollywood mystery


Illustration by Chris B. Murray

Memo to the mockers: Jerry Lewis is a comic genius. Deal with it.

Few true comedy connoisseurs could or would argue the point. Acknowledging this legendary artist’s prodigious talent—even if he’s never been your particular cup of laughing gas—isn’t a matter of taste.

It’s a matter of judgment.

Yet some folks still roll their eyes over those of us blessed with a severe case of Lewis love, that whole, if the French love him, he must suck syndrome. Besides, they’re thinking: Join pop culture’s 21st century, or even the late-20th century, given that Lewis’ cinematic sizzle of the 1950s (with Dean Martin) and ’60s (solo) drizzled out by the early ’70s.

To which the only proper response is: Get a clue.

Anyone requiring a refresher 1972day-clown-cried01on the career of one of America’s signature comedians can find it Nov. 18 at the Orleans Showroom, where the 86-year-old Las Vegas resident will reminisce about his life and work, aided by video clips and music, and answer audience questions. Titled An Evening with Jerry Lewis—Live from Las Vegas! (yes, with an exclamation point!), it will be taped by PBS for a special in March coinciding with his 87th birthday.

Despite Vegas engagements and sporadic film, TV and stage appearances since the pinnacle of his fame, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, several generations know him only as the tireless shtickmeister/host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon. (Last year, he departed the gig under mysterious circumstances.)



Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images

Or they have a vague impression of an elderly, snappish bygone celebrity who roasts reporters when asked questions he doesn’t like and occasionally makes outlandish remarks, dissing female comedians and uttering a homophobic slur. Journalists in this town feel both affection and exasperation toward him—including me, having been briefly sliced open by Lewis’ buzz-saw tongue.

Viewing him through that lens is also fair, but wildly incomplete. Numerous gifted artists can be, shall we say, difficult, and Lewis is revered by fellow comedians. Interviewed in the 2011 documentary, Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld said: “If you don’t get Jerry Lewis, you really don’t understand comedy because he is the essence of comedy.” Added Woody Harrelson: “If you don’t like Jerry Lewis, I have no interest in hanging with you.”

Not a Jerry-phile? When did you last see him in his prime? Hit YouTube or a DVD collection for some choice moments. Sample his exquisite (and silent) comic precision as he pantomimes to the Count Basie Orchestra’s rip-roaring “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” in 1961’s The Errand Boy, and pecks away at an imaginary typewriter in furious rhythm to Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” in 1963’s Who’s Minding the Store? Movie-length appreciations should begin with his classic turn as Buddy Love/Prof. Julius Kelp in 1963’s The Nutty Professor and his seven—seven—crazy-funny characters in 1965’s The Family Jewels.

Esteemed as an innovative filmmaker, he is praised unreservedly by Steven Spielberg and Scorsese, and even contributed a crucial invention—a “playback” camera allowing directors to view scenes they just shot—that’s now an industry standard.

Summing him up in a 2009 piece, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called Lewis “an underloved genius of modern cinema—a box-office giant and critical punching bag.”

“Underloved” is on target, especially regarding America’s twin tent poles of artistic respect. One is the Kennedy Center Honors, and the fact that Lewis, creeping up on age 90, has been denied is nearly criminal. Count his qualifications: entertaining the world for 66 years, dating back to his start in nightclubs; being an iconic film star in more than 50 movies, many with Lewis not only starring, but writing and directing; raising nearly $2.5 billion (with a “B”) for disabled children for more than five decades; and listed by Newsweek in 2001 as the fifth-most recognized personality on the planet—tied with the pope. (Sorry, Your Holiness, but in 2002, Lewis advanced to fourth place without you.)

Perhaps they’re just awaiting his cure for cancer.

Secondly, he’s been denied an Oscar—at least the one he most deserved. While the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar was bestowed on him in 2009, he’s never been recognized artistically for any individual film—and granted, comedy is always starved for academy attention—but more shamefully, not for his body of work, as other stars have been.

Perhaps they’re just awaiting his cure for AIDS.

Sadly, Lewis’ one bold bid for Academy love—which by many accounts he desperately craved—was an unreleased film that evolved into Hollywood legend: 1972’s The Day the Clown Cried. Getting tagged “the Jerry Lewis Holocaust movie” is a recipe for both derision and fascination.

Reportedly a sore subject for Lewis to this day, 40 years after it was made, The Day the Clown Cried is the story of German circus clown Helmet Doork (Lewis, who also directed), whom the Nazis send to a camp for political prisoners after he drunkenly mocks Adolf Hitler. After a series of plot turns, he is turned into a grim Pied Piper by the Nazis to entertain Jewish children en route to the gas chamber. Deeply remorseful, Doork follows them into the chamber, still performing as they delight in his antics, as the film ends.

Theories and rumors have long swirled as to why the film, bogged down in litigation for years, was shelved. Most point to Lewis—who put up his own money to finish the movie when producers ran out of cash—being stung by harsh accusations of tastelessness and of it being, simply, a bad movie.

While he retains a rough copy in a vault, he refuses to screen it, and is notoriously prickly when the subject is raised. Asked by a reporter at a 2008 news conference if he would ever release The Day the Clown Cried, he barked, “None of your goddamn business!” Whether it was unfairly demonized or an ill-conceived outgrowth of Lewis’ artistic hubris remains an open question.

Slammed for its attempt to marry slapstick to one of history’s most grotesque horrors, it wound up a precursor to successful films with similar narratives. No such outcry greeted 1997’s Life Is Beautiful, which won several Oscars, and no controversy afflicted 1999’s Jakob the Liar, starring Robin Williams—both combining comedic elements and Hitler’s genocide.

Could it be that Lewis was ahead of his time and got his head handed to him for it? Answers will never come unless Lewis reverses himself and lets the world view The Day the Clown Cried.

On a personal level, Lewis has every right to withhold an individual work: his creation, his decision. Yet if the film is credible or even stellar, denying audiences also denies Lewis the last potential element of his legacy, that of the Serious Artist, an appellation he unquestionably earned for comedy, but that Hollywood unfairly reserves for drama. Releasing it while he was still actively a movie star might have also opened up future efforts, as it did for one of his comedic descendants, Jim Carrey, whose Serious Artist credits include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show and I Love You Phillip Morris.

Moreover, even if the film was a misfire, Lewis devotees could get a fresh glimpse into his creative mind. Often, an artist’s failures contain some of their best ideas, flashes of brilliance that may not have worked, but revealed someone reaching for something new we’d never expect of them. The Day the Clown Cried would certainly have been that.

Fans (and we are many) never would have deserted Jerry Lewis, who should know that we—if he’ll pardon us swiping a lyric of his telethon-ending tune—would never let him walk alone.

Top Five Jerry Lewis Movies (Minus Dean Martin):

The Nutty Professor (1963): Lewis plays uber-nerd Prof. Julius Kelp, who morphs into arrogant charmer Buddy Love in a Jekyll-&-Hyde send-up, unleashing the still unresolved question: Was Lewis mocking his old partner, Dean Martin?

The Family Jewels (1965): Portraying seven characters, Lewis hits his comic zenith as Capt. Eddie Payton, a daffy airline pilot with a gap-toothed resemblance to British comic dandy Terry-Thomas.

The Disorderly Orderly (1964): Jerry wreaks exquisite comic havoc in a fancy nursing home.

The Bellboy (1960): In a film that’s really a collection of sketches, Lewis goes Chaplin-esque, playing Stanley the bellboy. Straying from one piece of hilarious physical shtick to the next, the character never speaks a word until the end.

Who’s Minding the Store? (1963): Department store stooge (Jerry) is in love with the owner’s daughter (Jill St. John) and tries to prove he’s worthy. Pratfalls ensue. Includes the classic typewriter sketch.

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David Schmoeller’s soft, circular speech halts, suspended in the sunny air of his paper-piled fourth-floor office in the Flora Dungan Humanities Building at UNLV. Like the narratives in his films, the associate professor’s recollection is more philosophically bound than detail-oriented. The facts kick back in overstuffed couches of imagination. The 64-year-old stops stroking his gray beard and continues the current digression, ending the suspense. Eventually there will be a point, but the story’s so good, it doesn’t matter when.