THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED [Script review] (1972).
Although it's impossible to criticize a finished film on the basis of the script alone, I've seen more than enough Jerry Lewis films to know how badly he can stumble when starring and directing in moments of pathos. This script, which weighs in at a whopping 164 pages (since one-page equals approximately a minute of screen time, it's longer than THE ENGLISH PATIENT) was originally planned as a Summer '74 release, with much of it funded by Jerry's own private cash (after his producer ran dry); yet the flick has spent the last quarter-century in litigation limbo (since it turned out that Lewis didn't actually own the script, after all). While a Good Movie would have people clamoring to settle the case, I doubt anyone (with the exception of Jerry and his hardcore fans) cares if this ever sees the light of day. Scripted by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton (with "additional material" -- uh oh -- provided by Jer) and filmed in Paris and Stockholm, it's the circa-1940's story of Helmut Dorque (more often spelled as Doork), an old clown who's fired from a German circus. After drunkenly impersonating Hitler in front of the Gestapo, he's tossed into a prison camp, where poor Helmut is abused by bullying inmates and guards. Unfortunately, there's no reason to sympathize with the character, since he's an unbearable, self-pitying sort, who mouths off at the most inappropriate times. As years pass and WWII deepens, the prison becomes the home of Jewish women and children, with Helmut discovering THE CHILDREN NEED HIM AND LOVE HIM! With the help of other prisoners, he creates a make-shift clown suit and make-up, and begins entertaining the tots. When Helmut is beaten by a guard in front of the children, he even pretends that's it's all part of his comedy routine. Later, Doork is used by the Nazis to keep a boxcar full of children quietly amused, only to accidentally (oops!) winds up in Auschwitz, where this "Judas goat" leads the smiling kids straight into gas chambers. Proudly labeled "A Family Film" on its intro page, this is a painfully obvious story, overflowing with stock characters, sledgehammer discussions, and maudlin monologues. Still, if played totally straight (and in the hands of a more appropriate director), this had a slim chance of working. There's no chance here, since script-notes explain how even dramatic moments (like being abused by a guard when Helmut refuses to eat, or trying to get dressed when his clothes are totally frozen) "will work comically as well." It's easy to imagine Jerry doing his worn-out, slapstick schtick in the middle of a supposedly-gritty concentration camp -- and just how embarrassing it must be. More than simply misguided, this makes you question your own tolerence for cinematic swill.
© 1998 by Steven Puchalski.