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Film Feature: HollywoodChicago.com Remembers Jerry Lewis

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StarTHE KING OF COMEDY (1982) by Spike Walters

The King of Comedy
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Jerry Lewis thought of himself as an auteur. He rose to fame as a squeaky voiced pratfall comedian but he was so convinced of his own cinematic talents that he started directing his own projects. While some stars become directors to gain a greater understanding of the work it takes to make a film, and grow as a filmmaker, in Lewis’ case it only swelled his massive ego and deep-seated insecurities even further… he always thought he knew better. That happened so much that when he – for the one and only time – encountered a real auteur in Martin Scorsese, Jerry Lewis proved to be a difficult pupil. While Scorsese managed to use Lewis’ natural prickliness to his advantage for the character as Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like late night talk show titan, Lewis admits that he had a hard time taking direction.

In his book “Dean and Me: A Love Story,” Lewis recalled that he was constantly questioning Scorsese on the set and taking issues with the improvisational and freewheeling way Scorsese was directing the picture. But to Scorsese’s credit he managed to make the man, who believed himself to be a genius, finally come around to someone else’s point of view. “The King Of Comedy” is Lewis’ greatest role because it not only frees him from the tired, annoying manic schtick he had wedded himself to, yet in a way he would never achieve again, but also brilliantly underlined the menace, fear and toxic sense of self importance lurking just under the wafer-thin public facade. He’s great almost in spite of himself, but it works perfectly for the character.

LAAAY-DEE: Jerry Lewis had heard it all over the years from fans, so he passed along a story that they used in the film. When Jerry Langford passes a woman on a public phone, and he refuses to talk to her husband on the other end, the woman spits out, “You should only get cancer.”

StarBONUS: THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED (1972) by Patrick McDonald

Tears of a Clown: Jerry Lewis Directs ‘The Day the Clown Cried’
Photo credit: File Photo

Who ever thought that Jerry Lewis, by not releasing a film, would generate as much notoriety as any film he did in his whole career? “The Day the Clown Cried” is one of the most famous unreleased films in cinema history, up there with the lost Orson Welles edit of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” The history of the film is a tortured one, tied to Jerry like an albatross that refused to fly away. It began when Jerry was offered the script, on the condition that he star and direct, with a promise of full financing. Accounts vary as to whether the film was completed as written – by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton – but the main obstacle was that the film ran out of money and the “finished” product was apparently so bad that O’Brien (the rights holder) and Lewis himself refused to release it.

The story is of a clown named Helmut Doork (Jerry) who is down-and-out in Germany around the rise of Hitler. Fired from his circus job, he is arrested at a bar while insulting Der Füehrer. He is taken to a concentration camp, where he finds his antics entertain the Jewish children there. The guards realize that they can use this ex-clown as a lure for the children, and he could lead them to the gas chambers and their death.

The subject matter is ludicrous, but admittedly Jerry might simply had been ahead of his time. Years later, films like “Life is Beautiful” and “Jakob the Liar” had similar thematics, and Holocaust films themselves are prevalent every year at film festivals. But it was the combination of Jerry, and his interpretation of the script as performer and director, that caused Harry Shearer – who was privileged to see the rough cut – to exclaim, “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh, My God!’—that’s all you can say.”

Jerry Lewis has had to answer for this film almost every year since it was shelved. His usual answer was dismissal (“None of your goddamn business!” was a typical reply to inquiries regarding release), but he did talk to some potential documentary makers in 2012, and the trailer for that project can be seen by clicking here. Until then, we only have this quote from the Jerry Lewis himself, “You had to not run from it, and don’t be frightened by it. But I did run from it, and I was frightened by it. And you stay there, and you beat that, because you have more important stuff to do.”

LAAAY-DEE: As far as the future for “The Day the Clown Cried,” Lewis (before he died) donated a cut of the film to the Library of Congress, with the stipulation that it will not be shown until June of 2024.

Source material for this article is from Wikipedia. Jerry Lewis, the King of Comedy, 1926-2017

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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