I bought Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend on the strength of this excerpt in Vulture, a tragically wonderful story of a script reading thwarted by the threat of legal action. In this chapter, Patton talks of how he came to stage live readings of The Day the Clown Cried after getting a copy of the script, and the ensuing fallout.
Before I ramble down too many tangents, here’s the tl;dr: The Day the Clown Cried is the story of a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and given the task of Pied Pipering children into the gas chambers. At the end of the film, Helmut leads them inside and follows, closing the door behind them. This was to have been Jerry Lewis’s first dramatic performance on screen, perhaps in his mind a legitimate Oscar grab. Hell of a way to debut serious, but after all the work he put into the project there were rights issues and problems and lawsuits and the reels are probably disintegrating in Jerry’s shoe closet.
While reading, I wavered between awe and jealousy and anger – the latter mainly because I’d never had the opportunity to witness this live reading. One could argue Patton performed an important service in the name of odd cinema, bringing people as close as possible to one of the most famous films never released (and never likely to be seen). For now, we must console ourselves with fantasy, the dream of discovering a dank tunnel in an office building that propels us back in time into Harry Shearer’s head the night he got to see a rough cut of the film.
More than that, I’ve become obsessed with discovering how Patton got the script in the first place. He doesn’t elaborate in the book, and my guess is that part of the story lacks the excitement of his confrontation with a frothing lawyer clutching a cease and desist. I’d always assumed, since the film remains under lock and key, so would the script all these years ago (nowadays, though, you’ll find it via Google search).
In my mind, I’d like to believe Patton acquired the script similar to how Giulio swiped Sultan Mahmud’s bejewled dagger in Topkapi – lowered from an opening in the ceiling and searching Lewis’s office while Bob Odenkirk and Dave Foley remained on the roof holding the ropes. I watch them fleeing for their lives afterward, the script clamped to Patton’s chest with one arm, as they dodge a multitude of angry Dobermans while Lewis, shaking a free fist in the air while the other crushes a filled hi-ball glass, wails in the distance.
I became aware of the film’s existence in the 90s, after the success of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, which presumably renewed interest in comedic action set in bleak places. A now-defunct website I followed, called Coming Attractions, recorded the progress of several in-development and development-hell films, with Clown added sometime after Beautiful won the Foreign Film Oscar. I checked the site daily, and the idea that somebody with clout might concede to a release excited me. During this time I delved deep into odd and so-bad-it’s-good cinema, buoyed by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the discovery of Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension. In my search for more information I found references to the Shearer interview, which doesn’t reveal much about the cut he viewed other than “It was like going down to Tijuana and seeing a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz.”
A quote like that could rust Crow T. Robot’s jaw from all the salivating. How could I not want to see such a movie? I have so many dreams in the dark theater where the projector doesn’t glow, a cinematic bucket list that I will never fulfill simply because the movies do not exist:
A trailer on Variety teases us about the Superman movie that might have been, with Nicolas Cage in the blue tights.
The tweens swoon over Orlando Bloom, but I mourn the Beatle-cast Lord of the Rings that never happened.
Throughout college I received the official Rocky Horror fan club newsletter, wherein each issue we were told that Ritz O’Brien had written a sequel and we would finally see it. Any day now.
What differentiates Clown from the others, though, is that it does exist. Nobody will allow us to see it. That grows the obsession.
I can relate to Patton’s movie-watching behavior as recounted in his short book (quite short – so you know the last twenty pages comprise a list of every film Patton saw in the time these stories happen). Somewhere in my house I have a scrapbook in which I kept every stub from every movie I saw from high school graduation to college. I’d even noted the date of viewing and the people who accompanied me. One day I’ll tell the stories of greater film obsession:
The trip from the Westside of Jacksonville, Florida to the Neptune Beach 4 (36 miles) to see The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover because that was the closest theater showing it. To this day, I’m sure I’m the only person in my graduating high school class who saw it first run on the big screen.
Calling in sick at my job at the UGA Library in Athens, GA so we could go to the Tara Cinemas 4 in Atlanta to see the uncut, four-hour version of Branagh’s Hamlet.
Practically living at the theater in the student union at the University of Georgia while my husband got his doctorate, for the opportunity of seeing an endless stream of cult films and foreign releases: The Red Shoes, Shaft, Before Stonewall. Hearing Julius Epstein talk before a screening of Casablanca. Meeting the man whose childhood in a concentration camp inspired the scene in Schindler’s List of a boy diving into a latrine to escape death.
Actually, I suppose I told you everything. Maybe I haven’t. I still have dreams to fulfill.