Craft

One of the few available images from Jerry Lewis' suppressed "The Day the Clown Cried," MIA since 1972, but due for liberation in 2025.

To paraphrase Sally Field at the Oscars, "you didn't like him, you really didn't like him."

That seems to be our perception of how the world at large feels after our many vain attempts to defend the talent of Jerry Lewis, not only to friends, family and colleagues, but also to ourselves.

We hold fast to our conviction that when Lewis was good — whether with Dean or by himself in full white-heat mode; whether working for directors who knew what to do with him, like Frank Tashlin or Martin Scorsese — he was brilliant.

Those acid tests of our own convictions usually come after sitting through something wholly indefensible ... like, say, any of the downward spiraling movies he made during his cinema wasteland period.

That half-decade run was the sobering yin to the yang of success that had clung to the manic comedian for a sustained stretch.

The glory years span his Dean Martin days through his "total filmmaker" period of the early ’60s, during which he seized complete creative control as star, director, writer, producer and, we suspect, most anything else within shouting distance of his sizable ego on a movie set.

The black hole in question extends from around 1965 (the schizophrenic year of "The Family Jewels" and "Boeing-Boeing") to the notorious apocalypse of 1972, "The Day the Crown Cried," the concentration camp tragicomedy deemed unreleasable even by its maker.

He suppressed it until his dying day, which was this past weekend ... but did let things like "Which Way to the Front?" and "Hook, Line and Sinker" out of their cages.

So how mortifying could it have been?

Probably very ... at least according to those who have gained access to its script, which is floating around the underground, along with the reports of those — comedian Harry Shearer infamously among them — who lay claim to having seen a rough cut.

"The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a black velvet painting of Auschwitz," Shearer was quoted in a Spy magazine interview.

Like Glen Campbell's MIA "Norwood," discussed here in last week's column, "The Day the Clown Cried," for better or worse, is high on our Hollywood bucket list.

When Lewis donated a collection of his films to the Library of Congress in 2015, he was reported to have included a print of "The Day the Clown Cried," with the attached stipulation it couldn't be screened for 10 years.

Which doing the math, means 2025 (Lewis was close to 90 at the time, and knew full well that he likely wouldn't be around when the due date came).

Some people clung on to this mortal coil for dear life to make this past week's total solar eclipse.

We're hanging on tight for the arrival of the dark side of Lewis' moon.

Until then, any of the following will keep us happy, sans guilt or excuses:

  • The surviving "Colgate Comedy Hours" (1950-55) with Martin & Lewis, better on TV than in any of their movies; these are easily available on home video.
  • The Frank Tashlin-directed movies, with or without Dino ("Artists & Models," "Hollywood or Bust," "Pardners," "The Geisha Boy," "It's Only Money," "Who's Minding the Store," etc.).
  • The good Jerry-directed movies, of which there are, granted, fewer ("The Nutty Professor," "The Ladies' Man,"  "The Bellboy").
  • The 5-second cameo in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963).
  • His not-bad (really) comeback in 1981's "Hardly Working."
  • His best role, ever, in any medium, as self-referential talk show host Jerry Langford in Scorsese's "The King of Comedy" (1982).
  • His best least-known turn ever, in 1995's you-gotta-see-it-you-really do "Funny Bones."

Addendum: As a postscript to last week's column on Glen Campbell, which referenced his farewell appearance at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts in 2012, Pontiac reader Frank Arnolts recalls Campbell's prior appearance here, circa the mid-1970s.

"That night he kept running off the stage to check on an award. That award was for 'Rhinestone Cowboy.' I was there," says Frank.

A check of the archives reveals the date: Feb. 28, 1976, which was also the night of the 18th Grammy Awards, for which Campbell was up for both Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

He lost in both categories — to The Captain & Tenille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" in the former and Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" in the latter. 

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com.

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