Lewis plays a washed-up German circus clown named Helmut Doork during the beginning of World War II and the Holocaust. Although he was once a famous performer who toured North America and Europe with the Ringling Brothers, Doork is now past his prime and receives little respect. After Doork causes an accident during a show, the head clown convinces the circus owner to demote Doork. Upon returning home, Doork confides his problems to his wife Ada, and she encourages him to stand up for himself. After going back to the circus, Helmut overhears the circus owner agreeing to fire him after the head clown issues an ultimatum. A distraught Helmut is arrested later by the Gestapo for ranting about Germany and drunkenly mocking Adolf Hitler in a bar. Following an interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters, he is imprisoned in a Nazi camp for political prisoners. For the next three to four years, he remains there while hoping for a trial and a chance to plead his case.
He tries to maintain his status among the other inmates by bragging about what a famous performer he once was. His only friend in prison is a good-hearted German named Johann Keltner, whose reason for being interned is never fully revealed but is implied to be his outspoken opposition to the Nazis. The camp receives a large group of Jewish prisoners, including several children. The other prisoners goad Doork into performing for them, but he does not realize he actually is not very good. The other prisoners beat him up and leave him in the courtyard to sulk about his predicament. He sees a group of Jewish children laughing at him from the other side of the camp, where the Jewish prisoners are being kept away from everyone else. Delighted to be appreciated again, Helmut performs for them and gains an audience for a while, until the new prison commandant orders that he stop.
Helmut learns that fraternizing with Jewish prisoners is strictly forbidden. Unable to leave the children in a state of unhappiness, he continues to perform for them. The SS guards break up one of his performances; they knock him unconscious and warn the children away from the barbed-wire fence. Horrified, Keltner fights off one of the guards, but he is quickly cornered and beaten to death. Doork is placed in solitary confinement. Seeing a use for him, the commandant assigns him to help load Jewish children on trains leading out of the internment camp, with the promise his case will be reviewed. By a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally accompanying the children on a boxcar train to Auschwitz, and he is eventually used, in Pied Piper fashion, to help lead the Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.
Knowing the fear the children will feel, he begs to be allowed to spend the last few moments with them. Leading them to the "showers," he becomes increasingly dependent on a miracle, but there is none. He is so filled with remorse that he remains with them. As the children laugh at his antics, the film ends.Jerry Lewis as Helmut Doork
Harriet Andersson as Ada Doork
Anton Diffring as Colonel Bestler
Ulf Palme as Johann Keltner
Pierre Étaix as Gustav the Great
Tomas Bolme as Adolf
Jonas Bergstrom as Franz
Bo Brundin as Ludwig
Lars Amble as Concentration camp guard
In 1971, while performing at the Olympia Theatre, Lewis met with producer Nat Wachsberger, who offered him the chance to star in and direct the film with complete financial backing from his production company and Europa Studios. Before he had been given the offer, several stars such as Bobby Darin, Milton Berle, and Dick Van Dyke were also approached, but declined. Lewis was initially reluctant to take the role, especially after reading the script, stating in his autobiography Jerry Lewis in Person, "The thought of playing Helmut still scared the hell out of me". In addition, he felt that he was wrong for the part, due to the strong subject matter. He asked Wachsberger:
Why don't you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn't find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet. My bag is comedy, Mr. Wachsberger, and you're asking me if I'm prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber? Ho-ho. Some laugh—how do I pull it off?
After re-reading Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton's first draft, Lewis felt that he would be doing something worthwhile in portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. He signed on to the project, but, in order to make it, he first had to arrange to perform at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for a month, in order to fulfill the terms of his contract with the hotel. In February 1972, he toured the remains of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps and shot some exterior views of buildings in Paris for the film, all the while reworking the script. He lost thirty-five pounds in six weeks by eating nothing but grapefruit.
Principal photography began in Sweden during April 1972, but the shoot was beset by numerous problems. In an article published online on October 30, 2010 at mondo-video.com, cast members working on the film with Lewis reported his on-set personality as "distracted, nervous and preoccupied with money". Film equipment was either lost or delivered late, and the necessary money was nowhere in sight. Lewis was repeatedly assured that money was forthcoming by Wachsberger, who did not appear at all on set.
Wachsberger not only ran out of money before completing the film, but his option to produce the film expired before filming began. He had paid O'Brien the initial $5,000 fee, but failed to send her the additional $50,000 due her prior to production. Lewis eventually ended up paying production costs with $2,000,000 of his own money to finish shooting the film, but the parties involved in its production were never able to come to terms that would allow the film to be released. O'Brien was shown a rough cut of the film in an attempt to acquire the necessary rights to release the film, but after viewing the product decided that it was not fit for release and, therefore, did not enter into an agreement with the producers or Lewis for the unauthorized, derivative work. After shooting wrapped, Lewis announced to the press that Wachsberger had failed to make good on his financial obligations or even commit to producing. Wachsberger retaliated by threatening to file a lawsuit of breach of contract and stated that he had enough to finish and release the film without Lewis. Wanting to ensure the film would not be lost, Lewis took a rough cut of the film, while the studio retained the entire film negative. In January 1973, Lewis stated publicly that the film was in final production, it had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival in May, and it would be released in America after that. In fact, the film was never released and remains unreleasable due to the failure to secure the underlying rights from O'Brien.
Although never seen publicly, the film became a source of legend almost immediately after its production. In May 1992, an article in Spy magazine quotes comedian and actor Harry Shearer, who saw a rough cut of the film in 1979:
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.
Shearer also goes on to point out why Lewis would make the film: he believed "the Academy can't ignore this". When asked to sum up the experience of the film overall, he responded by saying that the closest he could come was like "if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You'd just think 'My God, wait a minute!' It's not funny, and it's not good, and somebody's trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly-held feeling."
The article quoted Joan O'Brien as saying the rough cut that she saw was a "disaster"; it also says she and the original script's other writer, Charles Denton, will never allow the film to be released, in part due to changes in the script made by Lewis that made the clown more sympathetic and Emmett Kelly-like. In the original script, the protagonist was an arrogant, self-centered clown named Karl Schmidt, who was "a real bastard", according to O'Brien. Her script reportedly had him trying to use his wife, who knew the ringmaster, to get him a better gig, and he apparently informed on nearly everyone he knew after being interrogated for mocking Hitler. She stated that the original draft was about the redemption of a selfish man, but that Lewis practically changed the entire story into a Chaplinesque dark comedy à la The Great Dictator.
Lewis offered the opinion that it was all bad, an artistic failure because "I lost the magic". Quoted in Entertainment Weekly: "You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work."
On the other hand, a more upbeat assessment is offered by the Jerry Lewis official museum website: "The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation".
In 2017 shortly after Lewis's death, Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair brought to light a previously unpublished interview with Jean-Michel Frodon. The French critic claimed to have seen a copy of the film in 2004 or 2005 at the invitation of director Xavier Giannoli who owned a bootleg copy. Frodon did not know how Giannoli obtained his copy, and Giannoli declined Handy's request for comment. Frodon reported that while the copy he watched was obviously a rough preliminary edit, it generally followed the published script and did not seem to be missing any major story elements. He described the film as "bitter" and "disturbing" and "a bizarre project", with an uncharacteristic performance by Lewis as a self-absorbed and unsympathetic character. The Day the Clown Cried, Frodon said, was filmed in a stylized manner reminiscent of fairy tales. Overall, however, his appraisal was positive: "I’m convinced it’s a very good job. It’s a very interesting and important film", one of the earliest to deal with the Holocaust and to directly depict the horror of Nazi prison camps.
Jim Wright revealed to the press his plan to produce a new version of The Day the Clown Cried, and he mentioned he had Richard Burton in mind for the title role. Despite major buzz about the project, nothing concrete came out of the planning stages. By 1991, producer Michael Barclay announced that he and Tex Rudloff (apparently with the help of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff) were preparing a joint production of Clown with the Russian film studio Lenfilm. Allegedly, Robin Williams had been offered the leading role and given a copy of the script. Jeremy Kagan, who made The Chosen, reportedly was slated to direct the film, but once again the idea was dropped before it was officially greenlit. In 1994, William Hurt was considered to play the role, but nothing came to fruition.
Discussion of the film in the mainstream press was rekindled in the late 1990s due to the release of two films with similar themes, Life Is Beautiful (1997) and the remake of Jakob the Liar (1999). The latter starred Robin Williams, whose name had previously been attached to the planned remake. The film Adam Resurrected (2009), adapted from Yoram Kaniuk's novel of the same name published in 1968, has also drawn comparisons.
In 2001, a man mentioned the film to Lewis during one of Lewis' motivational speeches, indicating that the man had heard the film might be eventually released. Lewis replied to this comment with "None of your goddamn business!" The same year, Lewis responded to a reporter's faxed request for information about the movie by calling and telling him: "As far as discussing [the movie], forget it! If you want to see any of it, forget it!"
On April 9, 2012, Flemish public service broadcaster VRT re-released—on its cultural website Cobra.be—a film piece its predecessor BRT had aired 40 years earlier to the day on the film show Première-Magazine. It includes behind-the-scenes footage shot in a Paris circus and some takes with sound from the film.
On July 18, 2012, French director Xavier Giannoli stated on the France Inter film show Pendant les travaux, le cinéma reste ouvert that he had managed to track down a 75-minute copy of the film and that he had shown it to a number of people, among whom noted French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon. In 2013, Frodon published a text dedicated to the film, and entitled "Jerry Made his Day", in the collective book edited by Murray Pomerance, "The Last Laugh. Strange Humors of Cinema". The French version of the same text, entitled "Le Jour de Jerry, et la nuit", was later published in the film journal "Trafic".
In October 2012, Australian-based film production company Traces Films recorded one of the most candid and emotional interviews with Jerry Lewis about The Day the Clown Cried. Highlights can be seen on Vimeo and YouTube in a six-minute teaser for their as-yet-unfinished documentary.
On January 12, 2013, Lewis appeared at a Cinefamily Q&A event at the Los Angeles Silent Movie Theatre. He was asked by actor Bill Allen, "Are we ever gonna get to see The Day the Clown Cried?" Lewis replied in the negative, and explained the reason the movie would never be released was because "in terms of that film I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad ... But I can tell you how it ends."
Later that year at Cannes while promoting Max Rose, Lewis was asked about The Day the Clown Cried and said, "It was bad work. You'll never see it and neither will anyone else."
On February 3, 2016, German public TV ARD aired a 2-hour documentary called Der Clown. German film maker Eric Friedler shows interviews, original footage and re-staged scenes from the original scripts with some Swedish actors who participated in Lewis' movie. Finally, the film shows the first full interview with Lewis about his work after 43 years.
In June 2016, a half-hour compilation of footage from Der Clown was uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo by editor Kay Brown, and dubbed into German with English subtitles, marking the first time a version of The Day the Clown Cried was made available to the general public.
On August 5, 2015 the Los Angeles Times reported that Lewis had donated a copy of the film to the Library of Congress, under the stipulation that it not be screened before June 2024. The Library of Congress intends to eventually screen it at their Audio Visual Conservation campus in Culpeper, Virginia. Rob Stone, curator of the Library of Congress, has stated that they will not be able loan the film to other theaters or museums without permission for Lewis' estate. Stone has also stated that they do not have any intent to release the film in any form of home media.