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October 1, 2014

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MDA finds role for Jerry Lewis (sort of) as footage of ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ resurfaces

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Christopher DeVargas

Jerry Lewis poses for a portrait in his Las Vegas home Wednesday, May 8, 2013.

Clip of The Day the Clown Cried

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Jerry Lewis promotes his new film "Max Rose" at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

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Jerry Lewis promotes his new film "Max Rose" at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

It has become an annual rite of summer: Watching how the Muscular Dystrophy Association deals with the concept of Jerry Lewis in its annual charity telethon.

Since Lewis and MDA officials acrimoniously fractured their relationship after the 2010 Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon at South Point, the MDA has almost entirely skirted mention of him in their news releases and postings on it website. Despite some evidence that Lewis would take part in the show in 2011, such as scheduling an orchestral rehearsal at South Point, Lewis has not appeared on the telecast, live or even in a recorded clip, the past two years. Lewis has not been completely ignored, however. The hosts of the 2011 show, Nancy O’Dell, Jann Carl, Alison Sweeney and Nigel Lythgoe, narrated a laudatory tribute to Lewis.

This year the MDA has figured out how to draw Lewis into its general fundraising experience in the days leading to this year’s Labor Day “Show of Strength” telecast on ABC. The method they are using is one Lewis says he can’t stand — the Internet. Nonetheless, the MDA is encouraging supporters visiting its official website to vote for their favorite telethon “viewing experience.” As an MDA spokeswoman said Tuesday, voting runs through Labor Day, so the top clip won’t be used in the show but will be announced on the MDA website and through its social media channels.

The show also will air its own segment of memorable moments, and Lewis is expected to be featured in those highlights. Nine clips are posted on the MDA site, three of which showcase Lewis. The expected winner is one of the most famous moments ever on TV, when Frank Sinatra brought Dean Martin onstage for a Martin-and-Lewis reunion during the 1976 Labor Day Telethon broadcast from the Sahara.

Lewis has never specified why the MDA and he parted ways and has quickly cut off any questioning about his departure from the organization. It is one of the issues in his life that might forever remain a private matter.

Another sensitive topic in Lewis’ life and career returned to the fore this month when a clip of his infamous, unreleased 1972 film “The Day the Clown Cried” surfaced on YouTube. Running just a little more than seven minutes, the clip is from a 1972 Danish TV show about the making of the movie. Entangled in financial disputes among it producers and bankrolled substantially by Lewis himself, the film was never released and has been one of the great mysteries of Lewis’ career.

“The Day the Clown Cried” was to be a significant change in persona for Lewis, who was 46 at the time of filming and marked the entertainment legend’s first foray into serious acting and directing. The movie was centered on a German clown named Helmut Doork who is punished by the Gestapo for his mocking of Adolf Hitler by being sent to Auschwitz, where he is forced to entertain Jewish children as he leads them to the gas chamber.

Those who have seen a rough cut of the film (and there are very few of those souls remaining) report that the climactic scene is of a clown-costumed Lewis leading a horde of children, many of them clinging to his baggy clothing, into the gas chamber, then slamming the door behind and remaining inside. That is the day the clown cried, and the juxtaposition between the clowning Lewis and the suffering Jewish children was said to be impossible for test audiences to digest.

More than 20 years ago, Spy magazine assembled a roundtable of those rare individuals who have seen the movie and published a highly informative and engaging account of what they watched. The uniform opinion was that the film was awful; comic actor Harry Shearer’s ruthless assessment of the movie alone is worth reading the Spy piece, even 20 years later.

To his credit, Lewis has said that he realizes the movie was not to his standards. He speaks about it in this nifty piece of interviewing in 2009 by Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty.

During the Cannes Film Festival this year, where he was premiering his new film “Max Rose,” Lewis said of the long-mothballed clown movie, ““No one will ever see it because I'm embarrassed at the poor work.” And that single sentence might serve as the best, and final, review of “The Day the Clown Cried.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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