Serge Gainsbourg: Did He Really Act in Jerry Lewis' Infamous Holocaust Film The Day the Clown Cried? | Public Spectacle | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Serge Gainsbourg: Did He Really Act in Jerry Lewis' Infamous Holocaust Film The Day the Clown Cried?

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Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 3:16 PM

click to enlarge Artist's rendering of Jerry Lewis in embarrassing Holocaust comedy/drama The Day the Clown Cried, featuring... Serge Gainsbourg? - DREW FRIEDMANN
  • Drew Friedmann
  • Artist's rendering of Jerry Lewis in embarrassing Holocaust comedy/drama The Day the Clown Cried, featuring... Serge Gainsbourg?
If you pay attention to cultural waves, you're probably aware that L.A. is currently going through a Serge Gainsbourg moment.

This coming Sunday, Aug. 28, the Hollywood Bowl (as part of KCRW's World Festival) will be hosting a tribute to the French cult musician featuring Beck, Sean Lennon, Gainsbourg's influential arranger Jean-Claude Vannier and other artists.

Meanwhile, over at the Silent Movie Theatre, Cinefamily and Cinespia are organizing a wonderful, Gainsbourg-centric series called France Goes Pop!, showing rarely seen movies and TV specials from Gainsbourg's pop period (1966-1972). As part of the series, two recent films will have their US premiere: the documentary Gainsbourg and His Girls, and Joann Sfar's surreal biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, co-starring enormous puppets and a talking cat.

While researching a piece on Gainsbourg's movie career for LA Weekly, I discovered many fascinating nuggets about Gainsbourg's dalliances with the world of cinema, but by far the most shocking revelation was that Serge Gainsbourg apparently was part of the cast of Jerry Lewis' infamous 1972 Holocaust comedy/drama The Day the Clown Cried.

click to enlarge Yup, "Helmut Doork"...
  • Yup, "Helmut Doork"...

While the generally reliable IMDB (above) mentions that he appeared in the movie, neither Gainsbourg's main English biography (Sylvie Simmons' excellent A Fistful of Gitanes) nor the rest of the Internet mention it at all, oddly enough.

Of course, as most lovers of bizarro cinema know, we cannot corroborate any information about the film itself because Jerry himself freaked out back in the day at his horrid, inappropriate movie, in which he plays a clown named Helmut Doork who entertains children as he leads them into the gas chamber. Lewis has kept the only existing copy in a vault for almost 40 years.

The cult status of The Day the Clown Cried has been cemented over the years with a hyperrealistic comic by Drew Friedmann, repeated mentions and reenactments of the shooting script on Howard Stern's show and YouTube, and amusing/horrifying descriptions by one of the few people who has allegedly seen a rough cut of the film, Spinal Tap and Simpsons comedian Harry Shearer.

But is IMDB correct? Did Gainsbourg act in it? Until Jerry (or his heirs, eventually) decide to open the vault, all we have is the following circumstantial evidence:

-Gainsbourg and Jerry Lewis were acquainted: This is not mere conjecture, because they're both idolized in France. There's a photo of the French singer and his girlfriend/muse Jane Birkin at a Jerry Lewis movie premiere:

click to enlarge Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg at a Jerry Lewis movie premiere in the '70s
  • Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg at a Jerry Lewis movie premiere in the '70s

- One of Gainsbourg's pals was director Robert Beneyoun, with whom he made the amazing, rarely-seen mod-sci-fi movie Paris N'Existe Pas (Paris Doesn't Exist) in 1969. Beneyoun was better known as a critic and author and he's one of the people directly responsible for the "Jerry Lewis is a genius" reputation among the French, claiming the American comic was a direct heir to the Surrealist movement.

- When Jerry Lewis shot The Day the Clown Cried in Europe (1971/1972), Gainsbourg was at the peak of his acting career, which for a while ran parallel to the rising success of his girlfriend Jane Birkin. He had the lead in Slogan (1969, where he met Birkin), and had recently shot The Road to Katmandu, Cannabis and various other projects.

- The production was French-based, within the very same arty/commercial/shady/low budget world that Gainsbourg had been toiling in as soundtrack composer and writer for over 10 years. Here's a description of the troubled production, from a great article about the film for Mondo-Video:

In 1971, Jerry Lewis met a Hungarian film producer named Nathan Wachsberger, after a performance at the legendary Olympia Theater. Wachsberger had owned the rights to The Day The Clown Cried since the late 1960′s. Wachsberger offered Lewis the role and directing duties, fully financed with assistance from a partnership at Europa Studios.  

[...] Lewis traveled in early 1972 to tour the remains of the German and Poland concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. He shaved off 40 pounds, with a pure grape-fruit diet, that was also assisted at the time by his addiction to the OCT pain-killer, Percodan. Filling both roles, as actor and director, Lewis headed off to Paris, France for initial exterior filming in the spring of 1972.

After several days in Paris, the production moved to Stockholm, Sweden for principal photography. An international cast was assembled for the film. Ingmar Bergman starlet Harriet Andersson was brought in to play Helmut Doork's wife. Anton Diffring, known to play Nazi heavies, took on duties of the commandant, Colonel Bestler.  Unknown at the time, was second Asst. Director, Jean-Jacques Beineix. Beineix would go on to direct two of the most critically acclaimed international films of all time, Diva (1981), and Betty Blue (1986).

Complications plagued the production of The Day The Clown Cried immediately upon moving to Stockholm. Producer and money-man Nathan Wachsberger disappeared off to the south of France. Film equipment ended up missing or not showing up at all. It was shortly after that, that Lewis knew he was in trouble. The film's financing dried up quickly. It was then discovered that Wachsberger's ownership of the story rights had expired as well. Wachsberger had tried to renew the rights paying the screenwriters five thousand dollars of fifty thousand owed. Word spread back to Hollywood quickly. It's been speculated that Lewis was unaware of this problem, however, it's also been stated that Lewis was very aware of this issue as well.

Here's the only location footage from The Day the Clown Cried that has seen the light of day until now (Gainsbourg is not on these scenes):

Is anything else known about this film? Is there anything in more substantial French biographies of Gainsbourg we're not finding?

Readers, help us solve this riddle: Was Serge Gainsbourg an actor in Jerry Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried?

BONUS VIDEO: While looking for Gainsbourg/Jerry Lewis footage, we stumbled on this weird encounter between Gainsbourg and Jerry LEE Lewis (courtesy of our friends at the must-read culture blog Dangerous Minds). Enjoy:

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