For every movie that gets made, a hundred others never happen. Some of them are just stillborn, while others morph into totally different films, unrecognizable from their initial inception. Here are a few unmade films that have piqued my interest. You can read about other unmade films in the previous parts of this occasional series.
#4: John Boorman’s Lord of the Rings; A Confederacy of Dunces; Bartholomew vs Neff
This is a very special edition of Movies That Never Were, as it contains three movies that very much were… but may never again be. The history of cinema is littered with lost movies – films that were completed but that disappeared decades ago, or films that have been successfully suppressed since their creation. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that nearly 80% of films made in the silent and early talkie eras have been lost.
Next time we’ll return you to your regularly scheduled look at versions of movies that never quite came together; in the meantime here are three films that did come together but that you may never have a chance to see.
King Kong Appears In Edo. There’s some controversy about this film – there are folks who believe that it’s a complex, long-running hoax. If you were to create a fake ‘lost’ movie, this would certainly be it – a Japanese knock off of King Kong, King Kong Appears In Edo predates Godzilla by 16 years, making it the first kaiju movie of all time. Hoaxing the movie would be easy, as it was supposedly released in 1938, and most Japanese film from before WWII has been completely and totally lost.
But there is evidence that the film is real. There’s an ad that’s supposedly from a 1938 issue of Japanese movie magazine Kinema Jumpo, for one. More convincing is an interview with Fuminori Ohashi, the almost totally anonymous Japanese special effects genius who created the first Godzilla suit (and who went on to consult on the creation of Disneyland and who helped develop the masks for the original Planet of the Apes), where he talks about making the ape suit for King Kong Appears in Edo: “The first model making to be counted as “special art direction” in Japanese cinema was a giant gorilla which I did for the movie KING KONG APPEARS IN EDO [Edo Ni Arawareta King Kong, 1938] fifty years ago. It was also the first movie to feature certain kinds of special effects.” (source: SciFiJapan.com)
Of course there are still plenty of people who say that the film is a hoax. Many of the doubts come from claims that the film suddenly sprang into the internet’s consciousness in 2005, although I have found references online from years earlier, and August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman and Godzilla, says that he came across a reference to a version of the film in the 1979 Japanese book Daitokusatsu.
At any rate, I hope the film is real because it looks flat out weird. The title (and some stills that are purported to be from the film) indicate that the movie is set in Tokyo’s medieval period, yet it looks like Kong is clambering over buildings that look more like German expressionist architecture. In some ways that makes sense, and positions King Kong Appears in Edo as a movie that’s completely the product of foreign influence.
London After Midnight. In 1967 the last known copy of London After Midnight, a classic silent horror film featuring one of Lon Chaney Sr’s most iconic monster make-ups, was destroyed when an electrical fire ravaged an MGM film vault. Early film prints were made on nitrate, and anyone who has seen Inglourious Basterds can tell you how that stuff reacts to fire.
In the film Chaney plays a ghoulish character who moves into the mansion of murdered Sir Roger Balfour. He also plays the Scotland Yard detective who investigates the murder of Balfour. Director Todd Browning would remake the lost film years later, with some story changes, under the title Mark of the Vampire, with Bela Lugosi playing the vampire.
London After Midnight was returned, sort of, in 2002. Turner Classic Movies commissioned a recreation of the film using existing still photos, and they aired the 45-minute version to some acclaim. But that’s not the same as the actual film. The good news is that there are reports that prints of the film do exist. Sid Terror of Film Drunx claims that Turner has a copy of the film in their library, but I find that hard to believe simply because it would have been cheaper for them to transfer and remaster that nitrate print than to make a mock up. On the other hand, Terror also says there may be prints in private hands, and he points out that since the film doesn’t hit public domain until 2022, the owners may be waiting to unveil them until they can make a profit on them. And it isn’t like movies don’t end up in weird ownership – check out the new version of Metropolis that was found in South America.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a print of London After Midnight did turn up some day, but every day that it isn’t found is another day this hypothetical print slowly rots away.
The Day The Clown Cried. This is perhaps the single most infamous ‘lost’ movie of all time. Directed by and starring Jerry Lewis, The Day The Clown Cried is about a famous circus clown who ends up in Auschwitz and who leads Jewish children to the death house. Caught in an impenetrable legal morass, the negative of the rough cut – the film is unfinished – sits in Sweden. There is a VHS copy, though, and it’s in the possession of Jerry Lewis himself, who at one point was vowing to return to the project and complete it.
At this point that seems highly unlikely. But if it were released now – even in rough cut form – could it possibly meet our very high expectations? Judging only by the shooting script: fuck yes.
In case you don’t know the story: In 1972 Jerry Lewis directed and starred in a movie about a clown in Auschwitz. Lewis plays a good German but a very sad, drunk clown. During one drinking binge the clown – named Helmut Doork (I swear to god. Lewis apparently changed the lead’s name from Karl Schmidt to the very silly Doork) – makes fun of and imitates Hitler in front of some Gestapo agents. He ends up in a political prison, which happens to be just next door to a Jewish prison camp that’s sort of a holding area before the Jews are taken to Auschwitz.
Doork ends up befriending some of the Jewish kids at the camp next door and uses his clowning to make them feel a bit better. Then one day the time comes to ship the kids out; the camp authorities ask Doork to entertain the kids on the freight train while it’s being loaded so they won’t make so much noise and bother the locals. Doork obliges, but there’s a mistake and he ends up being shipped off to Auschwitz himself.
By the time Doork gets to the camp he learns that the commandant of the previous camp has declared him an escaped prisoner, and the penalty for that is death. The concentration camp commandant says he’ll let Doork off easy if he’ll lead the young Jewish prisoners to yonder building – you know, the one with no windows. I’m not sure why they now need a special escort for this job, but Doork crumbles and accepts the gig.
Up until the very end of the script, The Day the Clown Cried could have been just another tin-eared, maudlin Holocaustsploitation film, a precursor to Life if Beautiful or Jakob the Liar (worth noting: in the 80s some folks tried to get the original version of The Day the Clown Cried made and Robin Williams was attached. He eventually made his own shitty, manipulative Holocaust film with Jakob the Liar, though). But in the final pages of the script the film goes into wacko overdrive, and Doork escorts the kid in lown make-up. Where does he find clown make-up in Auschwitz? He mixes his blood with some bread to create a red clown nose for himself. He leads the kids in a goofy frolic right through the door into the gas chamber and then, at the last minute, after having patted every single one of their heads as they walk in, he joins them. The door slams and we hear Doork playing harmonica and the kids laughing – then the hiss of gas and the laughter dies down and the harmonica hits a bad note and that’s the end of the movie.
Lewis made the film despite his option on the material having expired, and the fact that the writers of the original script were horrified by what he did – technically illegally – with their material means it’s pretty unlikely anybody’s going to make nice and allow us to see the film. And even if that happened, funding on the picture got all fucked up, and the studio where Lewis shot in Stockholm retains the negative, saying they’re owed more than $600,000 and they won’t give it up until someone pays.
One of the few people to ever see the film is comedian Harry Shearer; he got a look at it through his friend Joshua White, who directed the 1979 Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. Shearer has talked about the experience of seeing the film on a number of occasions; in 1992 he told the late great Spy magazine:
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 presense 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! – thats all you can say.
The only thing in Jerry’s oeuvre that really is like it is a wonderful thing that he did early in the telethon. It was a dramatic tape of an LA actor who hosted the Popeye show, and Jerry shot it. The guy plays Muscular Dystrophy. It’s a staged reading: (scary voice) “I am Muscular Dystrophy, and I hate people, especially children. I love to make their limbs shrivel up!” They showed this for several years before cooler heads prevailed. In it’s sense of misplaced dramaturgy it was the closest I ever came to seeing anything that would be a real precursor to the clown movie.
That seems to be the standard line from the few people who have seen The Day the Clown Cried. This was supposed to be the movie that changed the way everyone thought of Jerry Lewis, with the comedian apparently having bought into the French view of his filmography. But as is too often the case with comics trying to go serious he was unable to figure out how to play human.
On top of that Lewis apparently had little connection to reality – he’s running around these prison camps in brand new loafers, for one thing – and in that inimitable movie star way managed to pervert the horror of the Holocaust into a showcase for himself. White told Spy:
The scenes were so dramatic – it was, after all, set in a concentration camp – that they were beyond his range. Other comedians who have a similar problem handle themselves better, they position themselves so that other actors take the focus in a dramatic scene. But Jerry would point the camera on himself and then attempt to be in this deep dramatic moment in which the Holocaust was playing out right in front of him.
And so that video tape sits in Jerry Lewis’ office, waiting to end up in the hands of some hero who will digitize it and give it to us, the deserving masses. Somewhere Tommy Wiseau waits for the ultimate bad movie to come along and finally trump The Room. In the mean time, I leave you with this quote Lewis gave The New York Times right after he finished shooting The Day the Clown Cried (note: The clown cries at least twice in the script, as he is crying over the opening titles long before the authorities get their hands on him):
“I had been 113 days on the picture, with only three hours of sleep a night … I was exhausted, beaten. When I thought of doing that scene, I was paralyzed; I couldn’t move. I stood there in my clown’s costume, with the cameras ready. Suddenly the children were all around me, unasked, undirected, and they clung to my arms and legs, they looked up at me so trustingly. I felt love pouring out of me. I thought, ‘This is what my whole life has been leading up to.’ I thought what the clown thought. I forgot about trying to direct. I had the cameras turn and I began to walk, with the children clinging to me, singing, into the gas ovens. And the door closed behind us.”