Roman Polanski had already achieved international success with classics like Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac, and American acclaim with Rosemary’s Baby, when he wrote the screenplay to A Day at the Beach, adapted from Heere Heeresma’s novel. There was some talk that he would direct the picture, but it was helmed by Polanski’s friend Simon Hesera; Peter Sellers did a cameo, under the pseudonym A. Queen (a none-too-subtle play on the character’s sexuality). Sellers’ involvement, in fact, is the main reason we’ve seen any of the film at all — his clip was included in the documentary The Unknown Peter Sellers. But the rest of the film remained unknown; though it played festivals in the years since its 1972 completion (including the 1993 Toronto Film Festival), it never received a proper release in theaters or on video.
A Woman of the Sea
Austrian-born Josef von Sternberg became one of Hollywood’s most distinctive directors in the 1930s, primarily via his unforgettable collaborations with Marlene Dietrich (including Shanghai Express, Morocco, and The Scarlet Empress). But he had an early and powerful champion: Charles Chaplin, who saw his debut film The Salvation Hunters and was so impressed by it that he hired the director to make a film for the Chaplin Studios. The picture, originally called Sea Gulls and later titled A Woman of the Sea, was a full-on drama — a rarity for Chaplin — and marked the only time he produced a film he neither wrote nor directed. It starred Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s regular leading lady, and marked his second attempt to make her a dramatic star. But when Chaplin and his associates saw the film, they decided it wasn’t commercially viable, so it was never screened or released — and the negative was reportedly destroyed a few years later, for tax purposes. That’s a real shame; we’d love to see what a Sternberg-Chaplin collaboration looked like.
While we’re in the silent era, it’s worth pausing to mourn the loss of Humor Risk, the never-released, now-vanished first film by the Marx Brothers. Shot around 1920 (nine years before their official debut, The Cocoanuts) between vaudeville performances in New Jersey, the low-budget silent comedy was shown exactly one time, at a Saturday matinee in a theater “somewhere in the most godforsaken outposts of the Bronx” (according to Joe Adamson’s terrific book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo), where the kid-heavy Saturday matinee crowd hooted, threw airplanes, and generally didn’t find the Marx Brothers all that funny at all. Stories vary about what happened next: some say the Marxes (particularly Groucho) were so disgusted by the entire affair that they burned the only print, while others say they slunk out of the theaters and left the print in the booth, and never bothered going back to retrieve it. It could still turn up — Harpo’s debut film, 1925’s Too Many Kisses, reappeared something like fifty years after it was considered lost — but we’re not holding our breath.
Hippie Hippie Shake
Set in London circa the swinging ’60s, and featuring Cillian Murphy, Sienna Miller, and all sorts of other people we like, Hippie Hippie Shake sounds like a blast — the true story of how the Australian satirical magazine Oz went to London and got themselves charged with obscenity. The film’s been in the works at Working Title Films since 1998, going into production in fall of 2007 and ready for release the following year. But it was postponed, ostensibly due to the bad press surrounding Miller’s fling with married actor Balthazar Getty, but subsequent release dates came and went without action — even though early reviews from preview screenings have been mostly positive. What’s the hold-up?
The Day the Clown Cried
Perhaps the most famous unreleased movie in Hollywood history, and for all the wrong (or right, depending on how you look at it) reasons, The Day the Clown Cried has become the go-to shorthand for ill-conceived vanity projects by actors way out of their depth. It tells the WWII-era story of a washed-up German circus clown named Helmut Doork who is detained by the Gestapo for mocking Hitler. He’s sent first to a Nazi prison camp, then to a concentration camp, where he is to entertain children before they’re sent to the gas chamber — though he ends up leading them to their deaths himself. So you can see why it was such an awesome idea for Jerry Lewis to direct and star! Yes, Jerry saw The Day the Clown Cried as the opportunity to make his big breakthrough as a serious actor and director, but the production was cursed from the start: beset by money problems, Lewis ran out of funds before the film could be completed, and found himself trapped in a legal battle with screenwriter Joan O’Brien, who hadn’t been properly paid for her work and who blocked the film’s release after seeing a rough cut, which she called a “disaster.”
The few who’ve spoken out after seeing it agree; Simpsons and Spinal Tap co-star Harry Shearer, who saw it in 1979, wrote years later that “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.” Well, that’s enough of an endorsement to make any bad cinema connoisseur’s mouth water, but despite years of trying, The Day the Clown Cried seems forever stuck in the Lewis vault; he’s made various announcement over the years of attempting to wrap up the legal woes and get the movie seen (particularly after Roberto Bengini made the idea of a concentration camp comedy viable, if still not particularly advisable). But its legend has grown bigger than the movie itself, and Lewis refuses to discuss it, with interviewers reportedly warned not to bring up the subject with him.
Those are some of the unreleased movies on our wish list — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!