The Day the Clown Cried
Perhaps the most famous (and infamous) of unreleased star vehicles, this 1972 film was a passion project for Jerry Lewis, who directed and starred as a WWII-era German circus clown forced to entertain children at a concentration camp. But you haven’t seen it because it’s bad — well, not only because it’s bad, anyway. Lewis ran out of funds before the film was completed, and then found himself locked in ongoing litigation with screenwriter Joan O’Brien over rights and payment. Throughout those difficulties, Lewis held out hope that he would finish the film and show it to the world, envisioning it as his dramatic breakthrough, the film that would land him an acting Oscar. But those who’ve seen it — most famously actor/writer Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap and Simpsons fame — say it’s an astonishing failure, and Lewis would probably be best advised to keep the film where it’s been for forty years: safely locked up in his vault.
The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg
Now that Steven Soderbergh is winding down his filmmaking career, you might find yourself even more curious about one item on his IMDb page: something called The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg, dated 2011 and featuring Cate Blanchett (who starred in Soderbergh’s The Good German five years earlier). “Why haven’t I seen that?!?” you might ask, not unreasonably. Here’s the story: Soderbergh went to Australia to direct a new play called Tot Mom (based on the Casey Anthony affair). While there, he shot an improvised “secret film,” Michael Gregg, doing play rehearsals in the morning and film shoots in the afternoon, according to The Sidney Morning Herald. “While rough,” the paper reports, “it’s an entertaining comedy — laugh-out-loud funny at times — about a theatre company staging Chekhov’s Three Sisters.” Soderbergh shot the film in ten days, but if you want to see it, you’ll have to make friends with Blanchett or one of the other cast members. “My whole thing was that it has to be unavailable,” the filmmaker told The Playlist in 2011. “The actors each have copies of it. And I said, ‘You can bring people over to your house, and you can all watch it, but I don’t ever want it shown publicly.’” Anybody have Cate’s number handy?
Nothing Lasts Forever
We love Bill Murray (not exactly a revolutionary stance, we know), and hey, back in 1984, we even loved Dan Aykroyd. But the honchos at MGM didn’t love Nothing Lasts Forever, produced by their Saturday Night Live guru Lorne Michaels and written and directed by Tom Schiller (who directed the short films for SNL after their first, Albert Brooks season). A surreal comedy/fantasy with Zach Galligan (fresh from Gremlins) in the leading role, Aykroyd in support, and Murray as the villain, it was produced at MGM under an outgoing regime and pushed away by the next one, which not only chose not to release a Murray/Aykroyd film right after Ghosbusters, but refused to let Schiller accept the film’s invite to Cannes. It has screened a handful of times in recent years (and earned some good press in the process), but it has still never seen an official theatrical, video, or DVD release.
Laurence Olivier appeared in plenty of stinkers during his last decade or so, but few generated as many raspberries as this 1982 Korean War drama. He wasn’t the only noteworthy name in it: the picture, from frequent Bond director Terrence Young (Thunderball, From Russia with Love, Dr. No), co-starred Jacqueline Bisset and such cinephile faves as Ben Gazzara, Toshiro Mifune, and Richard Roundtree. Its controversy was about funding: it was financed by the Unification Church (colloquially known as “The Moonies”), the religious sect founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The lethal pre-release buzz warned that the film was an elaborate recruiting effort, or an attempt for the church to fill its coffers with sweet Hollywood money. They didn’t — at $50 million ($10 million more than its contemporary, Heaven’s Gate) it was a notorious flop, and its reputation was so bad that it’s never been released on video. That reputation wasn’t entirely earned, according to Phil Hall over at Film Threat’s invaluable “Bootleg Files”: “Inchon is not the wacky turkey that everyone claimed back in 1982. It is just a monotonous bit of noise and fury.” But with that cast (and considering some of the tripe that has made it to DVD), you’d think it’d be easier to get your hands on these days.
If the early ‘70s were Robert Altman’s finest period (including M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Thieves Like Us, and Nashville), the latter half of the decade begat a serious of problematic movies that couldn’t find an audience. He made most of them for 20th Century Fox, where he had a champion in studio head Alan Ladd, Jr. But when Ladd left Fox in 1979, Altman hadn’t yet finished the final film on his contract, the political comedy HealtH, and the studio’s new regime “just let it sit there,” according to the director. It ultimately sat on their shelves for more than two years, with possible release dates coming and going after poor previews. It’s not one of Altman’s best, but it’s a better film than some of his other work of the period (Quartet, A Perfect Couple), and it certainly had a marketable cast: Carol Burnett, Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Altman faves Paul Dooley and Henry Gibson all appear, along with Dick Cavett and Dinah Shore (playing themselves). Altman was ultimately forced to show the film on his own, at festivals and a 1982 engagement at New York’s Film Forum. It never received a proper release, either in theaters or on home video; it has occasionally popped up on cable, but even after Altman’s death in 2006, it’s one of his few major films that’s still unavailable on DVD.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire were young actors on the rise when they played supporting roles in director R.D. Robb’s chatty black-and-white comedy/drama, shot in 1995 and 1996. Then Titanic and The Ice Storm happened, and Robb realized he had a valuable commodity on his hands. DiCaprio and Maguire — who claimed their contributions to the film (originally a short, later expanded to feature length) were only a favor for a friend — blocked his efforts, resulting in a lawsuit. The director and his former stars eventually settled, determining that while Robb couldn’t release Don’s Plum in North America, he was free to do what he wished with it overseas. It premiered in Berlin in 2001, but its American embargo has held firm.
Together for Days
Samuel L. Jackson was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia when this 1972 mediation on black activisim and interracial romance was made by first-time director Michael Schultz (who later did Car Wash and Greased Lightning). Jackson made his film debut in the supporting role of “Stan”; the film (with the tagline “A brother’s struggle for identity!”) was later re-released under the evocative title Black Cream. But in the 20-plus years between its release and Jackson’s ascent to movie star status, Together for Days just plain disappeared; when Jackson appeared on The Tonight Show in 2010, Jay Leno said he’d been unable to find a copy of it, which the actor noted was probably for the best. Some lesser websites, meanwhile, insist that Jackson’s debut film was Ragtime — his second, actually.
Another early effort that’s all but gone, this time for star Kevin Bacon. Bacon won an Obie for the Off-Broadway play that inspired the film, playing a male prostitute hustling in New York’s Times Square district. The raw subject matter meant that major studios weren’t all that interested in a film version, but director Paul Morrissey was — at a bit of a crossroads after parting with Andy Warhol and directing a couple of clunkers, he made the film in his signature gritty style (even lifting the split-screen technique of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls). The film was completed in 1982, but no distributors bit, even after Footloose made Bacon a star. In fact, it wasn’t shown to a paying audience until 1996, when Film Forum ran it as part of a Morrissey retrospective. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden was not impressed; he called it “a hyperkinetic mess.” It remains unreleased, though bootlegs can be had.
Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales
The great Richard Pryor played his first starring role (and made only his second film appearance) in this 1968 comedy about a white man on trial for raping a black woman. Not exactly the makings of high comedy, but if anybody could make that material work, it was Pryor; Uncle Tom also marked the directorial debut of Penelope Spheeris, who would go on to direct the Decline of Western Civilization movies and Wayne’s World, among others. But it never saw the light of a projector. The story that circulated for years was that Pryor’s then-wife complained that he was paying more attention to the movie then her, so Pryor (never known for his cool temperament) shredded the negative. (That’ll show her!) It was presumed lost forever, until clips from the film popped up in 2005 DGA tribute to Pryor (shortly before his death). Come to find out, Spheeris had held on to a print after all, which she donated to the film archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Pryor’s seventh and final wife, Jennifer Lee-Pryor, filed a lawsuit against Spheeris and Pryor’s daughter Rain, accusing them of conspiring to steal the film from his home years earlier. Pryor died before the case went to trial; Uncle Tom remains in limbo.
Chimes at Midnight
Orson Welles, perpetually cast aside by major studios (as a director, at least) spent the last several decades of his life working on films independently, financing his efforts with his own acting appearances and scrounging up funds from a variety of often-unreliable sources. Some of those films weren’t finished; some are locked up in rights disputes; some were released, forgotten, and subsequently rediscovered and acclaimed. But it remains difficult to legally view Chimes at Midnight, his 1966 Shakespeare adaptation, a mash-up of scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts one and two), Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The common thread was the comic/tragic supporting character of Falstaff, whom Welles played himself. The reviews were mixed, though some (including Pauline Kael) praised it as one of his best works. But the film’s sketchy ownership (it was financed by a variety of international interests) have kept it from official DVD release stateside; here’s hoping Criterion (which put out excellent restorations of Welles’s Mr. Arkadin and F for Fake) is on the case.