By Jay Kerner
The greatest movie ever, you ask? Surely this is satire. It would be blasphemy to think that a dumb comedy could ever be spoken of in the same breath as Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, or even The Godfather, as the jewels of American Cinema.
Well listen up movie snobs, as I introduce it to those who haven’t yet been seduced by its charms, and then compare and contrast it with these other seemingly dissimilar movies.
When the Jerk was released in 1979, it marked Steve Martin’s first feature film. He had been riding the crest of popularity as the hottest stand-up comedy act since his hit HBO special, and follow up LP, “Let’s Get Small.” He had gone from a writer and sometime performer on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show to selling out stadiums like a rock star.
Director Carl Reiner went from playing Alan Brady in the old Dick VanDyke Show, to writing and directing Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein among others.
The Jerk is the story of Navin Johnson, played by Martin, who was born, as he explains early in the movie, “a poor black child.” He learns on his 21st birthday that he had been left as a baby on the doorstep of an African American share-cropper’s shack, and raised as one of their own. When told the truth of how he arrived, his first question is, “so does that mean I’m going to stay this color?”
This answers a lot of questions for Navin, such as why he has no natural rhythm, so he decides to go out into the world to see what life has in store for him.
He hitch-hikes cross country, meeting strange people and having lots of comedic adventures along the way. While working at a gas station in St. Louis, he repairs some eyeglasses for a customer, and installs a wire handle to help keep them from slipping. The owner turns out to be an inventor, who promises to market the glasses.
Later he woos the under-appreciated Bernadette Peters, when she visits the traveling carnival where he works. She is reluctant at first, because her mother told her to wait for a man with a “special purpose.” Navin is very excited, because that is how his adopted mother had always referred to his genitalia.
“Dear Mom and Dad”, he writes, “I finally found out what my special purpose is for. I may not write for a while, because I plan on using it a lot!”
Things change rapidly when Navin learns that his eyeglasses invention is a hit and he is suddenly rich beyond his wildest dreams. However, his newfound wealth can’t hide his humble upbringing. A perfect example is when he criticizes a waiter for bringing them an “old” bottle of wine.
“What do you take us for, a couple of Rubes? Take this away and bring us some of this year’s wine. And don’t forget those paper umbrellas we like.”
Navin goes from the highest high, to the lowest low, when a class action lawsuit stems from his invention causing people to become cross-eyed. He loses everything and hits rock bottom, summed up beautifully by Ms. Peters who whines, “It’s not the money…. it’s the stuff!”
I won’t give away the heartwarming ending, and instead will go into some comparisons with the other classic films mentioned earlier.
Let’s start with theme. A young boy rises from humble beginnings to a position of power and riches. Are we talking about Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or The Jerk? When Orson Wells started on his masterpiece, many questioned whether his radio background qualified him to star in such an epic. Steve Martin faced the similar scrutiny.
Some say a good test of a “classic” movie is whether there is a famous quote. Of course, everyone has heard “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” from Gone with the Wind, or “Make ‘em an offer they can’t refuse”, from the Godfather. But ask yourself truthfully if you’ve heard either quote as often as the Jerk’s “The new phonebook’s here! The new phonebook’s here!” Yet alone, “He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!”
Vivian Leigh’s Scarlet O’Hara is certainly one of cinema’s classic beauties, but for my money she can’t touch Bernadette Peters in a sailor suit, singing a duet with Steve Martin on the beach.
The theme songs from the Godfather and Gone With the Wind were both nominated for Academy Awards. The ethereal, “I’m Picking Out a Thermos For You” on the other hand, was mostly ignored by the critics.
Citizen Kane may have been fixated on the recurring iconic image of a sled called Rosebud, but compare that with the Jerk’s “All I need is this thermos. That’s all I need!…and this paddle ball game.”
Hopefully I’ve been able to shed some light on the gross unfairness that surrounds this timeless classic. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, gather the whole family and watch it again. In my house we used it as a screening method for the daughter’s potential suitors. We made them watch it, while we watched them. If they didn't laugh appropriately, they didn't make the cut.
If for some reason, you’ve missed out on the cinematic spectacle that is The Jerk, remedy this immediately and join the legion of its devotees. You don’t know what you’re missing!