AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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The Jerk
Alternate Title: Money to Burn
Director: Carl Reiner (Dir)
Release Date:   14 Dec 1979
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles and New York openings: 14 Dec 1979
Production Date:   began 19 Mar 1979 at Culver City Studios
Duration (in mins):   93 or 103-104
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Cast:   Steve Martin (Navin [Johnson])  
    Bernadette Peters (Marie)  
    Catlin Adams (Patty Bernstein)  
    Mabel King (Mother)  
    Richard Ward (Father)  
    Dick Anthony Williams (Taj)  
    Bill Macy (Stan Fox)  
    M. Emmet Walsh (Madman)  
    Dick O'Neill (Frosty)  
    Maurice Evans (Hobart)  
    Helena Carroll (Hester)  
    Ren Wood (Elvira)  
    Pepe Serna (Punk #1)  
    Sonny Terry (Blues singer)  
    Brownie McGee (Blues singer)  
    Jackie Mason (Harry Hartounian)  
    David Landsberg (Bank manager)  
    Domingo Ambriz (Father De Cardoba)  
    Richard Foronjy (Con man)  
    Lenny Montana (Con man)  
    Carl Gottlieb (Iron Balls McGinty)  
    Clete Roberts (Announcer)  
    Frances E. Williams (Grandma Johnson)  
    Lydia McGhee (Cleotis Johnson)  
    Niko Denise Holmes (Satch Johnson)  
    Shawn Harris (Pierre Johnson)  
    Niles Harris (Leroy Johnson)  
    Susan Denise Harrison (Lisa Johnson)  
    Douglas S. Close (Fireman)  
    Sharon Johansen (Mrs. Hartounian)  
    Trinidad Silva (Punk)  
    Alston Ahern (Bride)  
    Lawrence Green (Father of bride)  
    Debbie Evans (Stunts)  
    Ken Magee (Carnival rube)  
    Tom J. Delaney (Tourist)  
    Alfred Dennis (Irving)  
    Marc Loge (Farm boy)  
    Jon Leichter (Billy)  
    Lillian Adams (Tillie)  
    Pig Eye Jackson (Cat juggler)  
    Joe Lynn (Voodoo dancer)  
    Maurice Marsac (French waiter)  
    Gene LeBell (Con man)  
    Fred Lerner (Con man)  
    Jerry G. Velasco (Man in garden)  
  Disco party: Kimberly Cameron    
    Elizabeth Macey    
    Richie Reiner    
    Daniel Trevor    
    Carl Reiner (Carl Reiner, The Celebrity)  
    Rob Reiner (Driver)  

Summary: In Los Angeles, drunk and derelict Navin Johnson addresses the audience and insists, “I am not a bum, I’m a jerk.” He begins his story by saying that he was born in Mississippi, “a poor black child”: Navin grows up in a loving family, all of whom are black. Incongruously Caucasian, Navin has trouble clapping to the beat of the blues being played on the porch. He confides to his mother that he never feels he belongs and she reveals that he is not her natural-born child, but was found on the doorstep. Overwhelmed by this information, Navin lies awake in the twilight hours, listening to the radio. When he discovers that his feet are tapping spontaneously to the music of a swing band, Navin is inspired to hitchhike to St. Louis, where the broadcast originated, to discover more about the world. At a stopover in a motel, a barking dog awakens Navin, who presumes the dog is alerting him to a fire. Pronouncing the dog a “life saver,” the panicked Navin wakes all of the motel guests. After learning that there is no fire, an annoyed guest suggests naming the dog not “Life Saver,” but “Shithead.” Arriving in St. Louis accompanied by Shithead, Navin stops at a service station restroom, where the owner, Harry Hartounian, offers Navin a maintenance job. Navin accepts and begins to send a portion of his modest wage to his family. Hartounian values Navin, and provides him free shelter in the utility closet. When Navin is left alone in charge of the station in Hartounian’s absence, three thugs attempt to pay with a credit card. By checking a list of reported credit card numbers, Navin learns the card was stolen and alerts the police. He tries to detain the thugs by tying the car to a neighboring church, but when they drive away, they drag part of the church down the street with them. Later, a new phone book is delivered to the station and Navin, who is excited to see his name printed in it, gushes that things will begin to happen to him. True to Navin’s prediction, a gun-wielding psychotic picks his name randomly from the phone book and decides to kill him. The would-be killer positions himself near the station and takes aim at Navin. Meanwhile, a motorist, Stan Fox, arrives for a fill-up. When Fox expresses frustration about his glasses slipping off his face, Navin offers to fix them by soldering an extra bar of metal that grips the nose to the frame. Impressed, Fox promises to split the profits with Navin if he can develop and market this invention. As Fox drives away, the sniper fires several shots at Navin. Although Navin is unharmed, he feels compelled to flee and hides in a carnival truck that travels to Los Angeles. Content with his new surroundings, Navin takes a job with the carnival as a weight-guesser and befriends Patty, a tough stunt motorcycle driver. Patty seduces the naïve Navin by offering to show him his “special purpose.” Their relationship continues, as Navin begins work as “Engineer Fred” for the children’s train. When Billy, a mischievous boy, attempts to drive the train away, Navin chases him and returns him to his babysitter, Marie. In gratitude, she kisses Navin and agrees to date him. Later, when Patty discovers Navin and Marie together, she is furious and threatens Marie, who knocks her out with a quick punch that wins Navin’s heart. Later, on the beach, Marie tells Navin that she needs a man with a “special purpose” in life. He explains that he does have a special purpose and makes love to her. The next morning, Navin wants to marry Marie, but she leaves before he can propose. Although depressed, Navin is determined to find Marie. He settles into an apartment, where the sniper appears on his doorstep. The man states that he had been “mixed up” because of personal troubles, but is now a private detective. He presents Navin with a letter from Stan Fox, who has made a fortune on Navin’s invention, which he calls the “Opti-Grab.” When Navin and Stan later meet, Stan gives Navin a check for $250,000, his share of the Opti-Grab earnings. After reading about Navin’s new fortune in the local paper, Marie’s mother phones Navin and directs him to her daughter’s workplace, the cosmetics department of a department store. Navin finds her and the two are soon married. After hiring a butler and housekeeper, Navin and Marie move into a giant mansion with garish décor, where they adjust to a more affluent lifestyle. Navin is approached by scheming businessmen, who invite him to invest in their housing project, but when Navin realizes they are racist bigots, he tells them he is a “nigger,” and fights them using Asian martial arts maneuvers. At an expensive restaurant, the naïve Navin asks for “fresh” wine, then is offended when served escargot, which he mistakenly thinks is an indicator of unsanitary conditions in the restaurant. To celebrate what he believes is their newfound sophistication, Navin throws a disco party. During the party, Navin and the guests watch a television news piece reporting on the success of Opti-Grab. However, the segment is interrupted by a breaking news story that director Carl Reiner is leading a class action lawsuit for negligence, because the Opti-Grab causes people to cross their eyes to the point of injury. After a cross-eyed judge and jury decide against Navin, he is forced to return his fortune to his customers. Depressed, Navin leaves Marie. Returning to the present moment, Navin concludes his story about how he came to live on the streets. Unexpectedly, Marie and Navin’s family drive up and explain how they have invested Navin’s weekly contributions from his earnings in farm land. Navin, accompanied by Marie and Shithead, return to Mississippi, where the family builds another house, which is an exact replica of the rundown family home--only larger. 

Production Company: Aspen Film Society  
  Universal Pictures (MCA, Inc.)
Production Text: An Aspen Film Society William E. McEuen David V. Picker Production; A Carl Reiner Film
Distribution Company: Universal Pictures (MCA, Inc.)
Director: Carl Reiner (Dir)
  Newton Arnold (1st asst dir)
  Ed Milkovich (2d asst dir)
Producer: David V. Picker (Prod)
  William E. McEuen (Prod)
  Peter MacGregor-Scott (Assoc prod)
Writer: Steve Martin (Scr)
  Carl Gottlieb (Scr)
  Michael Elias (Scr)
  Steve Martin (Story)
  Carl Gottlieb (Story)
Photography: Victor J. Kemper (Dir of photog)
  Robert Thomas (Cam op)
  Robert Marta (Asst cam)
  Stephen Vaughan (Stills)
  Gaylin Schultz (Key grip)
  Earl Gilbert (Gaffer)
  Rhio Haessig (Best boy)
  Bernie Schwartz (Best boy)
  Panavision (Lenses and Panaflex cam by)
Art Direction: Jack T. Collis (Prod des)
Film Editor: Bud Molin (Ed)
  Ron Spang (Also ed by)
  Marvin I. Kosberg (Loop dial ed)
Set Decoration: Richard Goddard (Set dec)
  Joe Hubbard (Set des)
  Dennis Parrish (Prop master)
  John Lattanzio (Paint foreman)
  Ed Karas (Const foreman)
Costumes: Theadora Van Runkle (Cost des)
  Michael J. Harte (Cost supv)
  April Ferry (Cost supv)
Music: Jack Elliott (Mus comp and cond)
  Milton Lustig (Mus ed)
Sound: Charles M. Wilborn (Sd)
  William L. McCaughey (Sd re-rec)
  Hoppy Mehterian (Sd re-rec)
  Eddie Nelson (Sd re-rec)
  Gordon Daniel (Sd eff ed)
  Gil Marchant (Sd eff ed)
  Tony Polk (Sd eff ed)
  Keith Stafford (Sd eff ed)
Special Effects: Pacific Title (Titles)
  Optics by Victor (Optigrab)
  Henry Millar (Spec eff)
Make Up: Del Acevedo (Makeup)
  Barbara Lorenz (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: Penny Perry (Casting)
  Gino Havens (Casting)
  Peter MacGregor-Scott (Prod mgr)
  Dow Griffith (Loc mgr)
  Marshall Wolins (Scr supv)
  Craig Pinkard (Transportation capt)
  Bud Williams (Transportation co-capt)
  Terry Robertson (Prod secy)
  Betty Glickman (Asst to prod)
  William Rodenbaugh (Accountant)
Stand In: Conrad Palmisano (Stunt coord)
MPAA Rating: R
Country: United States
Language: English

Music: "Crazy Rhythm," music by Joseph Meyer and Roger Wolfe Kahn.
Songs: "You Belong to Me," music by Lee David, lyrics by Billy Rose, sung by Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin; "Pick a Bale of Cotton," words and music by Huddie Ledbetter, collected and adapted by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, sung by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee; "I'll See You Again," music and lyrics by Noel Coward.
Composer: Noel Coward
  Lee David
  Roger Wolfe Kahn
  Huddie Ledbetter
  Alan Lomax
  John A. Lomax
  Joseph Meyer
  Billy Rose
Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Universal City Studios, Inc. 25/1/1980 dd/mm/yyyy PA55339

PCA NO: 25877
Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: Technicolor
  Lenses/Prints: Panavision

Genre: Comedy
Sub-Genre: with songs
Subjects (Major): Maturation
Subjects (Minor): African Americans
  Blues music
  Confidence men
  Cosmetology and cosmetologists
  Family relationships
  Gas stations
  Los Angeles (CA)
  Stunt performers
  Swing music

Note: The summary for this entry was completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. The summary was written by participant Adam Tate, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, with Janet Staiger as academic advisor.

The working titles of the film were Easy Money , Money to Burn and The Jerk--A Wild and Crazy Movie . The story is told as a flashback, with intermittent voice-over narration by Martin as “Navin Johnson,” who writes letters to his family in Mississippi about events in his life. At the beginning and end of the film, Navin addresses the film’s audience directly. In a humorous homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (see entry below), opening notes reminiscent of Thus Spoke Zarathustra are played when Navin has an emotional epiphany on the beach and when “Stan Fox” tosses his glasses to Navin, and the camera follows the glasses in slow motion.
       The Jerk marks the feature film debut of Steve Martin, who had previously worked in television, short films and live comedy. Among his many achievements at the time of the film, Martin had made two Grammy Award-winning comedy albums, won an Emmy Award with other writers for his work on the CBS Network television variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour , and written a book of humorous essays, Cruel Shoes . According to a 31 Mar 1979 LAT article, around 1975, Martin’s manager and business partner, William E. McEuen, invited producer David V. Picker, then president of Paramount, to see Martin’s comedy performance at San Francisco’s Boarding House comedy club. Impressed, Picker signed Martin to a three-film development contract with Paramount, and as his first assignment, Martin and Carl Gottlieb wrote the story that would become The Jerk . According to the same article, after the first draft, Paramount decided against producing the script and released Martin from his agreement with the studio. Coincidentally, Picker left Paramount about this time and agreed to work with Martin and his production company. Picker negotiated an unusual distribution deal with Universal, in which the studio financed the film, but relinquished most of the creative control to Picker, director Carl Reiner, Martin and McEuen, the latter two were partners in the Aspen Film Society production company. Although a 6 Oct 1978 DV news item reported that Mike Nichols would direct the film, a 1 Nov 1978 HR news item reported that he had “bowed out.”
       A 5 Feb 1980 HR article reported that the film was produced for $4.6 million. According to the studio production notes found in the film’s file at AMPAS Library, The Jerk was shot in forty-five days, ten days ahead of schedule, using eighty locations around the Los Angeles area and on fifteen stage sets built at the Culver Studio. According to the production notes, portions of the film were shot at the Mohammed Al-Fassi mansion on Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills; a gas station in Pasadena; Westlake Village, CA; and Devonshire Downs Fairground in Northridge, CA. The miniature train sequence was shot at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
       Director Carl Reiner appears as himself in the film as the initiator of the lawsuit against Opti-Grab and is seen on a news program on Navin’s television set. Reiner’s son, actor Rob Reiner, appears in a cameo role as a driver who gives the hitchhiking Navin a lift. Although the 31 Mar 1979 LAT article reported that Bill Murray, who frequently appeared with Martin on the television show Saturday Night Live was to appear in a cameo role, modern sources report that the footage was cut from the final print. Bernadette Peters, who portrayed “Marie,” was romantically involved with Martin for several years and would later appear with him in the 1981 film, Pennies from Heaven.
       A 5 Feb 1980 HR article reported that McEuen developed a “highly sophisticated and documented marketing strategy” with the help of Universal. According to the article, thirty days before the release of the film, McEuen began a radio marketing campaign that included contests, awards and free screenings to generate the same kind of excitement as a live concert. The production notes reported that, as a publicity stunt, Martin and Reiner presented the film’s two-minute trailer as if it were a feature film premiere, placing ads in trade papers and using searchlights at the event. These and other publicity arrangements, according to the LAT article, generated box office returns of over $53 million during the film’s first seven weeks of release and The Jerk proved to be one of the year’s biggest money makers. The Jerk appears on AFI’s list of America’s Funniest Movies. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   17 Dec 1979.   
Daily Variety   6 Oct 1978.   
Daily Variety   16 Nov 1978.   
Daily Variety   15 Mar 1979.   
Hollywood Reporter   1 Nov 1978.   
Hollywood Reporter   13 Dec 1979   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   5 Feb 1980.   
Los Angeles Times   3 Mar 1979.   
Los Angeles Times   14 Dec 1979   p. 1.
New York Times   14 Dec 1979   p. 12.
Variety   12 Dec 1979   p. 23.

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