Last week Patrick Havens passed away. Havens was the casting director of a number of movies, most notably the Steve Martin star-making vehicle The Jerk and it’s there we’re turning our attention today.
Martin stars in the Carl Reiner-directed comedy as Navin Johnson, a…simple-minded individual who one day leaves his adopted family to make it on his own. As he does so he gets involved in various schemes, eventually falling in love with Marie (Bernadette Peters) and inventing a device that makes him a millionaire. But of course things don’t go well for Navin, whose idiocy keeps getting in his own way. If the plot sounds simple it’s because it is. The story is basically a loose framework on which to hang Martin’s antics. This was his first starring role after establishing himself as an effective comedy writer and standup performer and this was an opportunity to translate that to the big screen.
The theatrical poster sells the movie’s main draw – Martin acting like an idiot – as its central focal point. There he stands looking disheveled and out of sorts in his bathrobe with his pants around his ankles as he clutches the few belongings he’s decided he really needs. So the shot comes from one of the movie’s penultimate moments where things are hitting rock bottom and would probably be decried today for being a spoiler. But it’s one of the more ridiculous and memorable looks of his from the movie so it makes sense that it would be selected for the one-sheet. What other options did they have? Navin as a gas station attendant? Him in his overalls from the beginning of the movie?
There’s no copy about the story on the poster. Instead, over the title treatment and Martin’s name are all the studios and producers involved in the movie’s making, a common practice at the time. So it’s overall a pretty sparse one-sheet that intends to sell you a Steve Martin experience, pure and simple.
The trailer starts out by establishing Martin as the next in a long line of movie stars who have become associated with an iconic comedy character, following in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin and others. After that we get a general sense of the story, starting with Navin living with his adopted family and starting out for his adventure in the world. After that the story doesn’t matter as much since it’s just about showing the crazy scenes that Martin and the co-writers concocted for him.
Again, the point of the trailer is to make an audience that was already pretty familiar with Martin’s schtick aware that there was a movie coming out that featured more of the same. That’s why there’s not a whole lot of focus on the story outside of the beginning which gets the ball rolling and then asks the audience to assume that what follows is all in service to that. That’s the goal of the entire campaign and it accomplished that.
Of course the rest, as they say, is history. Reiner’s on-set direction helped channel Martin’s tendencies into a movie that wound up as a decent box office hit and sent the writer/actor off on the cinematic career he was pining for after years of standup work. His movie persona evolved over the years from this slapstick character to one that was much more erudite as he bounced between highbrow pictures and more middle-of-the-road family comedies. But this is the seed, where it all started for Martin on film. Without a campaign that sold him as the central reason to see it’s debatable as to whether that all would have happened.