The Prince and the Pauper gets an 80s makeover in John Landis’ uproarious festive comedy
Money. Dreams. Success. They’re the drives of many a film, but man, 1980s cinema really embraced these desires. John Landis’ hilarious, cutting Trading Places has a classic plot by writers Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod that, admittedly, could work just as well in any decade, but it was especially perfect for a time when class divide, money and upward mobility was on everybody’s mind. And it certainly struck a chord with audiences, becoming the fourth most successful film of the year in the United States.
The opening credit sequence perfectly captures the social divide and reality of 1980s Philadelphia (the film takes place over Christmas and New Year, where such divides really become more apparent), with both extremes represented; the huddled homeless, local tradesmen, X-rated theatres and kids playing basketball on the street with a makeshift hoop made out of a food crate on one side, the opulent home of Louis Winthorpe III, played to snobbish perfection by Dan Aykroyd, on the other. Born into spectacular wealth, Winthorpe is enjoying life as a highly successful commodities broker who has it all ― an attentive butler named Coleman (Denholm Elliott) who does everything from serving him breakfast to shaving his face to dressing him in his work clothes, a supremely-well paid job (with a gorgeous office, complete with fireplace), a glamorous fiancée… yet he’s also a smug, entitled prick, with ghastly friends who may as well be older versions of the Omega Theta Pi fraternity from Landis’ earlier Animal House for all their minted complacency. Winthorpe has, as one character later describes them, ‘soft hands’ that ‘have never worked a day in their life’. He is doing amazingly well for himself, and his latest, shrewd prediction regarding the market value of pork bellies has made him one of the most successful employees of Duke and Duke.
The elderly and avaricious Duke brothers Randolph and Mortimer (a beautifully cast Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) are even worse than Winthorpe; I mean, at least he responds, albeit perfunctorily, to his underlings when they greet him with a friendly good morning. The Dukes don’t even do that and really are the absolute worst ― obsessed with money, and yet so tight with it. Their idea of a Christmas bonus is a measly five bucks, and that’s from the both of them – ‘maybe I’ll go the movies….by myself‘ says one of their employees, before he gives one of the best-delivered silent mouthings of a swear word in any film, ever. The Dukes are so far removed from reality that they resemble bored gods, amused by the failures and misfortunes of others. Although they are both very impressed with Winthorpe’s achievements and skills, they disagree with how they’ve been achieved. Does his success boil down to his talent and circumstance, or is it all in the genes? If he wasn’t already loaded with cash, would he have been just as successful? Nature or nurture? Is it really, as Mortimer says, ‘all in the blood’?
On the opposite end of the social spectrum there’s Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), a homeless trickster who, on occasion, pretends to be a legless Vietnam vet in order to swindle the charitable out of their money, and is always ready to totally bullshit his way in and out of trouble; contrary to claims, he cannot make his victim spill a quart of blood with his attack style. As one ‘Barry White-looking motherfucker’ so eloquently puts it, Valentine is a ‘jive turkey’, which is not a good thing to be so close to Thanksgiving. When he accidentally walks backwards into Winthorpe outside Duke and Duke HQ, the latter overreacts wildly and presumes that he’s about to be mugged, even though all Valentine wanted to do was return his suitcase that was dropped in the collision. Although Winthorpe doesn’t say anything explicitly, you just know that one of the reasons he’s freaking out is because Valentine is black. Race is a major element to the comedic tension throughout this film ― notice how all the butlers/servants at Duke and Duke are black. The Dukes (and Winthorpe) still use outdated racial terminology, and when the n-word is mentioned once and once only by one of the Dukes, it’s loaded with absolute hatred and cuts like a knife.
Billy Ray Valentine : [watches Louis clean his shotgun] You know, you can’t just go around and shoot people in the kneecaps with a double-barreled shotgun ’cause you pissed at ’em.
Louis Winthorpe III : Why not?
Billy Ray Valentine : It’s called assault with a deadly weapon. You get twenty years for that shit.
The employees of Duke and Duke were never not going to get their jobs. They were born into this privilege. Likewise Valentine, not in a million years, would ever find himself working for the Dukes, but that’s exactly what happens when Randolph and Mortimer start a wager (for an amount that, when we find out how much, is pretty shocking) over whether or not Winthorpe and Valentine, were they to have their circumstances switched, would resort to unlawfulness and sin or prove adept at professional, fast-thinking work respectively. This involves a truly nefarious dismantling of Winthorpe’s life, from kicking him out of his house (and even changing the locks), framing him for theft and drug peddling, firing him from his job, cancelling his credit card privileges and making his fiance believe he’s consorted with a prostitute. In less than a day he’s homeless, penniless, jilted, humiliated and freshly out of prison with a black eye and an even more wounded sense of pride.
Meanwhile, Valentine is bailed out of the same prison by Randolph and Mortimer and lauded with riches, security, Coleman’s immaculate servitude, a limousine and Winthorpe’s job at Duke and Duke. That vase he just broke? It was his to break. All those valuable items he’s pocketing? They’re his possessions. He’s only stealing from himself. Now Valentine’s no fool ― he knows something’s up right from the start, but come on ― his limo has mobile phones in it (remember, this was 1983, kids ― that was a HUGE deal back then) the Dukes are offering him whisky and cigars on tap and look, there’s even a Jacuzzi available, and in the old days, the closest thing his family had to one of those was when someone farted in the tub. If there’s a catch, it all seems to be worth it at this stage.
So well executed is the characterisation in Trading Places that, despite only spending very little time with them in their established environments, it’s a delight to see Winthorpe and Valentine in their new roles. The former’s descent into destitution gives us just the right amount of schadenfruede but Aykroyd is never so initially despicable that we don’t care what happens to him. We want Winthorpe to learn the error of his ways by the end, especially after a good twenty-minute stretch of the film which is almost entirely (and intentionally) laugh-free, as his situation gets worse and worse. He even attempts suicide twice, whilst wearing a Santa costume for good measure. Luckily there’s a helping hand in Jamie Lee Curtis’ smart, ambitious prostitute Ophelia, who takes pity on him but also sees his predicament as the opportunity for a useful business proposition. If she helps him, she wants in on his wealth, which he swears will be his once again. Of course, Hollywood custom dictates that she and Winthorpe have to end up romantically paired, which is one of the film’s least interesting pay-offs.
As for Valentine, following his rapid ascension to wealth, his behaviour is not as one would expect – you know, to go nuts with spending but go too far and then realise that it’s better to stay humble and all that business. Valentine recognises the value and importance of money and, aside from a bit of fancy showing-off at first, he realises that it’s something to be taken seriously indeed. When he invites a bunch of freeloaders back to his new house for a party, he’s appalled by the way they end up treating the place. This is a clue that he’s going to make it out of the gutter while the others are simply content to drink and smoke their way into oblivion. He’s also very smart when it comes to his new job and cannily subverts what people expect of him, such as refusing to take the bait when Mortimer purposefully leaves a bundle of notes for him to steal. When Winthorpe and Valentine both realise they’ve been played for fools (the Dukes fully intend to throw Valentine back in the gutter after the bet, while Winthorpe’s image has now been far too tarnished to consider re-introducing him to the fold), they team up and scheme their revenge.
Given the traditional structure of the plot, the eventual good fortunes of the main characters are as inevitable as their downfall was at the start, and as such there’s not much to be expected in terms of narrative twists we know that Winthorpe and Valentine will be alright, and we know the Dukes will get their comeuppance ― the pleasure lies in just how it all plays out. I’ll be honest, I’ve never understood the intricacies of the stock market, and despite as reductive a lesson as is possible that’s given to us by Winthorpe before the ending, I still lose track over the climactic course of events in the lions den that is the trading floor, but the ‘last bastion of pure capitalism on Earth’ remains as fascinating and potent a symbol of 80s excess as one could imagine.
Elsewhere there’s loads of fun to be had in witnessing the tension between cultures, which the script has plenty of fun mining. Aside from the expected fashion clashes, Winthorpe is cut down a notch when he presumes Ophelia wouldn’t know the Shakespearean origins of her name, Randolph is bemused when his name is compared to that of Randy Jackson of the Jackson 5 and there’s the police officer detailing Winthorpe’s possessions who mispronounces Puccini’s La bohème. In case you didn’t know, it’s an opera. Then there’s those preppy idiot friends of Winthorpe’s regaling their girlfriends with a cappella odes to their wholesomeness, which is in direct contrast with Sylvester’s joyous disco-funk, played at Valentine’s impromptu house party.
Trading Places was one of the classic examples of an 80s R-rated comedy that embraced juicy profanity and easy nudity which made it popular on the big and small screens, although in the case of all that bad language, it was a total travesty whenever screened on TV. Murphy was probably the most compromised major star of the decade when it came to television broadcasting, with his dirty-mouthed shtick totally neutered (classic example from Beverly Hills Cop: ‘Foul-mouthed? Forget you, man!’). Put it simply, few stars had their way around an f-word than Murphy did. As for the nudity, fans of the slasher genre were probably left more shocked by Jamie Lee Curtis’ topless scenes than they were by the killings they’d become accustomed to in the first two Halloween films, Terror Train or Prom Night.
Going back to Murphy, this was the film that consolidated him as a force to be reckoned with, following the astounding breakout hit of 48 Hrs. After this there would be the world-dominating phenomenon of Beverly Hills Cop. With these three films (as well as the success of his stand-up movie Delirious), Murphy would become the biggest film star of the 1980s. And like many films made on the cusp of world domination, Trading Places has that thrilling aura of anticipation, where you can see the pieces coming together, the success looming, the magic in its early, purest form. Saying that, one could argue that the truly raw content of his stage act, as exemplified by Delirious, had to be toned down for the broader appeal of his cinematic persona, bar a few tasteless references to ‘faggots’ early on.
It was also arguably the last time Murphy was just one of the stars of the show ― with 48 Hrs he was rivalled by Nick Nolte’s old-school, paunchy gruffness and here he’s part of one hell of an ensemble. After this, the films seemed to revolve around Murphy, his co-stars reacting to rather than working with him, which is a shame, because Murphy proved he could be a magnificent team player. This was probably the last time Murphy was part of a bigger picture. After Delirious and Beverly Hills Cop, he was the bigger picture. And yet Trading Places is probably his finest moment. It showcased him at his funniest, most charming and winning. Whereas some of his later films in the decade saw him loud-mouth his way through films to the point of obnoxiousness, this sees him blend his brasher persona with his more subtle qualities together perfectly. There are still few greater deployments of an aside-to-camera reaction as when Valentine is patronised by the Dukes over what a BLT sandwich is. Such beautiful timing.
We have a roster of comedic performers who simply couldn’t be improved upon. Denholm Elliott is a model of pitch-perfect reactions. He’s a total delight, rivalling John Gielgud and Michael Gough as the best English butler in 80s cinema. The man exudes warmth, wit and subtle humour, bringing so much to the role, and it’s wonderful that he gets to have fun in the second half when another film might have just been content to leave him on the sidelines. This is one of those comedies where everybody gets a chance to shine, and it’s telling that so many of the very best comedies do this ― where there aren’t any dead spaces or flat characters. Everyone has a good time. An example of this is the train sequence, where Winthorpe, Valentine, Coleman and Ophelia attempt to scam the Duke’s hired goon Clarence Beeks. It’s a riot of comedy stereotyping. We have drunk Irish priests, naive exchange students from Cameroon, lederhosen-wearing Swedes (Curtis couldn’t pull off a convincing Austrian accent, hence the incongruity) and er, Winthorpe blacked-up as a pot-smoker. You could argue that Murphy’s African prince is just as offensive as Aykroyd’s more blatantly dodgy ‘hey mon’ act, but you’d definitely not get away with the latter today. Yet because of the hilarious energy of the performers, and what I took as ultimately good-natured, preposterous comic stereotyping, it didn’t come across as mean-spirited or ugly to me. Although, as I say, this scene would be a definite no-no these days, and with good reason.
Billy Ray Valentine : [on his first day of work] What if I can’t do this job, Coleman? What if I’m not what they expected?
Coleman : Just be yourself, sir. Whatever happens, they can’t take that away from you.
Let’s not forget just how vital this film was to the career of Jamie Lee Curtis too. Before this she really was only seen as a Scream Queen (not something to be sniffed at, of course, but maybe not something that would lead to long-term career options) Trading Places revealed her to be an actor of previously untapped comic excellence, giving her a second lease of life, something she has thanked Landis’ immensely for. Wonderfully, both Elliott and Curtis won Best Supporting awards at the 1984 Baftas (and the film was nominated for best original screenplay). In the US, all the film got was a nomination for Elmer Bernstein’s tremendous score. Likewise, Paramount Pictures had serious doubts regarding Aykroyd’s ability to deliver the goods away from his comic sidekick John Belushi, who had died the year before. Landis had total faith in his star, and his belief was totally justified. After this, Aykroyd became a fully-fledged paid-up member of the Ghostbusters, and from then on he’d no longer be thought of only as one of the Blues Brothers.
Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche are brilliantly, supremely malevolent as the Dukes ― for Ameche, it was his first big-screen performance in over a decade, and the success of this film gave the actor a second wind of popularity which culminated in an Oscar win for his turn in Cocoon a few years later. This also marked his first and only use of the word ‘fuck’ (and by God, it’s a good one). As for Bellamy, he seems like he’s the kinder of the two, but around the halfway mark, when Valentine overhears of their plans from a toilet cubicle, you realise he’s just as utterly despicable as Mortimer. Casting these two was such a wonderful move, especially Ameche, since he was chiefly known for playing such nice characters before. Like Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West a few decades prior, it made for a jolt seeing him be an absolute bastard, even if it was in a comic setting. If only someone would do the same for Tom Hanks today. Imagine him as a really bad guy. It could be a stroke of casting genius. Paul Gleason, one of the decade’s definitive grouches, is here in the first of his classic hat-trick appearances as a bureaucratic bastard ― he’d follow up the role of the brilliantly obnoxious Clarence Beeks with great boo-hiss turns in The Breakfast Club and Die Hard. Whether it’s telling women waiting for the payphone to fuck off, mocking gorillas or threatening to rip out someone’s skull and piss on their brain, he’s just begging to be made an example of, although being presumably raped into a dazed stupor by the insulted gorilla and being sent in a cage to the jungle trapped in a ape-suit might be a punishment too far.
The real star, however, may be John Landis himself. Directors of comedy can often be underrated, simply because the big laughs come from the actors, but in his heyday, Landis showcased remarkable talent. Among other things, he is a tremendous director of gatherings of crowd-scenes (an underrated skill), and he captures the hectic buzz of the working day beautifully. He has a great knack for cutaways and reaction shots (even from portraits hung up on the wall) that work as delightful punchlines. Can it be argued that Trading Places was his last truly superb film? After this he continued to make some very entertaining works (especially the yuppie-nightmare gem Into the Night, the much-loved Coming to America and the deliriously fun Innocent Blood), but I feel the energy and edge was never quite as strong as it was during these early films. I suppose that could be said of many directors (and actors, the same observation could be applied to Murphy). Those early, blazing years are often the freshest and most exciting.
In the end, Trading Places remains a potent satire, although it’s not so much an indictment of capitalism, more an acknowledgement that if you’re going to get by in this cutthroat world, you better play the game. Our heroes do, and they win, with absolute vengeance, yet when we see in the final scene that Coleman now has his own butler, the hierarchical system ultimately remains safe and stable. Interestingly though, it did inspire a positive, progressive change in 2010 when The Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act introduced a rule that declared the act of using inside information to gain advantage of the stock market illegal, which was what the Dukes’ did when they hired Beeks to gain an edge over the stock market. Delightfully, this is known as The Eddie Murphy Rule. What a stone groove, my man. Now get the fuck out.