Coleman: “Just be yourself, sir. Whatever happens, they can’t take that away from you.”
My dear Cinephile reader,
I never expected to be writing to you on a consistent basis for a year. At most, I thought it would be for a couple of months. Now, that we’re nearing the one-year mark, I wanted to let you know something that you may have figured out by now: my daily recommendations are a reflection of my mood and a way to help me comprehend what is happening around me. Film has always played that role in my life. It’s been a way to soothe or help me cope. Through the centuries, artists have used self-expression as a way to channel their yearnings and to inquire about the world around them. I have used this daily email communication as a conduit for my own questioning. And thus: today’s movie recommendation. This past year has been unprecedented in the groundswell of news. I don’t ever recall waking up to wave upon wave of change in my lifetime. Fortunately, I have the movies for solace as well as enlightenment.
Today, Wall Street is getting ready for a second week of market upheaval, with signs that the fever that pumped up the stock prices of the likes of GameStop Corp and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc is spreading. I decided to watch “Trading Places” (1983) because it felt the right story for this moment. This incredibly funny film – dexterously directed by John Landis, responsible for “Animal House” (1978) and “The Blues Brothers”(1980) – is discerning in many ways. As Wall Street’s largest hedge funds are still reeling from the smack of realization that retail traders could drive up the prices of stocks that were heavily bet against -causing major losses to traditional investors – this screwball comedy also brings up issues of race and gender. But primordially – it makes us laugh.
Two of my favorite comedies, Howard Hawks’ “Twentieth Century” (1934) and Preston Sturges’ “The Palm Beach Story” (1942) – have sequences that take place in a train, articulating a change to the status quo. In the last half of “Trading Places” we’re jettisoned from Philadelphia to New York with the cast that’s representing the new world order.
Two aristocratic wealthy brothers – owners of a commodity brokerage firm – wager against each other about the issue of nature versus nurture. One argues that a man is a product of his environment while the other argues that “breeding is in the blood.” The upper-crust bred executive Louis Winthorpe III who manages their company and down-and-out black hustler Billy Ray Valentine become the pawns in their bet. Winthorpe is framed by the siblings for a crime he didn’t commit and Valentine is placed in his position. When their scheming is uncovered, Valentine and Winthorpe set out to undo all the wrongs.
It’s a premise that – once it gets going – works so elegantly. Casting old school actors Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the two rich brothers who are determined to ruin an innocent man for the ruthless sake of a one-dollar bet is phenomenal. They bring gravitas to the proceedings as well as tying this modern world to the old.
This is probably Dan Ackroyd’s best performance – taking advantage of his perfect comedic timing and facial expressions. Watching his Ivy-League bred Winthorpe deteriorate into a desperate Santa Claus who will stuff and eat smoked salmon from his pockets is incomparable. Eddie Murphy – freshly made a juggernaut from “48 Hours” (1982) – is a live wire as Valentine – and it’s a well-calibrated turn. Jamie Lee-Curtis totally redefined her career, playing the prostitute with the heart of gold. She was about to be pigeon-holed as the scream queen from horror films, and she showed she could be a nimble comedienne. Denholm Elliot – whom Roger Ebert described as “the most dependable of British actors” – steals every moment he is on screen as Coleman, the butler to both Valentine and Winthorpe.
It’s a very timely social satire. There are a few elements that some may feel have not aged well. I argue that they only make the issues it is confronting stronger and more worthy of discussion.
Louis Winthorpe III : “Think big, think positive, never show any sign of weakness. Always go for the throat. Buy low, sell high. Fear? That’s the other guy’s problem. Nothing you have ever experienced will prepare you for the absolute carnage you are about to witness. Super Bowl, World Series – they don’t know what pressure is. In this building, it’s either kill or be killed. You make no friends in the pits and you take no prisoners. One minute you’re up half a million in soybeans and the next, boom, your kids don’t go to college and they’ve repossessed your Bentley. Are you with me?”
Available to stream on STARZ and DIRECTV and to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod
Directed by John Landis
Starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis
Director John Landis and Screenwriters Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod on Bringing “Trading Places” to the Screen
Landis: “I got a call from Jeff Katzenberg, the executive at Paramount at that time, asking if I would read a script called ‘Black And White,’ which I thought was a lousy title — ironically black or white was something I did with Michael Jackson several years later. It was very old fashioned, a social comedy very much like the screwball stuff done in the ’30s. Hollywood made a series of movies — Preston Sturges, Frank Capra — these comedies that really were about society at the time, and were fairly political, but wonderfully funny and with strong characters…
Harris: “There were these two brothers who were both doctors who I would play tennis with on a fairly regular basis, and they were incredibly irritating to play with because they had a major sibling rivalry going, all the time about everything.” So they always had to be separated, you know, play on the other team. And they were very wealthy but also incredibly cheap — we would play on public courts where it was like a couple of bucks for four guys for an hour. And they’d have arguments about who was coming up with 50 cents, and I think one very hot day I played with them, and I just came home and was fed up with it, and I just thought, ‘God, I just don’t want to play with these people, they’re awful.’ And I had the idea of them betting on a nature/nurture situation with somebody in their company, and I’d pretty much worked out the whole thing, and went over to Herschel’s and told it to him and he thought it was fabulous. At the time I was living in what was a fairly run-down part of L.A. near Fairfax Avenue that was completely crime ridden. I lived in an apartment complex where everybody either had a gun held to their head or been raped or whatever — just a very criminal environment — that was part of it I suppose as well.
Weingrod: “The truth is that the only way that a screenplay can really be judged, by definition, isn’t on the page, it’s by watching the film that was made from it. It can certainly be read and enjoyed, but the inescapable fact is that it was written in order to be seen.” (businessinsider.com)
Director John Landis on Casting “Trading Places”
“…The script was developed for Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. And when I was sent the script, Richard Pryor, unfortunately, had his accident where he burnt himself rather badly, and they sent it to me and said, ‘What do you think?’ ‘48 Hours’ hadn’t come out yet, but they’d previewed it, and Eddie Murphy had previewed very well, and they thought, ‘Ah this kid’s going to be a star,’ So they said, ‘What do you think about Eddie Murphy playing the Billy Ray Valentine part?’ And I of course said, ‘Who’s Eddie Murphy?’ Because I didn’t watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ since John [Belushi] had died. So I read the script, and I saw Eddie’s tapes, and went to New York and met with Eddie. And they wanted — I won’t tell you who they wanted me to cast — but the studio was very unhappy with almost everybody they wanted me to cast. John Belushi had died, and [Dan Aykroyd’s] movie without John was called ‘Dr. Detroit,’ which was a failure, so conventional wisdom was that Aykroyd without Belushi was like Abbott without Costello, and that his career was over…Now I knew Danny well, having worked with him, and I knew Danny was a fine actor, and he could easily play this guy. Danny, he’s an actor: You tell him what you want, and he delivers. And I thought he’d be wonderful. So he reduced his price quite a bit, and I got him, so I had Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, and they were upset because Danny hadn’t — his last couple of pictures hadn’t done well, and Eddie was still an unknown really.
‘48 Hours’ came out while we were shooting…The only character in the script I had a problem with, because she’s such a fantasy, is Ophelia. The classic ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ — she’s such a fantasy that I thought how the fuck am I going to get away with this?’ I had met Jamie Lee Curtis — I shot a documentary on horror stuff, and she was host of it — she was a ‘scream queen.’ And I met her and she was so funny and smart and sexy, and I thought, ‘Oh she’d be terrific.’ She had just made ‘Halloween 2,’ for which she’d been paid I think a $1 million, and we paid her probably $70,000. When I cast her the studio went nuts. I was called into the head of the studio’s office and he said, ‘This woman’s a B-movie actress,’ and I said, ‘Not after this movie!’ But boy they really didn’t like the fact that I cast Danny and Jamie.” (businessinsider.com)
About Screenwriter Timothy Harris
Timothy Harris is an American author, screenwriter and producer. He has been nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay as well as an Annie Award for Writing in a Feature Production. His credits include “Trading Places,” “Brewster’s Millions,” “Twins,” “Kindergarten Cop,” and “Space Jam.” (saylescreen.com)
About Screenwriter Herschel Weingrod
Herschel Weingrod has been a working screenwriter and producer for over twenty-five years. His credits include “Trading Places,” “Twins,” “Kindergarten Cop,” “Brewster’s Millions,” “Falling Down,” “Space Jam,” “Pure Luck,” and “The Final Season.” He is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin and the London Film School, and a member of the Writers Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Mr. Weingrod resides in Los Angeles, California. (/2019austinfilmfestivalconfe.sched.com)
About Director John Landis
John Landis was bitten by the film bug when he was eight years old watching “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” (1958). A voracious movie-watcher ever since, Landis pursued his favorite directors wherever he could while growing up in Los Angeles. After dropping out of high school, he landed a job in the mail room at 20th Century Fox, where he found himself on countless sets and sneaking into projection booths to watch dailies with studio executives. When the opportunity arose to work on the set of “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) in Yugoslavia, Landis jumped at the chance, and worked on that film and many others in Europe over the next two years in a variety of roles from production assistant to stuntman to dialogue coach. After returning to America, Landis began his directing career with “Schlock” (1973), a parody of low-budget horror films. Johnny Carson was a fan of the film, and an appearance on “The Tonight Show” introduced Landis to Jim Abrams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker who were then producing their theater show, “Kentucky Fried Theater.” Landis directed a film adaptation of the stage show called “Kentucky Fried Movie” (1977), and then landed his first studio film, “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which became a huge box-office success. Through the 1980’s Landis directed many more blockbuster films such as “The Blues Brothers” (1980), “An American Werewolf In London” (1981), “Trading Places” (1983), “Spies Like Us” (1985), “¡Three Amigos!” (1986), “Amazon Women On The Moon” (1987), and “Coming To America” (1988). Landis also directed the cultural touchstone music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983), and later collaborated with Jackson again for the video “Black Or White” (1991). Landis also directed 2 segments for “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983), “Into The Night” (1985), “Oscar” (1991), “Innocent Blood” (1992), “Beverly Hills Cop III” (1994), “The Stupids” (1996), “Blues Brothers 2000” (1998), “Susan’s Plan” (1998), and “Burke and Hare” (2010). His television directing credits include “George Burns Comedy Week,” “Dream On,” which he was also an Executive Producer of, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project” (2007), “Psych,” and “Franklin & Bash.” (dga.org)