Thirty years ago, “Trading Places,” John Landis‘ classic comedy, premiered to critical and commercial success. Not only was it the 4th highest grossing film of 1983 (making over $90 million, behind “Flashdance,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “Return of the Jedi“), but the film also received praise from the likes of Roger Ebert (“This is good comedy”) and Rex Reed (“Trading Places is an updated Frank Capra with four-letter words, and I can think of no higher praise than that”). The film is about two beyond-wealthy yet bored brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who swap out a well-to-do finance guy in their employ (Dan Aykroyd) with a homeless conman (Eddie Murphy) just to watch the world burn, oh no, we mean to test the good old “nature vs. nurture” debate. Decades later, “Trading Places” is still hilarious, with its cutting commentary on class and race in America (regrettably still topical), legendary comedic performances by Murphy (way before “Triplets” talk and Murphy became the most overpaid actor in Hollywood) and Aykroyd (way before “Ghostbusters 3” talk and Aykroyd opened up about his belief in aliens), and so much more (Jamie Lee Curtis plays a hooker with a heart of gold, the 1% lose out in the end, and more).
To mark the occasion, check out a few tidbits of trivia that you may not know about the film below and keep your eye on the frozen orange juice market. “Trading Places” is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray (we recommend the “Looking Good, Feeling Good” edition in either format), and can be seen on Netflix: what better time to watch than during this summer weekend (there’s only so much sunshine and fresh air you can soak up), especially with some freshly squeezed orange juice (take that, Duke brothers!)?
1. It Was Originally Meant To Be A Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder Vehicle Called “Black And White”
After the uber-success of “Stir Crazy” (grossing over $100 million and ranking 3rd overall for 1980, although with mixed reviews), the team of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder was a hot ticket. With comedic and literal gold in mind, the story for “Trading Places” was born, though with the slightly more blunt title of “Black and White.” Too bad “Ebony and Ivory” was already taken. Remember, this was the early ’80s and a to-be-rated R comedy, so subtlety and racial sensitivity were not high on the checklist (for some context, check out this landmark ‘SNL’ sketch).
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depends on how you feel about “Norbit“), Pryor was unable to do the film and the studio replaced him with Murphy. Rather than taking Pryor’s reins, Murphy had Wilder re-cast and the rest is history. Being the 22-year-old comedian’s second film role (“48 Hours” being his screen debut), Billy Ray Valentine “made him a phenomenon.” A few years later, Pryor and Wilder would get the chance to work together again for the third time (first was the moderately-received “Silver Streak“) in the critically panned and not-so-classic “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”
2. Other Casting Options Included Ray Milland, John Gielgud And More
Although now we can’t imagine anyone else but Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche playing the dastardly scheming Duke brothers, toying with people’s lives and likelihoods (ahem *Koch brothers* ahem), the producers had a different pairing in mind. Ralph Bellamy (“The Awful Truth,” “His Girl Friday“) may have been the first choice for Randolph, but Don Ameche (“The Story of Alexander Graham Bell,” “Midnight“) wasn’t for Mortimer. Apparently, that honor goes to Ray Milland (“The Lost Weekend,” “Dial M for Murder“), who had to decline because of being un-insurable due to age and health.
Milland wasn’t the only English Oscar-winner up for a role in “Trading Places,” Sir John Gielgud was in talks to play Coleman the butler, the part ultimately played by Denholm Elliott. This casting would have made almost too much sense, Coleman being a not-as-biting version of Hobson (the role Gielgud made iconic in the original “Arthur“). The similarities were so apparent that the Pittsburgh Press wrote that “Elliott has what will forevermore be thought of as the John Gielgud part: the effete, efficient and drolly contemptuous English butler.” Funnily enough, Gielgud and Elliott would appear together onscreen later that year in the notoriously horrendous remake of “The Wicked Lady,” with Gielgud playing the trusty butler Hogarth to Elliott’s duped lord of the manor, Sir Ralph Skelton.
In “amazing stunt-casting that could have been” trivia, G. Gordon Liddy was up for the role of Clarence Beeks (the inside trader who helps the Duke brothers get rid of Winthorpe to make way for Valentine). If you don’t quite remember your relatively recent U.S. history or “All the President’s Men,” Liddy is the man behind Watergate. Reportedly, Liddy was on board until he got to the part where Beeks becomes a gorilla’s mate. Even without Liddy, they made sure to include an allusion to what might have been in the final copy by having Beeks (Paul Gleason, best remembered for playing the jerk principal in “The Breakfast Club“) reading Liddy’s autobiography “Will” on the train.
3. There Was Improv (But You Weren’t Meant To See It)
Unintentionally, “Trading Places” includes some great improvisational scenes, mostly errors or goofs that were kept in the final cut just because they were so darn funny. For example, the whole bit about Ophelia’s accent and outfit not matching on the train (Swedish accent with Austrian/German lederhosen) was improvised due to Jamie Lee Curtis not being able to do the assigned Austrian accent. Luckily for us, Landis kept it in and Curtis got to show her comedic chops (and we’re not referring to her cleavage, though you try searching YouYube for clips of her in this movie and you’ll rediscover that the Internet is full of pervs), letting her break out of the “Halloween” scream-queen mold.
4. What Do Mozart, Mark Twain And The Three Stooges All Have In Common?
All three are linked to “Trading Places,” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is about “a day of madness,” in which the head-servant conspires to expose his scheming, skirt-chasing employer. Not-so-coincidentally, there are a few allusions to the 18th-century comic opera made in “Trading Places.” During the film’s opening sequence, “The Marriage of Figaro” overture plays while scanning the morning routines of Philadelphians, ending on Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) being served breakfast in bed. On his way to work, Winthorpe whistles “Se vuol ballare” (the aria where Figaro declares “I’ll overturn all the machinery”), foreshadowing the film’s ending where he and Valentine (Murphy) overturn the Duke brothers. How many people actually got that reference during the film’s initial release? Honestly, we’d like to go to a pub quiz with those select few who comprise the intersection of John Landis fans and opera enthusiasts.
Another probable source of inspiration, Mark Twain‘s short story “Million Pound Bank Note” is about two eccentric millionaire brothers who give a penniless pauper a one million pound note, betting on whether the un-cashable note is useless or if the possession of it enhances the man’s life in some way. Two old geezers toying with the life of someone down-on-their-luck, sound familiar? More famously and just as applicable, Twain also wrote the classic American novel “The Prince and The Pauper,” in which a prince and a pauper trade places. (See the connection?) When you get a chance, we recommend checking out the 1937 film version with Errol Flynn.
Moving on from the definitive source of American wit to some “whoop, whoop, whoop”-ing slapstick, the “nature vs. nurture” debate is one employed in many Three Stooges shorts, though “Hoi Polloi” stands out in particular in its resemblance to “Trading Places.” In the short, two professors wager $10,000 (that sure is some moolah for 1935) on whether they can turn the Stooges into gentlemen, specifically on whether environment or heredity win out (think “Pygmalion” without the romance, which is “My Fair Lady” without the songs). Though shelling out more dough than the Duke brothers’ bet of one whole dollar, the old men make no headway with the Stooges. The film concludes with a party in which the society guests end up thwacking and slapping each other silly as the Stooges put on airs, saying, “this is our punishment for associating with the hoi polloi.” Although John Landis has not directly quoted this as a source, to our knowledge (feel free to share in the comment section below), the use of the wager and role-reversal in “Trading Places” does bear a striking resemblance “Hoi Polloi” and Landis is a known Stooges fan.
5. Cameos Include Frank Oz, John Landis And Jamie Lee Curtis’ Sister
“Trading Places” is a treasure trove for cameos and inside Landis film jokes. Bo Diddley pops up as a pawnbroker, Jim Belushi wears a gorilla costume at the New Year’s party on the train, comedy duo Franken & Davis (Al Franken and Tom Davis, fellow ‘SNL’ alums) are baggage handlers, Kelly Curtis (Jamie Lee’s sister) plays “Muffy,” one of the girls at Winthorpe’s country club, a trenchcoat-wearing, briefcase-carrying John Landis stands near Valentine after he’s released from jail, executive producer George Folsey, Jr. is the first man to greet Winthorpe at Duke & Duke…
Frank Oz’s cameo as the police officer checking in Winthorpe’s property after he gets arrested is doubly significant as Oz also had a cameo in “Blues Brothers” as a police officer checking Jake Blues (John Belushi) out and giving him back his property. Another fun reference, Winthorpe’s prison number 7474505B is the same as Jake Blues’ in “Blues Brothers.”
Speaking of in-jokes, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche reprise their roles as the Duke brothers in “Coming to America.” In that film, the brothers are homeless on the streets. Seeing them in their hobo state, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) throws the brothers a large wad of cash and Mortimer says to Randolph that it’s enough for a new start.
6. Don Ameche Really Did Not Want To Curse Onscreen
Coming out of a 13-year hiatus for the role of Mortimer Duke, Don Ameche was very old school, as you might expect of the man who played Betty Grable‘s love interest twice (“Down Argentine Way” and “Moon Over Miami“). With a combination of conservative values and religious beliefs, it took a bit for Ameche to reconcile saying the F-word and N-word onscreen. Not only did he refuse to do more than one take for the end scene (where he shouts, “Fuck him!”), but every time they shot a scene in which his character used vulgar language, Ameche went out of his way to apologize to the cast and crew, even going as far as to show up early to set in order to do so (or at least according to co-star Jamie Lee Curtis, who shared that story years later on “Larry King Live”). As a credit to Ameche’s talent, we didn’t see this hesitation onscreen, but rather a particular relish when he said those not-so-nice words that thoroughly suited the not-so-nice Mortimer. That cursing was worth it as the role re-launched Ameche’s career and he went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his next film “Cocoon,” where he played a senior citizen rejuvenated by not-so-kosher means (the fountain of youth meets Atlantis).
7. There’s An “Eddie Murphy Rule” (And No, It’s Not About Helping Hookers)
No, it’s not about helping out poor, unfortunate transvestite prostitutes. The “Eddie Murphy Rule” is about “banning using misappropriated government information to trade in the commodity markets.” It took them almost thirty years, but in 2010, the U.S. government finally made it illegal to profit off of ill-gotten information. (Really? Only three years ago?) Commodity Futures Trading Commission chief Gary Gensley actually referenced “Trading Places” on the floor of Congress, “In the movie Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy, the Duke brothers intended to profit from trades in frozen concentrated orange juice futures contracts using an illicitly obtained and not yet public Department of Agriculture orange crop report.” Officially, this law is Section 136 of the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, under Section 746. For our time, money and enjoyment, we’d rather stick with calling it the “Eddie Murphy Rule,” just like we’d rather call a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich a BLT.