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Readers of this series know my undying love for Coming To America. As far as I can tell, that film’s appreciation is the most beloved piece in the Black History Mumf series--and also the one for which I received the most hate mail. Seems a lot of people didn’t take too kindly to my calling Coming to America “the Blackest movie ever made.” Nowhere did I say that it could not be beloved or appreciated by anyone else; I simply stated that the film works on two levels, one of which is a sneaky series of in-jokes and winks directed at ghetto denizens familiar with the 'hood planet Prince Akeem visits in search of his queen. There are more Black in-jokes in Coming to America, and more familiarity for us, than any movie I have ever seen. Hence my comment, which I stand by 100%. So, to folks offended by my decision to give Coming to America a ghetto pass bigger than Justin Timberlake’s, I say two things:
1. Too fucking bad.
2. LEAVE NOW because I’m about to ruin Trading Places for you too. Coming to America may be my favorite Eddie Murphy picture, but with great comic turns by Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis and two legendary actors, Trading Places is Murphy's best picture.
Trading Places is not the Blackest movie ever made, but the similarities to Coming To America are at times striking. They serve as bookends to the 80’s, and not just because of director John Landis’ casting of Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche. In both films, rich and poor intersect, and what happens in the angles of that intersection is sly and subversive, but with different outcomes. In one film, a rich person’s act of charity is done in good faith, even if it inadvertently helps rekindle another’s potential for villainy. In the other film, a rich person’s act of “charity” helps one character while destroying another character’s life, all in service to a bet between power brokers. This coincidence has to be intentional, especially if you know the logistics of Ameche and Bellamy’s cameo in Coming to America.
Had affirmative action existed in Mark Twain’s time, he would have written Trading Places. Twain wrote a story called The Million Pound Note, wherein two rich men make a bet over the fate of a poor man who obtains a bank note from them that he cannot cash. The rich men in Trading Places make a bet on nature vs. nurture, with Randolph Duke (Bellamy) betting brother Mortimer (Ameche) that they can take a Black thug off the street and make him into a successful businessman in their brokerage firm simply by offering him opportunities and education. Similarly, they believe their current golden boy, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), a man born with a 4-place table setting’s worth of silverware in his mouth, can be reduced to a life of crime by having all his privileges revoked. The Dukes are incredibly powerful men in Philadelphia, so their plan is easy to hatch with the help of their henchman Clarence Beeks. Twice in the film, people question checks written out to Clarence Beeks, and both times the Dukes brush them off and take the checks. This is an easily missed piece of sloppiness for most viewers, as it telegraphs the Dukes’ fatal mistake later. These guys don’t cover their tracks well at all.
Trading Places opens with Mozart on the soundtrack and the story focused on pampered rich boy Louis Winthorpe. We see his loyal houseservant Coleman (Denholm Elliott from Raiders of the Lost Ark) preparing breakfast for him, then shaving him before he leaves for work at Duke and Duke. Louis is so privileged that the producer of this movie, George Folsey, Jr., says good morning to him when he walks into Duke & Duke. Winthorpe is engaged to the Dukes’ grandniece, a snooty rich bitch named Penelope, whose mannerisms are the predecessor to Kristen Davis’ Charlotte character on Sex and The City. Louis is sharp at predicting the trends of the commodities market, is well liked by his preppy, uber-White friends, and lives in the Duke’s estate. He has every credit card in the book, circa 1983, and lives in such a huge bubble that he mistakes a Black man accidentally running into him as a robbery attempt.
That Black man, Billy Ray Valentine, is introduced to us as a blind, legless veteran begging for change while pushing himself in a little cart on the streets of Philadelphia. His hustle is way sloppier than the Dukes—when an attractive woman goes by, Billy Ray accurately reaches for the hem of her dress. A couple of cops see Billy Ray’s con, and question him about how he obtained his injuries. When Billy Ray knows as much about Vietnam as your average American public grammar school student, and even less about how to act blind, the cops spoil his plan by lifting him up off his cart.
"I have legs! I can walk--I-I can see! It's a miracle!!"
As he runs from the cops, Billy Ray runs into Louis. Louis thinks he’s being mugged, which allows the cops to catch up with him. When Billy Ray asks for help from a doorman (Robert Earl Jones) who saw the whole thing, the doorman takes Louis’ side. Armed with Louis’ suitcase, which he came by accidentally, Billy Ray runs into the offices of the Dukes, where he is captured in a show of force not uncommon for wrongly accused Negroes.
Is there a problem, officers?
Arrested and in prison, Billy Ray tries to convince his fellow prisoners that he’s a former student of Bruce Lee. Using the patented Stir Crazy method, Billy Ray hops around the room like a maniac, doing Bruce Lee noises and flailing his arms wildly. It impresses the folks around him.
"Quick! Who's that actor behind Murphy?!"
When the two toughest guys in the joint approach him, Billy Ray tries the same stunt on them. It doesn’t work.
Fat guy: "Man, when they bought you in here, and booked you, you were cryin' like a pussy!"
Muscle guy: "YEAH!!"
Before being pummeled, Billy Ray makes bail. “Someone’s bailed you out, Valentine,” says the cop. “They have?!” asks Billy Ray incredulously. Once outside, Billy Ray is picked up by the Dukes. He thinks their interest is either a scam or they are cruising for a gay pickup. He asks the Black chauffeur driving the car, but he’s about as helpful as James Earl Jones’ dad was when Louis feigned Billy Ray’s robbery attempt. Every question is met with a grunt or silence.
“Thank you, you’ve been real helpful.”
The Dukes take Billy Ray to their mansion—the same one Louis lives in—where he is sent to a Jacuzzi bath and tended to by Coleman. Now dressed in a Harvard jacket, Billy Ray walks around stealing items as the Dukes try to convince him that the house is his and Coleman is his manservant. “You’re just stealing from yourself,” says Mortimer. “So this is all my shit?” asks Billy Ray before destroying an expensive vase by accident. Randolph tells Billy Ray it is, and that the $3,500 vase will be reported to the insurance company as a $5,000 vase. “See, Mortimer, he’s made us money already!”
With Billy Ray in the mansion, the Dukes set about part B of their plan. They must take everything away from their mark if they want this experiment to work. Louis bumps into Clarence Beeks at the club, and Beeks slips incriminating items into his jacket. Landis’ wide screen shots of the club, with its numerous portraits of members and founders, and its huge horseshoe table, are intimidating examples of privilege.
When Louis is “exposed” as a thief who has stolen the $150 in marked bills Beeks planted on him, Landis edits in paintings from the wall over Louis’ pleas of innocence, as if these long dead former members are passing judgment on him simultaneously with their live counterparts.
Louis is arrested, and processed by the same guy who released Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers.
"One bag of PCP--unused."
The cop finds a bag of Beeks-planted PCP on him. “You’ll get 3 to 5 for this,” exclaims the cop. Louis is booked on harder crimes than petit larceny.
When Louis refuses to strip, he is issued an ultimatum by one of those people he feels is beneath him.
“Strip, you little shit, before I tear you a new asshole!”
Like Billy Ray, Louis goes to a holding pen. Except minus Billy Ray’s street smarts and bullshit expertise, he gets his ass handed to him in a fight. When Penelope, his beloved fiancée, comes to pick him up, she is more concerned with the way he looks and smells than his ordeal behind bars.
"Those men wanted to have sex with me back there!!"
Coming out of the precinct, Louis is accosted by a junkie prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis) who demands a fix. She tongues Louis down right in front of Penelope, then drops to her knees to “give him what he likes” in exchange for a fix. Penelope slaps the everlasting gobstopper shit out of Louis and walks off. The junkie prostitute turns out to be fake (well, a fake junkie—she’s a real ho), and explains that a man paid her to play a joke on him. When she points to where the man was standing, Beeks is gone.
Louis hails a cab, borrows money from Ophelia the hooker, and takes her to the Dukes’. The locks are changed, so Louis knocks. When Coleman answers the door, Louis is shocked to find Coleman doesn’t recognize him. He assumes that the Dukes are mad at him, but his servant wouldn’t dare disown him. Coleman slams the door in his face, leaving him to crawl back to the cab, where Ophelia is waiting.
Feeling sorry for Louis, as all hookers with hearts of gold would, Ophelia takes him home to her modest Philly apartment, worlds away from the Duke Mansion, where a party is about to take place. Billy Ray returns to the scene of prior crimes and debts, a local bar tended by the great character actor Bill Cobbs. Here he runs into the two gentlemen who accosted him in prison. As usual, one does all the talking and the other just says “Yeah!” The fat one calls him a motherfucker. Billy Ray's response is one I shall use forever more when referred to by this term:
To prove he wasn’t bullshitting anyone in the bar about his new wealth, Billy Ray invites them to a party at the Dukes’. The strangers are far from careful with the items inside, putting out cigarette butts in the Persian rug, going into bedrooms they should stay out of and, in a nod to the director’s trademark love of topless women, stripping on the dance floor. This scene would normally go uncommented on by yours truly, but it’s memorable for two reasons: One, Sylvester’s awesome disco classic, Do You Wanna Funk, is blaring on the soundtrack, and two, the members of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee that Landis hired for this scene dance like rhythmless robots. Their act is actually funnier than Billy Ray’s response to it, and to everyone destroying his house:
“GET THE FUCK OUT!”
Valentine even tells his prison buddies—the ones he was trying to impress—to get the fuck out. Coleman, who was having a good time drinking the booze he normally only gets to serve, offers to help clean up the mess before the Dukes return. Meanwhile, Louis finds that his funds have been frozen by the bank. This was before the heyday of computer banking, so Louis only has his slow reaction to blame for this! All his credit cards are frozen and he can’t get one thin dime out of his financial institution.
Presumably to make up for the sad Robo-Titties routine, Ophelia doffs her top while changing, giving the audience Jamie Lee Curtis’ first nude scene. She’d been in all those slasher movies, yet she loses her top in a comedy. No complaints here—it’s strictly in character. Also in character is Louis naively going to his social club in the hopes of enlisting his friends to help clear his name. He finds his 'boys singing to some women a barbershop quartet-style ode to how and where they were fucked by the singers. (I’m not kidding.) The girls blush and giggle, proving they are as whorish as Ophelia, but minus the hearts of gold. No one will help Louis, presumably because he looks like Pimps Up, Hos Down pimp Mr.White Folks' dad in the duds he got from Ophelia’s closet. “We don’t want your drugs here,” says the girl who, just seconds ago, was immortalized in four part harmony as the biggest slut of all.
So the stage is set: Louis has been deprived of home, family, woman, friends and money, though there is hope for the first four of those things if he plays his cards right with Ophelia. Billy Ray has been given a fancy place to stay, a bankroll and a cushy job at the brokerage firm, despite the fact he knows nothing about trading. Or should I say he knows nothing book-smart about it. When the Dukes explain what they do, Billy Ray breaks it down to its essence: “Oh, so y’all a buncha bookies?”
Yes, and in addition to live-changing trauma, the Dukes trade in commodities. Mortimer and Randolph put cheese, bacon, orange juice and gold on a table to explain to Billy Ray how their brokerage house dealings work. Randolph speaks to Billy Ray as if he were a stone idiot, even going so far as to explain what a BLT is. Murphy breaks the fourth wall for about 3 seconds, staring directly at us.
"Do you believe this shit? They're telling a bruva what bacon is?!"
The first time I saw Trading Places, I almost jumped out of my seat before laughing my ass off.
Trading Places occurs during the Christmas season, and I’ve written about how Mortimer loses this bet before. To summarize here, Louis discovers in the financial papers that there’s a new, cullud version of him in the Dukes’ favor (and in his old house). He decides to crash the Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus. Stinking drunk and, mirroring an early scene, shoving food into his pockets the way Billy Ray shoved knick knacks, Louis hatches his plan for revenge. Barging in on the Dukes and Billy Ray, he demands his name be cleared and his life restored. While the Dukes scold Louis, Billy Ray calls security.
|"Put that phone down!" Oops!
“Hello security? Merry Christmas!!”
Louis fires shots into the air to make his escape before running outside. Billy Ray overhears the Dukes talking in the mens room. While he hides so no one can discover he’s smoking a joint, Billy Ray overhears Randolph telling Mortimer to pay up. His nature vs. nurture theory has just been proven by Louis’ appearance. Mortimer begrudgingly settles his debt for the amount depicted below.
"Go find one of those 99-cent stores in the 'hood to spend this!"
After they leave, Billy Ray tries to find Louis. They’ve both been played, and while Billy Ray profited from the Dukes’ mayhem, he also knows what it’s like to be as desperate as Louis currently is. Louis escapes Billy Ray’s attempt to speak with him by catching the most ghetto looking bus on film. While Louis eats his stolen goods through a dirty Santa beard, Billy Ray has a “follow that vehicle” cinema moment so he can catch up with Louis at Ophelia’s.
He can't even shoot himself properly. It's a bad day for our rich boy.
When Billy Ray arrives at Ophelia’s, she immediately recognizes him and leaves to warn Louis. Louis is in the bathroom but he’s not answering, presumably because he ate way too much Activia yogurt. Billy Ray breaks down the door to find Louis unconscious from an overdose. When Louis awakens, he finds Coleman by his side. Thinking it all a dream, he says to Coleman “I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful KNEEEE-gro!” Aykroyd’s delivery of this line is priceless, as is his response when he turns to find that terrible, awful Negro in the room with him. Louis responds the way most rich White folks would to finding a terrible Negro in their house, or even their neighborhood.
Usually they do this with laws, but hey, use whatever’s handy.
After letting Billy Ray talk, Louis learns of the dastardly plot by the Dukes. When he plans a more violent retribution, the original poor man in the room points out that the way to hurt rich people is to make them poor. The ghetto hustler light bulb pops up over Louis’ head. It goes from 40 watt to 150 watt when he notices that the agricultural report, which can determine the year’s commodities trading on frozen orange juice, is being guarded by the same Clarence Beeks both Louis and Billy Ray saw checks for in the Duke payroll. “The Dukes are trying to corner the commodities market,” says Louis, noticing the insider trading.
Now that Louis has joined the lower class status that Ophelia and Coleman occupy and Billy Ray will soon be re-occupying once the Dukes reverse their mischief, he hatches a plan to get rich by bankrupting the Dukes with a fake agricultural report. This will involve Jamie Lee Curtis dressed like an Austrian but wielding a Swedish accent, Denholm Elliott as a drunk Irish priest, Eddie Murphy as a beef jerky loving student from Cameroon and Dan Aykroyd in the least offensive use of blackface on a train since Richard Pryor smeared Gene Wilder (this film’s original casting choices, by the way) with shoe polish in Silver Streak. It also involves another Belushi working with Landis, an appearance by two guys to remind us that Trading Places IS an SNL movie of sorts—or at least one that uses several SNL members, a fake agricultural report and a gorilla who gets real friendly with Mr. Clarence Beeks before he can kill our heroes.
|"Get a good look at 'em, so I can distract you from my accent!"
|"Religion is a good thing, taken in moderation," says Coleman.
|One of these guys is a Senator now...
|One of these things ain't no real gorilla...not that the real gorilla will care.
"Yah, mon, I was Director of Cultural Activities at the Haile Selassie Pavilion."
If you’ve seen Coming to America, you already know what happens to the Dukes. Mortimer and Randolph encounter Louis and Billy Ray on the trading floor after all has been said and done. When Mortimer demands a reason for Billy Ray’s betrayal—after all, didn’t they make him?!!—Louis provides the explanation:
|The duo had their own dollar bet. You can find out for yourself who won.
Don Ameche undeservingly won the Oscar for breakdancing in Cocoon, but if they really wanted to honor him, I don’t know why the Academy didn’t look at his super-sized freakout at the end of Trading Places. As Ralph Bellamy clutches his heart in cardiac arrest, Ameche screams, shouts, and gestures wildly, demanding that the situation immediately be reversed and investigated. Nobody listens to him, and Louis, Ophelia, Coleman and Billy Ray live happily—and richly—ever after.
The Dukes' trader trades himself to death.
Exchange Guy: Mortimer, your brother is not well. We better call an ambulance.
Mortimer: Fuck him! Now, you listen to me! I want trading reopened right now.
Mortimer: Fuck him! Now, you listen to me! I want trading reopened right now.
"Lookin' good, Billy Ray!"
"Feelin' good, Louis!"
sang “you’re out of touch, I’m out of time,” and that lyric nicely sums up rich and poor in America. Louis is clueless about how the other half lives, and when he encounters Billy Ray the first time, he flatly refuses to consider that this terrible, awful Negro may not be attempting to rob him. All you seem to hear from certain politicians is that poor folks wouldn’t be poor if they weren’t so fucking lazy. They don’t need help, they need an ass-kicking because they’re just sitting around. The circumstances have nothing to do with their lot in life; all poor people of any color are just lazy.
Billy Ray certainly isn’t lazy—a shitty con man to be sure—but not lazy. He’s out on the street running hustle after hustle. Unlike Louis, he doesn’t grab a gun at the first sign of disenfranchisement. Now THAT’s lazy, and Louis redeems himself by hatching the plan that brings down the Dukes. In fact, Billy Ray learns more from Louis than he ever learns from the Dukes simply because Louis trusts him enough to break the system down to him in intelligent terms. They are now equals because, without Billy Ray and his other po’ folk friends, Louis can’t win. Everything Billy Ray does to prove Randolph right comes from Billy Ray’s ghetto take on the situation, not from the Dukes’ explanations. His dialogue about the prices going up and down is based solely on what he knows about human nature, especially that of struggling human beings like himself.
I remember at my first job, our Christmas bonus was a box of chocolate that tasted like shit. At least the Dukes give money. This is Ezra, the Dukes' loyal manservant's Christmas bonus. It's from BOTH of them.
In this movie, Bo knows pawn shops! "In Philadelphia, that watch is worth 50 bucks."
Your Homework Assignment:
Have a nice Valentine's Day...Just kidding! There are two presidents depicted in pictures on this entry. Find them and note where they are and who's in the picture with them. Coincidence?
Also, as in every other John Landis piece at the Mumf, his trademark phrase appears in this piece. This time, however, I didn't point it out. Where is it?