Friday, September 4, 2009

Film Friday: Trading Places (1983)

What do you get if you take My Fair Lady, aka Pygmalion, and you run it twice within the same movie, and then you Americanize it? You get Trading Places. Don’t believe me? Read on. . .

** spoiler alert **

My Fair Lady & Pygmalion
My Fair Lady (1964), which is based on the play Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw, which is itself inspired by Greek Mythology, is the story of a jaded upper class Englishman, who bets a colleague that he can take an extremely low class woman, train her in etiquette, speech and deportment, and then pass her off as upper class. By the end of the story, he has indeed changed her, apparently for the better, but she also has changed him, making him less jaded, less cynical, and less misanthropic. Trading Places repeats the Pygmalion story twice. First, most obviously, with Eddie Murphy’s character being brought up from the lowest class. Then, less obviously, with Dan Aykroyd’s character being brought down from the highest class. And in the end, we are taught a lot about what America values.
The Obvious My Fair Lady/Pygmalion: Eddie Murphy
The story of how Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche) take Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) from the streets and turn him into a successful manager of their commodities trading firm is the obvious parallel to My Fair Lady/Pygmalion. As the movie begins, Randolph and Mortimer are engaged in an argument, similar to the one between Henry Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering, in which Randolph, like Higgins, states that he can take a lowly human being and raise him to their own level by placing him in the right environment and giving him the right kind of encouragement. Mortimer disagrees.

Having settled upon a wager, Randolph sets out to find their human guinea pig. And where Higgins finds Eliza Doolittle, Randolph finds Billy Ray Valentine. In Valentine, you have a man who has no manners, no social graces, no vocabulary appropriate for polite society, and who has little understanding of the social conventions of the upper classes. By comparison, in Randolph and Mortimer, you have the bluest bloods on Wall Street, the elite of the elite: “a Duke has sat on the exchange since it was founded.” Even their names imply royalty.

Soon Randolph, like Higgins, sets about raising Valentine from his environment, and, indeed, he becomes so successful that Valentine eventually becomes cold-hearted regarding people in the same situation in which he was himself prior to meeting the Dukes, suggesting that they just need to stop taking drugs and work harder. But when Valentine overhears the Dukes’ plan to return him to the gutter this story diverts dramatically from My Fair Lady/Pygmalion -- “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” becomes “do you really believe I would have a n*gger run our family business?” and there is no reconciliation between the Dukes and Valentine, as there is between Higgins and Doolittle. Instead, it's war.
The Not So Obvious My Fair Lady/Pygmalion: Dan Aykroyd
Trading Places also does something else interesting, which My Fair Lady/Pygmalion do not. Whereas My Fair Lady/Pygmalion bring Higgins around to realize that he has been an arrogant ass, and has misunderstood humanity, Trading Places chooses to let that transformation play out in the character of Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd). Indeed, there is a second half to the Valentine bet: Randolph and Mortimer bet that Winthorpe, who currently manages their firm, will lose his breeding and education and become like Valentine if he is stripped of his surroundings. Thus, they fire him, they have him kicked out of his house, and they have him arrested for drug possession (which causes his friends and fiancé to ostracize him). In effect, Winthorpe goes through the same Eliza Doolittle story that Valentine does, only in reverse. Whereas Valentine should become more refined, Winthorpe should become less. And because every Doolittle needs a Higgins to guide them, Winthorpe is given a guide in the person of Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays the hooker with a heart of gold.

As predicted, Winthorpe does indeed become a common criminal, just like Valentine becomes a snob. He becomes alcoholic, deranged, and suicidal. The entire false-human Harvard facade behind which he has lived his life comes crashing down. But just when it looks hopeless for Winthorpe, Valentine arrives with the news that the Dukes are behind his fall. And he has a plan for revenge.

At that point, Pygmalion ends and Americana begins.
American Values
My Fair Lady and Pygmalion both include a good deal of unspoken criticism of Higgins and the British upper classes. They are portrayed as arrogant, callous, lifeless, and obsessed only with appearances. Though, in the end, they are essentially forgiven by Eliza, who accepts upper class society with only minor concessions. Trading Places is very different.

Trading Places highlights the American rejection of class. The Dukes, who set themselves up as a form of American royalty, are despised in the movie. They are shown to be rotten to the core, hateful, deceitful, and we are told that their success is the result of illegal market manipulation. In fact, our disgust for them is so great that when they are brought down and bankrupted at the end of the movie, we are happy, not sympathetic. It is only the comedic talents of the actors that even make the characters bearable.

Yet, at the same time, our glee at their destruction should not be seen as an indictment of wealth. To the contrary, what gives this movie a happy ending is the fact that each of the heroes (including the hooker and the butler) end up rich. And that is consistent with the American attitude to wealth. We love self-made people, but we despise those who have inherited their wealth. We worship people like Sam Walton because he drove the same beat up pick up truck until the day he died, but we despise the ostentatious display of wealth by those we feel have not earned it.

It is also interesting that we are shown that Americans view the under class with disdain and despise the upper class. Ask yourself, for example, would you want to live in either world presented in the movie? Would you want to spend time either with any of the people Winthorpe meets in jail or through Jamie Lee Curtis or with any of Winthorpe's former friends? Probably not because they are all unappealing. Or consider the difference between Jamie Lee Curtis, who is a lowly prostitute but (like all good Americans) has a plan to better herself, and Muffy, Winthorpe’s cold as ice fianc√©, who seeks only to exist on inherited wealth. We find Curtis more appealing in every single way, though we would not if she were content to remain in the lowest class.

This same issue is made clear by the conversions of Valentine and Winthorpe. Both are presented as being at the wrong end of the spectrum originally, and then drifting to the other wrong end of the spectrum as they change. But once they break free and settle in the middle, all becomes right with their characters. And that is the Americanized message of the film and of American culture itself: the ideal class is the middle class. It is no coincidence that most Americans prefer to view themselves as middle class, no matter how much or how little they make.

Thus, whereas the very British My Fair Lady and Pygmalion suggested that the upper class was the best, though it could use some adjustment, the very American Trading Places suggests that the only good class is the middle class.

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16 comments:

StanH said...

Great movie! It is a truly American tale with the obvious Hollywood manipulation on reality. And don’t forget John Landis and his ability to set the seen to make us laugh, funny stuff.

Joel Farnham said...

I like this movie too.

AndrewPrice said...

What's just as interesting is that the movie was released prior to Reagan's re-election and yet it's not an anti-Reagan diatribe, like it would have been an anti-Bush diatribe if it had been issued in 2007.

MegaTroll said...

Great analysis, I never put those movies together before.

ScottDS said...

From everything I've read, Landis is no Reagan fan but, unlike so many filmmakers today, he didn't feel the need to include his opinion of the man in the film. (Spies Like Us even features a clip of Reagan singing in a movie titled She's Working Her Way Through College but no comment is made, just Chevy Chase smiling.)

Trading Places is one of my favorite comedy films. Everything just clicks, from the acting to the little moments; Franken/Davis, an appearance by Airplane!'s Stephen Stucker as the stationmaster, the business with the ape, the late Paul "F--- off!" Gleason, Elmer Bernstein's score (partly adapted from Mozart), and the Landis trademark Frank Oz cameo: "It's an opera."

Andrew, in talking about Judd Apatow's films, we both discussed the look of his films and how boring and drab they are (but how comedy limits you when it comes to experimentation). How would you compare an Apatow flick to Trading Places, in terms of visuals?

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega, I do try to give you something to think about in these, rather than just reviewing them.

Writer X said...

Such a fun movie and love the analysis with My Fair Lady. Eddie Murphy was so perfect in this movie as was Dan Aykroyd. The old guys were so sufficiently crusty, too. I always love rooting for the underdog.

Joel Farnham said...

In Comming to America, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche have a cameo as Randolph and Mortimer Duke. They are in a pup tent in Queens, NY in a homeless area.

Eddie Murphy as the son of royalty gives them a bag of money.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree that Trading Places hits on all cylinders. And I think that has to do with it having an interesting premise, great acting, and great writing.

I am glad that Landis refrained from making a political statement, which either goes to his credit or which (more likely) means that it wouldn't have flown at the time. The 1980s was not a good time for leftist, and the American people would have laughed an anti-Reagan message out of the theaters.

In comparing Landis to Aptow:

1. I don't view Landis as a creative director. His "style" is almost invisible -- he gives you exactly what you expect from each scene and it feels almost point and shoot.

I would say that Aptow is exactly like Landis in that regard. The difference between them probably has more to do with changing generic tastes in scene framing. For example, I think Landis drew in closer to his actors than Landis. I also think Aptow has more motion in his scenes that Aptow.

2. I think Landis had a better sense of color. He scenes have a "richer" feel to them, in terms of color and depth.

3. I think Landis also used better actors. His actors were much more capable of drawing your attention to them than Aptows. Compare Akyroyd, who is compelling on screen, with Rogen, who is more like set-dressing.

Beyond that, I don't see much difference in direction. How about you?

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That's another aspect of Americana that I thought about mentioning but didn't -- redemption.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I'm glad you enjoyed the analysis.

Rooting for the underdog is another example of typical American thinking.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - Truth be told, I don't see much of a difference either. There is something to be said for movies that are "comfortable" to watch because not every movie is. And Landis has done some good looking flicks (The Blues Brothers is a good-looking, yet gritty movie that makes the city of Chicago another character).

Trading Places was shot by British cameraman Robert Paynter (Superman II/III, An American Werewolf in London, Spies Like Us) and I agree about the color and "depth" of the scenes. I won't say comedy filmmakers don't care about such things today but Landis, for better or worse, knew how to make his shots look good.

Many comedies today simply have a flat look to them, as if there's just one light on the stage pointing toward the actors. (Compare the look of The Blues Brothers to Blues Brothers 2000 - same director, different camera crew, smaller budget = flat and cheap-looking.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree.

There certainly is something to be said about the director not trying to steal the show. I cringe whenever I see movies directed by someone who learned a few tricks in film school and thinks that simply repeating those tricks will give them an interesting movie -- all style, no substance.

That said, I do prefer directors with a vision of how they want their film to look. I think, as you say, that too many films today feel flat. Basically, they just toss everything into the scene as expected, frame the scene squarely around their actors, and let the scene run through. There is never a thought to the world going on around them, and they seem to think in 2D. It's like they are shooting a sit-com on a stage.

I think the difference between Blues Brothers and BB2000 is a perfect example. In BB, the characters moved in all directions through the film and the world around them hummed. In BB2000, you never had the sense that anything was happening beyond the frame.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I didn't see the parallels until you pointed them out. But best of all, I like your conclusion--the middle class is the best place to be.

Tennessee Jed said...

Having grown up neat the Bryn Mawr mansions used in the movie, I always had a particular affection for this movie shot mainly in downtown Philly. For some reason, I particularly loved the scene where Eddie Murphy is having the party with all the hookers and super-fly pimps in Ackroyd's town home. They are playing that quintessential 80's tune "the bump" and after Eddie kicks them out, his faithful butler cleans it all up.

I agree with your assessment that the Dukes are despised not simply because of their wealth, but rather their horrible behavior.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Glad to hear it. I like hearing that I came up with something people haven't thought about before.


Jed, Aspiring to wealth is very American. Only a handful of Americans on the far left despise wealth for wealth sake. But we do as a society despise people who feel are privileged.

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