Festive Films 1 – Trading Places

There are things lovelier about Trading Places than Jamie Lee Curtis’s breasts, but if they, the breasts, aren’t acknowledged right here at the beginning of paragraph one then they are just going to hang there, these breasts, on everyone’s mind.

“That’s fine him going on about the plot and the performances and all that malarkey”, you kind, enabling folk who read this might say. “But when is he going to mention the boobs? Because that’s what everyone remembers about this film. It’s the one where Jamie Lee got them out.”

Merry Christmas by the way.

We will leave her chest, with some regret on my part, entirely behind shortly, but before we do it is worth pointing out that Jamie Lee Curtis does not even appear in the film until the three-quarter hour mark and, grand and stately though her bosom may be, her breasts are merely the seventh and eighth to appear unclad in the film.

Their total screen time in two separate scenes (timecodes 00:58:15 and 01:07:32 embonpoint fans) is slightly under four seconds.

Here are some pictures.

Now can we please move on and consider the film’s other aspects? Crikey you people are obsessed! Get some help. And delete your browser history.

Trading Places is a film that has grown on me enormously over time. When it came out in 1983 I dismissed it rather pompously as being crass and unmannered. There was a grubby witlessness about it I thought, and a broadness that didn’t appeal to as refined a mind as mine.

I was eighteen and I was, evidently, a bit of a tool.

Several re-watchings over the years have left me very well-disposed to the film indeed though, and the more I see of the current generation of comedy movies the more I respect Trading Places for its warmth, intelligence, bonhomie and preparedness to engage with its own central concept.

Remember central concepts? They are what we used to find funny before sneering and ejectamenta were invented.

The principal concern of the movie’s story is nature versus nurture. Two elderly stockbroker brothers, played with considerable élan by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, cause one of their privileged employees (Dan Aykroyd) to lose his career, his fortune, his good name and his fiancée all in one day. They replace him with a jive-talking, rascally, homeless chancer (Eddie Murphy) to see whether or not breeding will assert itself.

The answer the writers come up with is not especially profound (something along the lines of be true to yourself whatever the circumstances and things will work out OK), but we aren’t here for the Platonic dimly-perceived ideals. We’re here to be entertained.

And the breasts. Some of us are here for those too.

So, is it entertaining? Hell, yes.

Director John Landis can be a puzzle. You never quite know what you are going to get. I am not personally a fan of the Rabelaisian excesses of National Lampoon’s Animal House, but I am permanently in thrall to the sheer ebullience and love of life on display in The Blues Brothers. I don’t find Burke & Hare to be the cultural atrocity some make it out to be, but I can’t bear the torpid smugness of Spies Like Us. In fact the only reason Spies Like Us is in my frontline library at all is that it has cameo appearances by Ray Harryhausen, Derek Meddings, Sam Raimi and Joel Coen.

What, surely, we can all agree on however is that An American Werewolf In London is something a bit special: funny and frightening, touching and fiercely accurate in its outsider’s view of what was good and bad about Britain in the early eighties.

Trading Places is one of Landis’s best anyway, and you know it right from the opening montage of a pre-Christmas Philadelphia set to Mozart’s overture from The Marriage of Figaro.

(Yes you do. It goes diddle-iddle-oo, diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-oo.)

Structurally it is very pleasing, taking time to establish that Aykroyd’s and Murphy’s characters are both weaselly enough that they deserve what’s coming, but also that they are both genuinely nice enough that the inevitable redemptive outcome is welcome.

Writers Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, whose subsequent oeuvre is less glorious than one might have hoped (Twins? Kindergarten Cop?), have here nailed a dramaturgical necessity: that your characters must descend very deeply indeed for their eventual triumph to have an emotional effect.

The set-up is most clearly indebted to Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, but the overall feel is more Dickensian (as befits what is basically a Christmas movie). There is a swagger to the main characters, an almost hyper-reality to them that makes them completely stand out from the scenery and supporting ensemble. There is also a good-naturedness and belief in humanity that comes from the school of Dickens rather than the more sardonic Clemens college.

Landis was fortunate or skilful enough to catch all of his actors at pretty much the top of their game. It’s hard to remember that Eddie Murphy was ever as engaging and lovable as he is here. Aykroyd must just have been coming out of that post-Belushi quagmire but displays here a range I’ve never seen from him since. Curtis is a comic revelation (still five years away from A Fish Called Wanda, and best known at that time for her Halloween, Prom Night, Terror Train imperilled damsel routine). And the sainted Denholm Elliott takes the snooty butler role John Gielgud pioneered in Arthur and adds a beguiling, twinkly dimension to it.

I’m glad I took the time to watch this again. It is a film which celebrates all that is good about Christmas but which also acknowledges the darkness and venality in us just enough to cut through the schmaltz.

God willing and weather permitting I’ll be looking at a few more festive fillums over the next two weeks or so. I’m planning The Apartment, Gremlins, It’s A Wonderful Life, Elf, Bad Santa, Die Hard and A Muppet Christmas Carol (which famously has no undraped breasts in it). Please feel free to join in or recommend any movies I could usefully add to the list.