Vintage Cable Box: “The Blues Brothers, 1980”

“We’re so glad to see so many of you lovely people here tonight. And we would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois’s law enforcement community that have chosen to join us here in the Palace Hotel Ballroom at this time. We certainly hope you all enjoy the show. And remember, people, that no matter who you are and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there’re still some things that makes us all the same. You. Me. Them. Everybody. Everybody.”

The Blues Brothers, 1980 (John Belushi), MCA/Universal

So Jake (John Belushi) got pinched and served three years of a five year stretch  at Joliet Correctional.  His brother, Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) arrives to pick him up.  They greet each other and take off in Elwood’s souped-up cop car.  He traded the old (legendary) Bluesmobile for a microphone.  First stop is a visit to the Penguin.  Not the umbrella-toting supervillain, but a nun (Kathleen Freeman) from the orphanage where the Blues brothers grew up, who informs them she (and the Lord) are displeased with Jake’s incarceration.  She also tells them the County Assessors Office has tendered a bill for the property in the amount of $5,000.  This is when Jake gets it into his head that he and his brother are on a “mission from God” to save the orphanage.

Their next assigment is to get the band back together.  The band (composed of Tom “Bones” Malone, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Lou Marini, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Steve Cropper, “Mr. Fabulous”, Willie Hall and Murphy Dunne) had splintered off after Jake’s incarceration.  Some formed their own lounge band, while others retired completely and took up respectable jobs.  I’m convinced (after I don’t know how many viewings), Jake’s true talents are reserved for manipulation and charm.  He convinces the guys to get the band back together.  He obviously charmed an unhinged “Mystery Woman” (Carrie Fisher) into marrying him before ditching her at the altar.  He extorts their former manager, Maury Sline (Steve Lawrence) into finding them a hall and promoting a performance that will yield at least $5,000 in gate money.

What we next witness is truly a comedy of errors and escalation.  Everything that goes wrong gets worse.   Everything that goes bad becomes terrible.  Jake’s Mystery Woman is thwarted on several occasions, attempting to kill him and his brother with an escalating series of weapons (including machine guns, flame-throwers, and explosives).  Jake and Elwood run afoul of the Illinois Nazi Party (headed by Henry Gibson) and an errant country/western band called The Good Ol’ Boys (with frontman Charles Napier), not to mention corrections officers, cops, state troopers, and the National Guard.  Of course, all of this could’ve been avoided if Elwood had not run a red light one night on an open road in Cook County, and I have to wonder if this is truly a “mission from God” since there are so many obstacles put in Jake and Elwood’s path.

I miss you, Carrie.

On the night of the big show, they have to sneak in to their own gig, where they play two songs and then beat a hasty 106 mile retreat back to Chicago so they can pay the Assessor’s office before they get arrested.  Bringing up the rear are the cops, the angry musicians, and the Nazis.  The stunt-work and car crashes exponentially increase and I wonder if this is why Aykroyd and co-writer/director John Landis wanted to make the movie.  The Blues Brothers exists as a separate entity when compared to other movies with regard to characters from Saturday Night Live.  The Blues Brothers characterizations were not controlled by Saturday Night Live creator/producer Lorne Michaels, therefore he had no creative input on the project.  This was an oversight he would correct for future film productions.

There’s a certain magic to The Blues Brothers.  It’s a musical-comedy-action film, expertly directed with incredible guest turns by living legends like Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.  There are also a number of left-field cameos (as in all John Landis films) from Frank Oz, Twiggy, Steven Spielberg, Chaka Khan, Stephen Bishop, and John Candy.  The endless cacophony of improbable car crashes and enormous pile-ups coupled with unbelievable automotive acrobatics makes The Blues Brothers almost a mythic fairytale.  Landis and Aykroyd were reunited for Blues Brothers 2000 with John Goodman and Joe Morton.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Trading Places

“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 Negro.”

Trading Places, 1983 (Dan Aykroyd), Paramount Pictures

Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine lives on his wits. He masquerades as a homeless amputee Vietnam vet. He owes money all over town, and he boasts of limousines, “bitches”, and an unsurpassed knowledge of Karate. He proves to be the perfect, unknowing subject of a dual experiment initiated by the evil multi-millionaire Duke Brothers, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche). The Duke Brothers want to know if a man’s success, personal and financial, is largely dependent on his upbringing or the lifestyle he enjoys – in other words, heredity or environment. They (with the help of unscrupulous security specialist Clarence Beeks), destroy top employee, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), his reputation, and his finances, and put him on the street. They give Valentine Winthorpe’s life, his job, and his luxurious Philadelphia townhouse.

Aykroyd is arrested for possession of PCP (planted on him by corrupt cop Frank Oz!), his credit cards are confiscated and his assets repossessed by the bank.  He is taken in by kindly hooker, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), who helps get him back on his feet provided he reimburses her.  Meanwhile, Valentine thrives in his new position at the Duke Brothers’ financial firm.  He becomes the toast of the business world, while Aykroyd has to fend for himself for the first time in his life.  He sells his expensive Roche Vouceau watch to a pawnbroker for $50, buys a gun and, in a drunken stupor, tries to frame Valentine.

For his part, Valentine stumbles onto the Dukes’ “science experiment” and the modest wager (one fucking dollar!) between the brothers.  Lost in all of this is the ultimate outcome.  Valentine proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that a man can succeed in the right climate if he has business acumen.  Winthorpe can survive in an alien environment when he learns the acquired wisdom of compromise.  Putting their heads together, Aykroyd and Murphy concoct a scheme to supply a false crop report to the Dukes, who have retained the continued service of Beeks (an appropriately evil Paul Gleason) for a little bit of their own insider knowledge as they plan to corner the market in frozen orange juice futures.

Director John Landis’ best-reviewed film, from a clever (probably too clever for it’s own good) script by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod; some 33 years on, it still hits hard, but with a positive message – the people at the top will never understand the problems of the poor or disenfranchised, but if they care, there might just be a little hope on the horizon.  Note Eddie Murphy’s disposition throughout the movie.  He seems happy-go-lucky, but always suspicious – a character-beat prevalent in the movies of Preston Sturges, the godfather of the screwball comedy.  Dan Aykroyd’s character, once blissfully ignorant, has to live on the charity of decent, kind-hearted people; people he would never acknowledge in his former life as a master of the universe.  He discovers the downtrodden; particularly the exceptional Ophelia, can also have a head for business in addition to navigating their lives with very few resources.

Trading Places was a rare (for the time) literate comedy that became a box-office hit.  By telling the story from both sides of the financial (and cultural) divide, we are privy to the trappings of screwball comedy as viewed from a modern sensibility with fresh eyes.  Landis makes good use of distinctive Philadelphia locales.  The audience develops a working knowledge of how the Stock Market works and what brokers do (which seems more depressing to me than anything else), and how that system can be easily manipulated.  It’s quite frightening actually.  So frightening, in fact, that “The Eddie Murphy Rule” came to pass in 2010 when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission approved a ban of “misappropriated government information to trade in commodity markets.”  Wow.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.