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.

Vintage Cable Box: Rhinestone, 1984

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“All right, we’ll go to your place and you can show me your organ. But I’m warning you, it’d best be having music coming out of it.”

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Rhinestone, 1984 (Dolly Parton), 20th Century Fox

Sylvester Stallone is a smart guy.  Betraying his brutish looks, muscular physique, and propensity for violence, Stallone understands his incredible history, and his ability to re-invent his image.  He’s played rogue cops, underdog boxers, and disillusioned soldiers.  He’s gone down the road of pristine drama (Cop Land), and screwball comedy (Oscar), but pairing him head-to-head with Dolly Parton proved to be such a misfire from inception that it isn’t hard to see why he stayed away from this kind of culture-clash comedy for the better part of his career.  Given the opportunity to rewrite Phil Alden Robinson’s (Field of Dreams) screenplay, and then turning down Beverly Hills Cop to appear in this movie, Stallone shows he’s not afraid to take ill-advised chances in film.

Like every decent screwball comedy, this one begins with a bet.  Dolly’s Jake Farris is contracted to perform nightly at an admittedly popular tourist trap country bar smack dab in the middle of New York City run by Ron Leibman.  She makes a deal with Leibman to turn the first person he spots into a country music star.  If she succeeds, she can get out of the slave contract with Liebman (who can’t help but be sleazy about the whole thing).  They go out to the street and Liebman picks a dizzy cab driver named Nick for this Pygmalion-like transformation.  Of course, given the multi-cultural climate of New York City, Nick would be the very last person Dolly would agree to tutor in the ways of country music, but Leibman wants to make this as difficult as possible for her.

For a moment there, Nick thinks she’s coming on to him.  He takes her back to his home, where his Mama (playing it to the hilt, constantly circling the table to babble in a foreign language and deposit more food) makes spaghettis and gravy.  See, Dolly’s all skin and bone as we know.  So it’s unusual that in addition to a clash of cultures, we also have a clash of stereotypes.  Stallone is a good-natured meathead and Dolly’s a sassy redneck chick (and hot, to boot!).  Dolly decides to take Nick down to her ancestral home in Tennessee.  It’s funny that I was living in Tennessee at the time this movie premiered on cable television.  There didn’t seem to be much hootin’ and hollerin’ going on when I was living down there.  She teaches him to walk and to talk like a redneck (or “rhinestone”) cowboy-type; chewing tobacco, and developing a John Wayne swagger.

Dolly makes for a charmingly baroque figure in her dusters, cowboy hats, and leather boots, but Stallone, I think, tries too hard to be funny here when playing it straight would have benefited the humorous idea.  The rolling of his eyes and mugging for the camera, along with Travolta-hair style make him more menacing than endearing to me.  You can tell Dolly is really trying to teach him, not only about country music, but the unspoken language of dependency with which actors must relate.  In fact, Dolly is the saving grace of this movie.  Nevermind her looks – this broad is insanely talented; as an actor, as a singer, as an entertainer!  The only time the story doesn’t feel genuine is when the screenplay forces them to be closer.  The way I see it, the movie’s not a love story.  It’s a dare.  A dare to turn a cab driver into a star.  A dare to cast Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton in a movie together.

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It’s here that we get into what makes a bad movie (although I disagree with that notion).  Watching or reviewing and evaluating a movie is, was, and always has been a subjective experience.  For example, you might consider Rhinestone to be a seminal work of art, a masterpiece; it did it’s job, for you.  You come across an imposing cluster of terrible reviews.  You talk to people who say the movie is “terrible”, or worse.  Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 15% “tomatometer” rating.  In those days, before the advent of blanket advertising to guarantee good opening weekend numbers, box office was the only indication of a movie’s failure.  This doesn’t mean you’re wrong for loving the movie.  It only means fewer people agree with your opinion, and it doesn’t mean you have bad taste in film.  If, in your view, the movie does it’s job (the outlandish prospect of pairing Parton with Stallone, and the silly screwball narrative), then it succeeds.  Rhinestone succeeds.

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.