Trading Places director John Landis says 'offensive' moments require perspective

Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, and Jamie Lee Curtis starred together in this unlikely Christmas classic

Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Aykroyd starred in John Landis's festive 1983 classic Trading Places. (Alamy)
Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Aykroyd starred in John Landis's festive 1983 classic Trading Places. (Alamy)

Trading Places director John Landis is no fan of messing with old movies. As you might expect from the cinema expert and director of classics like An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and Three Amigos; the growing trend of re-editing films that have since been deemed inappropriate or insensitive isn’t for him. Instead, he believes each movie is a time capsule, for better or worse.

“It’s outrageous,” he says, speaking to Yahoo as his Christmas-set screwball comedy starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis turns 40 — itself a film with a troublesome afterlife. “Every movie [is a product of its time] and you have to understand it as such. The Birth of a Nation is genuinely offensive,” he continues, detailing D.W. Griffith’s culturally significant yet racist 1915 film that depicts the Klu Klux Klan as heroes.

“There are scenes in it that are outrageous and unforgivable but you don’t say D.W. Griffith is not worth of study,” says Landis. “The guy was a genius and changed everything — but that movie is profoundly offensive. You don’t cut it; it’s better to see it.”

Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in 1983's Trading Places. (Alamy)
Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in 1983's Trading Places. (Alamy)

It’s a topic that’s particularly resonant when discussing Trading Places, a film in which bigoted high-society banker Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) swaps social status with lowly street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy). The mix-up is part of a cruel prank orchestrated by blue-blooded investor siblings Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) Duke, and forces Winthorpe and Valentine to work with wily prostitute Ophelia (Jaime Lee Curtis) to even the odds. The good news is that they succeed... but not without hatching a plan that makes revisiting this festively-themed comedy with a 2023 perspective a little uncomfortable.

Putting its questionable scenes aside for a second, Landis’ 1983 buddy comedy was a massive financial success, emerging as the fourth most successful movie of the year and giving mega-competitors like Tootsie and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi a run for their money. Four decades on, it’s still largely considered a fondly-remembered classic, as well as a key addition to that much-loved seasonal sub-genre of Christmas movies hiding in plain sight.

USA.Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Aykroyd  in the (C)Paramount Pictures film: Trading Places (1983) .  Plot: A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires. Ref: LMK110-J10315-091123 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets.
Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Aykroyd share a festive scene in Trading Places. (Alamy)

“The picture had a history before I was involved,” remembers Landis, taking us back to Trading Places’ origins. Written by screenwriters Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris, their Wall Street-set story was originally scheduled to star comedians Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. “This was before Richard set himself on fire, which kind of put a crimp in the production,” says the director, recalling the career-halting moment when Pryor accidentally set himself alight amid a drug addiction in June 1980.

Thankfully, Landis’ then-boss at Paramount Pictures, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had a backup plan: “He said ‘I want you to consider Eddie Murphy,’” says Landis. At that point, Murphy was best known for breathing new life into Saturday Night Live although the big screen called: “He’d starred in 48 Hours with Nick Nolte. It was his first movie and when they previewed it, the audience's reaction to Eddie went through the roof. Jeff thought: ‘This is a potential movie star.’”

48 Heures 48 Hours 1982 Real  Walter Hill Nick Nolte Eddie Murphy. COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © Lawrence Gordon Productions
Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 1982's 48 Hours. (Alamy)

With Pryor’s role recast, Landis began a working relationship with Murphy that would see the duo work together on three future films, including 1988’s Coming to America and 1994’s Beverly Hills Cop 3.

“That first experience was a pure pleasure,” says Landis, whose working relationship was said to have deteriorated during subsequent projects. “Eddie was young and excited [during Trading Places). He was talented and thrilled to be there with Don and Ralph.

"I remember them in the back of the Rolls Royce. Ameche mentioned this was his 99th movie and Ralph said it was his 200th movie. Eddie said: ‘Hey Landis, between the three of us, we’ve made 300 movies!’” he laughs. “It was a perfect role for him because Billy Ray Valentine’s a wise ass and a live-wire.”

Ralph Bellamy, Eddie Murphy, and Don Ameche in the back of a Rolls Royce. (Alamy)
Ralph Bellamy, Eddie Murphy, and Don Ameche in the back of a Rolls Royce. (Alamy)

Speaking of the cruel Duke brothers, Landis reveals that his search for Trading Places’ villains almost took him beyond the grave. “I really wanted old-time movie stars. Ralph Bellamy, I met and adored as both an actor and a person. I mean, who is in His Girl Friday and The Wolf Man? Ralph’s career is amazing,” says Landis of the actor behind Randolph Duke.

“I’d actually hired Ray Milland to be the other brother but he couldn’t pass the physical; these were both men in their 80s, after all. I kept thinking ‘There’s got to be a major movie star of the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s who never really played a villain... then I remembered Don Ameche from Heaven Can Wait.”

Identifying his ideal Mortimer was one thing but finding Ameche proved trickier than expected: “My casting lady said: ‘I think he’s dead,” laughs Landis. “We called the Screen Actors Guild and he had no agent. We started thinking of other people when a secretary at Paramount said: ‘I heard you’re looking for Don Ameche? I see him all the time. He lives in Santa Monica.’”

Ralph Bellamy and Dom Ameche made a memorable double act in Trading Places. (Alamy)
Ralph Bellamy and Dom Ameche made a memorable double act in Trading Places. (Alamy)

With a fresh lead, Landis literally called the phone directory and asked for Ameche’s number. “I called and that unmistakable voice of his answered,” smiles Landis. Wasting no time, he sent him the Trading Places script: “He said: ‘What scene would you like me to read?’ and I said ‘No, no... I’m offering you the part!’” The role eventually led to a full career regeneration: “He was so marvellous. He won an Oscar for his next movie Cocoon and never stopped working again.”

While Christmas doesn’t take centre stage in Landis’ movie, Trading Places has still managed to carve out a legacy as a festive favourite and is a regular addition to lists of festive movies that viewers forget are Christmassy. That said, if you’re planning on giving it an anniversary revisit, you may find yourself cringing through your Quality Street at some of the bits that haven’t aged well. One sequence involving Aykroyd appearing in blackface in disguise as a Jamaican character during the film’s third act is particularly difficult to watch.

“I think Danny would probably wouldn’t want to do [that scene again] but I would,” says Landis, suggesting that the key to the sequence lies in its context. While he’s right about Aykroyd (the Ghostbusters star told The Daily Beast earlier this year that he wouldn’t repeat it today), Landis argues that this crass move was very in-keeping with a character like Winthorpe, someone who grew up isolated, privileged and ignorant.

To illustrate his point, the filmmaker points to two real-life privileged people who have found themselves guilty of engaging in similar acts. “[Brett] Kavanaugh, one of the Supreme Court Justices... do you remember the pictures of him in college in Blackface? Or what about Prince Harry dressing up as a Nazi?” says Landis. “It comes from a certain class of non-thinkers.”

Search online for ‘Trading Places’ these days and you’ll find another scene that hasn’t aged perfectly: the so-called ‘Gorilla rape’ sequence involving the Duke’s lackey Clarence (Paul Gleeson) and a randy gorilla.

“I’m interested that people are offended by it,” says Landis, surprised that modern-day audiences would take umbrage with the scene where Clarence gets locked inside a cage with a real gorilla whilst dressed in a fancy dress gorilla costume.

“It’s so ridiculous. I mean, the fact that the gorilla would accept this guy in a rubber mask... that’s gorilla suit he’s wearing is silly,” he says, highlighting how the film’s overly comedic elements imply that it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. “No. That’s a cartoon gag.”

Despite these issues, Trading Places is still largely embraced by fans across the world and enjoys frequent festive repeats in the lead-up to Christmas Day. For Landis, it’s a legacy that matches the fun he had making it: “My lasting memory is that it was a good experience,” he smiles. “It had a wonderful cast and a great script. It was a pleasure to make that movie.”

Trading Places is streaming on Paramount+ in the UK.

Read more: Christmas movies

Watch: John Landis on working with Eddie Murphy