Published on July 3, 2016
Trading Places is a 1983 American comedy film directed by John Landis, starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. It tells the story of an upper-class commodities broker and a homeless street hustler whose lives cross paths when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate bet. Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliott, and Jamie Lee Curtis also star. The storyline is often called a modern take on Mark Twain’s classic 19th-century novel The Prince and the Pauper. It also bears a resemblance to another of Mark Twain’s stories, The Million Pound Bank Note.
The film was written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod and was produced by Aaron Russo. It was released to theaters in North America on June 10, 1983, where it was distributed by Paramount Pictures. The film earned over US $90 million during its theatrical run in the United States, finishing as the fourth highest earning film of the year and the second highest earning R-rated film of 1983.
Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis won the awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, respectively, at the 37th British Academy Film Awards. The film was nominated for several additional awards including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy at the 41st Golden Globe Awards.
Duke brothers Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) own a successful commodities brokerage in Philadelphia. Holding opposing views on the issue of nature versus nurture, they make a wager of the “usual amount” and agree to conduct an experiment switching the lives of two people at opposite sides of the social hierarchy and observing the results. They witness an encounter between their managing director—the well-mannered and educated Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), engaged to the Dukes’ grand-niece Penelope—and a poor street hustler named Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy); Valentine is arrested at Winthorpe’s insistence because of a suspected robbery attempt. The Dukes decide to use the two men for their experiment.
Winthorpe is publicly framed as a thief, drug dealer and adulterer by Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason) at the request of the Dukes. Winthorpe is fired from Duke & Duke, his bank accounts are frozen, he is denied entry to his Duke-owned home and he quickly finds himself vilified by Penelope and his former friends. He befriends Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a prostitute who agrees to help him in exchange for a financial reward once he is exonerated. Meanwhile, the Dukes bail Valentine out of jail, install him in Winthorpe’s former job and grant him use of Winthorpe’s home. Valentine soon becomes well-versed in the business using his street smarts to achieve success and begins to act well-mannered.
During the firm’s Christmas party, Winthorpe is caught planting drugs in Valentine’s desk in a desperate attempt to get his job back, and he brandishes a gun to escape. Later, the Dukes discuss their experiment and settle their wager for one dollar, before plotting to return Valentine to the streets. Valentine overhears the conversation while smoking a joint in the men’s bathroom and seeks out Winthorpe. Winthorpe attempts suicide by overdosing on pills. Valentine, Ophelia and Winthorpe’s butler Coleman nurse him back to health and inform him of the Dukes’ experiment. On television, they learn that Clarence Beeks is transporting a secret USDA report on orange crop forecasts. Winthorpe and Valentine recall large payments made to Beeks by the Dukes and realize that the Dukes plan to obtain the report to corner the market on frozen orange juice. The group agrees to disrupt their plan as revenge.
On New Year’s Eve, the four board Beeks’ Philadelphia bound train, intending to switch his report with a fake. Beeks uncovers their scheme and attempts to kill them, but he is knocked unconscious by a gorilla who is being transported on the train. The four disguise Beeks with a gorilla costume and lock him up with the real gorilla. The fake report indicating that the year’s orange crop will be low is then delivered to the Dukes. Valentine and Winthorpe then travel to New York City with Coleman’s and Ophelia’s life savings to carry out their part of the plan.
On the commodities trading floor, the Dukes commit all their holdings to buying frozen concentrated orange juice futures contracts; other traders follow their lead, inflating the price. Meanwhile, Valentine and Winthorpe sell futures heavily at the inflated price. Following the broadcast of the actual crop report, showing that the orange crop will be normal, the price of orange juice futures plummets. Valentine and Winthorpe close their futures position by buying futures at the lower price from everyone but the Dukes, turning a large profit. The Dukes fail to meet a margin call, and are left owing $394 million. Valentine and Winthorpe explain to the Dukes that they had made a wager on whether they could simultaneously get rich while making the Dukes poor. Valentine collects $1 from Winthorpe while Randolph collapses holding his chest as Mortimer shouts angrily at his brother about their failed plan.
Beeks and the gorilla are loaded onto a ship heading for Africa. Meanwhile, the now wealthy Valentine, Winthorpe, Ophelia and Coleman vacation on a luxurious tropical beach.
Dan Aykroyd as Louis Winthorpe III
Eddie Murphy as Billy Ray Valentine
Ralph Bellamy as Randolph Duke
Don Ameche as Mortimer Duke
Denholm Elliott as Coleman
Jamie Lee Curtis as Ophelia
Kristin Holby as Penelope Witherspoon, Louis Winthorpe’s fiancée.
Paul Gleason as Clarence Beeks
The cast also includes Robert Curtis-Brown as Todd, Winthorpe’s romantic rival for Penelope; James Belushi as Harvey, a party-goer on New Year’s Eve; Jamie Lee Curtis’ sister Kelly Curtis cameos as Penelope’s friend Muffy; Frank Oz as a police officer; James Eckhouse as a police officer; Muppet performer Richard Hunt as Wilson; and Bo Diddley as a pawnbroker. Tom Davis and Al Franken, also Saturday Night Live cast members, cameo as train baggage handlers.