Location isn’t usually important in film comedies the way say, Los Angels is vital to dramas like Chinatown or Chicago to action-thrillers like The Fugitive. Comedies trade in laughs and laughs come from people and situations and animals with digestive ailments. Places don’t crack us up.
Then why do I never forget that one of my favorite comedies–Trading Places (1983)–takes place in Philadelphia? We can thank its unforgettable opening flipbook of the city’s icons next to images of ordinary people going to work and the city’s poor not having any. The montage is set to Mozart’s ‘Overture to the Mariage of Figarro,‘ which we’ve heard a million times but never quite like this–as an argument for the artistry of comedy rather than an affirmation of its frivolity. Listening to Mozart does not make you smarter. But in Trading Places, Director John Landis and his composer (the legendary Elmer Bernstein) use Mozart as a shorthand reminder that comedies need not make you dumber either.
The plot of Trading Places has been called a modern update of Mark Twain’s “Prince and the Pauper.” A rich stuffed shirt (Dan Aykroyd) and a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) are made to switch social places by Ackroyd’s conniving uncles who like to conduct social experiments of such things. When the two uncover the uncles’ sneaky plan to game the commodities market, they strike first, beating them at their own scam and getting rich in the process. It being the early 1980s, defeating old, inherited money through fleet footed stock trading was seen as the rebellion of youth, blows against the empire, a victory for tweed over eh, tweed.
Trading Places did great with critics and has endured mostly because its a fantastic silly comedy (SNL veterans Ackroyd and Murphy and a sequence with a horny gorilla made sure of that) that doesn’t scrimp on the fundamentals. The supporting cast bench–Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellmany, Don Ameche and Denholm Elliott–is embarrassingly deep. The script has nary a wasted line. And hiring Elmer Bernstein to score a summer comedy is like hiring Steve Jobs to oversee the launch of a lemonade stand.
It’s in his choice of Mozart to open the film that we see that Landis is up to more than talent overkill. Once you’ve seen the film (and have a modest knowledge of opera) the choice of ‘Overture’ is a cheap gold star for the viewer. ‘Figarro’ is a comic morality play about a servant outwitting an aristocrat, a nod at Trading Places’s gentle theme of money not equalling intelligence or even refinement. But one level deeper is Landis’s bigger goal: an unsmiling reminder that comedy has as gloried a cultural history as classical music and the grandparents of Trading Places are not pratfall artists and music hall crass but great cinematic comedians like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch from a generation before.
Of John Landis’s first 10 films (1977-1988) 6 can fairly be called classics. One (National Lampoon’s Animal House) is in the Library of Congress, an honor also held by his contemporary Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day). Throw in the best work of Ivan Reitman from that time (Stripes, Ghostbusters) and you have a body of comedy movies that not only crack you up but used legendary composers who created memorable themes, made room for 40-year veterans in the supporting cast and had stars that later were nominated for Oscars and had 20-30-year careers ahead of them.
This was broad comedy given the time, care and resources of high art. I’ve no idea if in hindsight we’ll regard contemporary laugh factories like the work of Judd Apatow and the Frat Pack the same. I tend to doubt it.
Musically speaking Trading Places starts big with an iconic Mozart piece. Afterward, Bernstein’s score is restrained and sober. There’s no lining the atmosphere with pop songs that would dominate the later years of the decade and few memorable musical passages beyond the opening. Mozart is what we’re supposed to remember, its inclusion a wink without a smile. Its as though opening a comedy with more than enough fart jokes and gratuitious nudity with the ultimate icon of high culture was a way of saying “Pay attention. What we’re doing here has the same craftmansmenship and dedication as when young Wolfgang sat down at the piano.”