Director: John Landis

Writers: Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod

Premiere: 1983


Looking good, Billy Ray!

Feeling good, Louis!

I’m sure many of you have watched the Christmas comedy, Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, at least once. With its New Year’s Eve atmosphere in Philadelphia, some first-class humour and its investment schemes, we at Orca think it’s a masterpiece.

For those who have forgotten the plot of the Oscar nominated BAFTA winner (please, don’t say you haven’t seen it), let me remind you of some details.

Two brothers — Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) Duke — decide to conduct an experiment to answer the question, “What makes a person a villain — genes or life circumstances?” They spring street fraudster Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) out of prison, after their employee Louis Winthorff (Dan Aykroyd) accuses Valentine of trying to rob him. At the same time, they strip Winthorp of his job, money, home and respect in society. The brothers bet $1 on the outcome, and watch what happens. Valentine is given a house, a salary of $80 thousand a year, a personal limousine and a butler.

With the plot sorted out, let’s now plunge a little into the background of the film’s creation.

The film’s screenwriter, Timothy Harris, was not rich, but he loved to play tennis. Among his constant rival partners were two doctor brothers, who could afford to rent prestigious private courts, but being quite stingy, they played on the public courts with Harris. The brothers were very competitive both on the court and in everyday life, and Harris found the pair terribly annoying. And so, the rich Duke brothers, the main villains of the film, were born. The Dukes are elderly stock tycoons who make colossal amounts of money from insider trading — that is, using secret or confidential information unavailable to most traders.

In the end, however, they pay for their stinginess and their love of betting. Winthorp and Valentine beat the brothers at their own game — stock market schemes (We’ll look at this scene in more detail later).

The investing investigation

To write the part where Valentine and Winthorp beat the Duke brothers, Harris and Weingrad, with the help of fellow financiers, carefully studied the exchange mechanisms. Of all the available options, they chose to have the characters manipulate the price of frozen orange juice, which seemed both believable and the most amusing.

Since Harris was quite removed from the realities of the stock market, he decided to visit the trading floor on Wall Street and open his own account there. Trading for a month under the guidance of one of the brokers, Harris lost more than $40 thousand, but he began to understand, more or less, what the trading world was like.

Locations

As for the location, you would imagine a film about stock manipulation would be New York or Chicago — America’s financial centres. But the writers chose Philadelphia, and for good reason. Since the plot of the film tells of social and racial stratification, Philadelphia — a city closely connected with the history of the American Revolution and where the US Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787 — seemed the most appropriate place. Philadelphia is indelibly associated with the ideals of political equality and the right to seek happiness.

The final scene, however, was filmed in New York. New York brokers gave the director, John Landis, the go-ahead, and so the Duke brothers’ downfall was filmed in one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, destroyed years later by Islamic terrorists. It is worth noting that the extras in these scenes were actually real-life stock traders.

It is also interesting to mention that, though The Heritage Club is fictional, it is based on very real social clubs. The prototype for The Heritage Club was The Union League Club, on the corner of Park Avenue and 37th Street. According to the Club’s official website, “For over 150 years, The Union League Club has been a meeting place for many prominent civic, state and national leaders, all of whom have enjoyed the fellowship at the Club. Today, the Club is frequented by Senators, Congressmen, diplomats, and cabinet members, yet every member feels at home. Current members enjoy gathering cordially for social and speaking events, theater evenings, wine tastings or to meet friends for a convivial drink at the bar or game of billiards.” For the filming of The Heritage Club scenes, The Curtis Institute of Music, at 1726 Locus Street in Philadelphia, was used.

Let’s now see how accurately the film shows the realities of the investment world.

Valentine as a broker

To begin with, Valentine couldn’t have become a broker that easily. He would have had to have undergone intense coursework and training, since a broker must have a licence. So, we can assume that instead, Valentine works as an analyst or consultant in the Duke & Duke company.

How to explain commodities to a person who really doesn’t get it

The scene where the Duke brothers explain commodities to Valentine is interesting. It’s worth inserting the entire dialogue here.

Randolph Duke: We are ‘commodities brokers,’ William. Now, what are commodities? Commodities are agricultural products… like coffee that you had for breakfast… wheat, which is used to make bread… pork bellies, which is used to make bacon, which you might find in a ‘bacon, lettuce and tomato’ sandwich. And then there are other commodities, like frozen orange juice… and GOLD. Though, of course, gold doesn’t grow on trees like oranges. Clear so far?

Billy Ray: [nodding and smiling, even though it ISN’T clear to him] Yeah.

Randolph Duke: Good, William! Now, some of our clients are speculating that the price of gold will rise in the future. And we have other clients who are speculating that the price of gold is going to fall. They place their orders with us, and we buy or sell their gold for them.

Mortimer Duke: Tell him the good part.

Randolph Duke: The good part, William, is that, no matter whether our clients make money or lose money, Duke & Duke get the commissions.

Mortimer Duke: Well? What do you think, Valentine?

Billy Ray: Sounds to me like you guys a couple of bookies.

Randolph Duke: I told you he’d understand.

In one way, Valentine is right — the process is very similar to betting on horses. The explanation of the commodities is actually very accurate, so if you still haven’t figured out what they are, the film is worth watching if only for that reason. 

Of course, the brothers didn’t mention commodities hedging, but don’t forget that, after all, it’s just a movie.

The climax: How Winthorpe and Valentine manage to beat the Duke brothers

Louis Winthorpe III: [approaching the New York Commodities Exchange] Think big, think positive, never show any sign of weakness. Always go for the throat. Buy low, sell high. Fear? That’s the other guy’s problem. Nothing you have ever experienced can prepare you for the absolute carnage you are about to witness. Super Bowl, World Series – they don’t know what pressure is. In this building, it’s either kill or be killed. You make no friends in the pits and you take no prisoners. One minute you’re up half a million in soybeans and the next, boom, your kids don’t go to college and they’ve repossessed your Bentley. Are you with me?

Billy Ray Valentine: Yeah, we got to kill the motherf… – we got to kill ’em!

Winthorpe and Valentine go to the New York commodities exchange. And what do we see? Quite simply, chaos. Traders are yelling out prices on the busy trading floor, paper futures tickets are flying around, people are going mad. And believe it or not, that is actually what commodities exchange looked like in 1983. 

Amid this chaos, Winthorpe and Valentine are deciding the Duke brothers’ fate. 

How do they manage to do that?

Well, to begin with, they steal insider information about the annual orange crop, and provide the brothers with a false narrative. In 1983, it wasn’t illegal to get this information (assuming you didn’t actually steal it, of course). This was only forbidden in 2010, and when it was, it was called the Eddie Murphy Rule. (How cool is that) 

That said, although getting insider information wasn’t illegal, it was hard — tremendously hard. So, of course, for the sake of the film, it’s simplified. 

Anyway, according to the false report, the brothers believe that the orange crop has failed, and so prices would rise. They start buying frozen orange juice contracts, and the other traders, thinking that the Dukes know something, also start buying—so the price increases from $1.02 per pound to $1.42 per pound. When the price reaches $1.42, Valentine and Winthorpe start making deals, entitling them to later sell the frozen orange juice at that price.

But then! The real report is released, showing that the orange crop would actually be better than expected, and so the price tumbles to $0.29 per pound. The Dukes had bought frozen orange juice contracts at a very high price, but were forced to sell as the price fell (read: they lost MILLIONS). Meanwhile, Valentine and Winthorpe were able to buy frozen orange juice at $0.29 per pound and sell it to traders who promised to buy at $1.42 (read: they became VERY RICH). Pretty funny, isn’t it? 

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that, in real life, frozen orange juice prices would rise and fall so much in just an hour. But what we can say for sure is that it’s possible to lose or make that much money on commodities exchanges, as things happen extra fast there. So, if you do decide to become a commodity trader after watching Trading Places, be careful! And don’t be like the Duke brothers! 

I want to add one last dialogue at the end, because it’s hysterical and illustrates just what kind of people the Dukes brothers are. It takes place as the Duke brothers’ butler, Ezra, brings them drinks.

Randolph Duke: Ezra. Right on time. I’ll bet you thought I’d forgotten your Christmas bonus. There you are.

Ezra: Five dollars. Maybe I’ll go to the movies… by myself.

Mortimer Duke: Half of it is from me.

Ezra: Thank you, Mr. Mortimer.

[mouthing silently] 

Ezra: Motherf…

Interesting fact

After the Duke brothers went completely bankrupt, life gave them a second chance, so they could again rise to the top of the stock exchange world. In the 1988 film, “Coming to America”, ​​the main character (significantly it’s Eddie Murphy again) gives the formerly rich, now homeless, brothers (also played by the same actors) $10,000. It’s suggested that, with that money, they can again go to the trading floor in order to return to the world arena.


What’s my verdict?

Trading Places is a hilarious film, with a festive Christmas atmosphere and entertaining plot. Of course, the investing is extremely simplified for the sake of the film — but within reasonable limits. So, I highly recommend it — especially before the New Year!

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