35 Years Ago: ‘Clue’ Riffs on Mystery, Murder and Madcap Comedies
Clue opened to few laughs and fewer audience members on Dec. 13, 1985, and was never heard of again. That’s how it could have ended. But how about this?
While not an A-list cast, the ensemble featured plenty of talent including Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Martin Mull. Hollywood heavyweight John Landis (Blues Brothers, Animal House) was instrumental in bringing the board game to the big screen. The release came with the radical gimmick of different showings having different endings, three in all.
Despite all this, the film flopped: Clue earned a paltry $14.6 million in box office receipts on a $15 million budget. Yet the film went on to become one of the most iconic films of the ’80s. The double negative, at the box office and with critics, eventually led to proof positive and a cult classic.
Clue began when Landis hit on the idea of a mystery with multiple endings, which was genius. But he also had a dream of adapting the ’40s board game of the same name into a feature film, which was completely absurd at the time (remember this was long before trading cards, amusement park rides, Legos, video games and mobile phone apps full of angry birds inspired movies). Landis had a basic story and a few characters in place, now he wanted somebody else to finish what he couldn’t and went looking for a writer.
Watch the Trailer for 'Clue'
Landis has claimed he pursued a range of masters and oddball picks to turn his story into a winning script. Reports have him recruiting Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead), Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins to write the screenplay. But, after failing to convince his first, second, third, and maybe fourth and fifth choices, he finally enlisted Jonathan Lynn to pen the script. Unknown in Hollywood, Lynn had created hit TV show Yes Minister in his native Britain.
The original plan had Landis directing but by the time Lynn had puzzled out how put to Mr. Green, Ms. Scarlet and the rest into a smart, satisfying whodunit with three possible endings, Warner Bros. Pictures’ already had Landis helming Spies Like Us. Reluctant, but seeing this as maybe his only chance to break into Hollywood, Lynn signed on to direct.
The casting took a few twists and turns: Rowan Atkinson almost became the butler, Wadsworth; Carrie Fisher prioritized her health over her career and gave up on the role of Miss Scarlet to go into rehab. Still, the final ensemble had astounding chops and chemistry.
Curry became Wadsworth by balancing the dignity of David Niven and the harried frenzy of Roberto Benigni. Lesley Ann Warren did a sort of ditzy redhead take on Mae West as brothel madam Ms. Scarlet. Lloyd played lecherous psychiatrist Prof. Plum. McKean fell into the role of prat-falling State Department employee Mr. Green. Kahn did Kahn (because she always does with absolute glory) as the slowly unraveling femme fatale Mrs. White. Mull became the endlessly dumb Col. Mustard.
Watch the 'Over His Dead Body' Scene From 'Clue'
Then Lynn, with a required clean, unassuming style, ran the characters through an intricately plotted comedy full of mile-a-minute dialogue and dozens of throwaway lines. The actual mystery (including all three endings) never really mattered much. It was never something to be solved so much as something to carry the audience along.
Lynn painstakingly incorporates every detail the source material had to offer: the weapons (knife, revolver, rope, pipe, wrench, revolver and candlestick), the rooms (kitchen, conservatory, dining room, ballroom, study, hall, lounge, library and billiard room) and secret passages. But after that he gets inventive.
He puts the action in a New England mansion in 1953 where the characters have gathered after receiving mysterious letters. Everyone has been given a pseudonym, which is helpful when you’re stuck in a creepy old house with blackmailers, murders, accomplices and shocking reveals.
Then, all around the whodunit, Lynn puts on a grand farce. Clue fills 96 minutes (with all the endings added up) with buffoonery, tomfoolery, slapstick, witty repartee and ludicrously improbable situations.
It satirizes Cold War spies and the Red Scare:
Mustard: "Why is J. Edgar Hoover on your phone?" Wadsworth: "He's on everyone else's, why shouldn't he be on mine?"
It riffs on the battle-of-the-sexes comedies that came before it:
Mustard: "You lure men to their deaths like a spider with flies." Mrs. White: "Flies are where men are most vulnerable."
It winked at Nick Charles from The Thin Man films:
Mrs. White: "He had threatened to kill me in public." Miss Scarlet: "Why would he wanna kill you in public?" Wadsworth: "I think she meant he threatened, in public, to kill her."
Thought of as rather silly (yes) and slapdash (no), Clue actually expertly mapped spaces between the Marx Brothers, Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies, and Blake Edwards' Pink Panther films. Upon release, critics cut it to pieces. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “In fact, it’s not the least bit scary or suspenseful but instead quickly grows tedious. The more you struggle to keep track of the constantly multiplying plot developments, the harder it gets to care who did it.”
But Thomas and others worried about the wrong thing. Nobody cares who stole the diamond in The Pink Panther; we just want to see David Niven, Peter Sellers, Robert Wagner, Claudia Cardinale and Capucine bounce off each other with expert choreography. Looking for plot holes in Bringing Up Baby forces you to miss Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant volleying lines back and forth with ridiculous speed and accuracy.
During epic, flawless monologues recounting how the crime(s) happened, Curry suddenly emerges as both Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.
Watch the 'They All Did It' Scene From 'Clue'
Thankfully, years of cable TV and two decades of repeated blockbuster rentals vindicated Clue. Midnight screenings of Clue have become common. (This has made Curry the king of midnight showings, thanks to his other cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) USA networks Psych celebrated its 100th episode with a homage complete with appearances by Lloyd, Warren, and Mull. Mull has also shown up paired with Warren in Community.
The film has been referenced by the Family Guy and SyFy series Vagrant Queen, the Scream franchise and Maid in Manhattan. There are rumors of a remake (no!) and a documentary about the making of the film in the works (yes!).
So … here’s what really happened.
In a decade that made everything bigger, faster, crasser and dumber, Clue found a rare niche: small and fast, crass and clever. It also managed to get three generations quoting Kahn as White when she says, “Yes, I did it. I killed Yvette. I hated her so much, it ... it ... it ... flames ... flames, on the sides of my face, breathing ... breathless ... heaping breaths ... heaping –”