Whenever I meet a fellow lover of film, I’m always interested in finding out which movies had a sizeable impact on them in their youth. You inevitably get some of the same responses, assorted Disney films, The Goonies, Star Wars, etc., and those are all well and good—certainly cinema deserving to be on a list of this nature—but I like hearing about those one or two films that squeak on the list, making theirs exclusive. Now, I don’t pretend to be a unique snowflake in the realm of film buffism, but the two that don’t necessarily fit the bill for childhood favorites for me are Big Trouble in Little China (soon to be reviewed), and the film that I’m sure you have guessed by now that I am posting today, Clue.
I don’t know how I came to view Clue for the first time. It certainly doesn’t seem like a movie I would have picked off the shelves during that time of my life. I suspect that my parents rented it one night due to the amazing cast of character actors and comedians that help bring the film to life in such a vivid manner; whose verbal dexterity and understanding of timing in relation to wordplay help make the dialogue so snappy and the speed in which its bon mots are spat almost dizzying in certain scenes. They have always been fans of Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles), Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap), and Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati), so this is a strong possibility. Or, I could have seen that it stared Christopher Lloyd, Doc Brown himself, and pushed for the rental. Either way, from that point on Clue was a mainstay in the Edwards’ household—for a rather long stretch, it was rented every weekend it was available—being watched multiple times a day, multiple times a week, a practice my sister would ultimately see my bet and raise me on when she got old enough, taking it to levels that would make it hard for even me to sit through another viewing.
Under the guidance of screenwriter John Landis (The Blues Brothers) and director Jonathan Lynn—a veteran British sitcom director whose high points in film include both this and My Cousin Vinny, but that’s about it—the story plays out as a deft blend of slapstick and wordplay, a direct descendent of the screwball films of Hawks and Sturges, all the while tinted as a comedy of manners. Every type of humor is employed in its scant 96 minute runtime, even getting in a couple of well-timed (remember, it takes place in 1954) political and topical jabs, making it one of the more well-rounded comedies of the ’80s. Set amid the turmoil that McCarthyism and the Red Scare provided our country, Landis and Lynn’s screenplay brings together 6 seemingly unconnected individuals at a secluded and threatening (it’s even frightening to inanimate objects like motor vehicles) New England mansion, all drawn in due to the mysterious letter all received. Each is met at the door first by two snarling German Shepards, then, more comfortingly by the butler of the residence, Wadsworth (played with vigor by Tim Curry), then finally ushered to drinks and h’orderves served by the housemaid, Yvette. Once all the guests have arrived, small talk ensues over dinner where they begin to learn of the important, connective tissue of their situation: how they all work in Washington, D.C., how they are all seemingly being bribed by their host, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), and how Mrs. Peacock’s (Eileen Brennan) love for monkey’s brains put her in league with the Cantonese. Before too long, the corpses start pilling up along with the laughs, each murdered by the twisted party gifts the emcee sees fit to bestow upon them—a noose, gun, wrench, pipe, and knife—and our flummoxed partygoers must work together to figure out who the killer is, hopefully before they become the next victim.
Now, admittedly, the plot of Clue is razor thin, with the hunt for the murderer allowing Landis and Lynn the opportunity to concoct cuckoo set pieces, string together funny bits of business from each of the characters, and set up the unique box office hook of the film, in which the audience could see different endings at different theaters*. In most cases, this would act as a detriment to the film, but here, it works nicely, allowing the performers to fashion an undeniably effortless repartee and keep the pace quick, not allowing the viewer to get bored with the proceedings. Set-ups and punch lines come at the viewer in rapid-fire succession, with everyone getting in on the action and having a chance for their own particular talents to shine, leaving the audience feeling a bit lightheaded from all their laughter. Clue is a true ensemble in every sense of the word, making it, for all practical purposes, impossible for any fan to pick out their favorite performers. If I had a gun pointed to my head (or a noose around my neck) I would have to pick out 3 in the cast of 9 principle actors to highlight:
- As Wadsworth, Tim Curry has never been better, no small feat in a career that has spanned 218 titles and 6 decades. The breakneck pace in which dialogue is spewed never sounds better than when coming from him, and it’s always a treat to see the actor prance around the set nimbly, becoming more and more flustered as death seems to be closing in on both him and his party guests. Curry also has the most important role in this adventure as he acts as a tour guide of sorts for both the guests and audience, allowing everyone to keep up with the twists and turns of the story. In the clip below (warning: its spoilery), Wadsworth tells Ms. Scarlet (Leslie Ann Warren) exactly why she won’t be able to see her nefarious plot to completion, all the while with a wink of the eye and wonderful sense of energy.
- As Mrs. White, the late, great Madeline Kahn simultaneously creates the most oddly sympathetic and hilariously original take on the Black Widow character in comedic history. It’s a performance that isn’t as flashy as some of the others; instead, Kahn makes the correct decision of lying in wait, rearing up and repeatedly striking at just the right time to generate maximum impact with her line readings. Whether it be her off-kilter way of singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or in delivering her now famous, improvised speech about her HATRED for Yvette (see clip below), it’s a powerful achievement in comedy, one that reminds us that she was taken from us much too soon.
- Fact: Before he became known to the masses as the Red Roof Inn spokesman, Martin Mull became a legend in his role as Colonel Mustard, a Pentagon worker with a predilection for women of ill repute. Mull plays Mustard as a man who thinks he’s much smarter than he is, nearly always at the loosing end of verbal warfare, sometimes even going as far to disprove himself or his position in the very sentence he hoped would sway others to his way of thinking. He’s also prone to giving instructions on not to do something, oftentimes while doing the thing the instructions categorically prohibit. He also hates chandeliers. None of the clips I had in mind to highlight his character are available online. In fact, there is a surprising dearth in Mustard clips, period. What the hell Internets?!
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Yvette for a minute. Played by veteran character actress Colleen Camp (Apocalypse Now), this French tart becomes the bouncy, buxom maid that everyone wishes to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with. As with most males who watched Clue at a young age, Yvette certainly captured my “thoughtfulness”, holding it without reason or regard whenever she was onscreen. This has nothing to do with the depth of her character, she’s only playing a cipher that’s called on to do two things, make woman hate her, and men pay attention to nothing else when in her orbit. Camp exceeds in this charge with great aplomb.
Sadly, Clue was a box-office failure upon its release, but it has been able to amass a rather copious cult following over the years, recently even sparking remake interest from the likes of director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean). It’s beautiful, painstakingly detailed period set would be shuttered and later bought by the producers of Dynasty and used as the fictional hotel, The Carlton; its props and furnishings would go back into the private collections they were on loan from, including items on loan from the estate of Theodore Roosevelt. So that’s something of a compliment, I guess, having items of a president on set having been entrusted to a film crew. The film was ahead of its time in a more dubious fashion, being the first cinematic adventure to be based on a board game, predating the bomb that was Battleship and the future terribleness of Candy Land by 27 years. What Landis and Lynn understood was that Clue, while based on a Hasboro/Parker Brothers property, had ties to film due to its basic murder mystery plot that had been used for countless movies prior, the pair even going so far as to style their own effort after Murder By Death, Neil Simon’s genre benchmark effort. A movie like Clue couldn’t be made today, the studio would insist of casting a model as Yvette, and some musician making a horrible, eye-rolling acting debut as one of the party guests. The scatological humor would be ratcheted up along with the “football to the groin” style humor we have come to expect from lazy screenwriters. Nope, no need to remake this one Hollywood, why don’t you focus your attention on a comedy that had potential and didn’t cash in on it, and keep your mitts off of Clue. After all, we fans aren’t the stupidly optimistic type and we all know what happens to people who are. If you don’t, just ask Mrs. White.
*In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions that the newspaper ads for the film contained the letters A, B, or C, denoting which ending would be shown in which theaters.