I told our son that this weekend and next, we’re going to look at a pair of cult films from the eighties, movies that did not do well at the box office but found a much bigger audience on cable and on home video. I genuinely believe that in the case of 1985’s breathtakingly silly Clue, it’s because two-thirds of the people who saw it did not see its greatest moment, and so didn’t didn’t tell their friends.
Our son was amused by the old newspaper ad that I showed him for the film. You could see ending A at these theaters, ending B at these, and ending C at these others. Or you could just see something else entirely. I still don’t know what Paramount’s marketing department was thinking. If you give an audience any reason to expect they have to do any work at all to watch a movie, they won’t bother, which is why the film flopped the first time out.
Clue assembled Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren as the six immortal characters from the board game, with Tim Curry as the butler with about half the film’s lines (poor fellow), and Colleen Camp as the maid. That is certainly among the finest casts of any film of its era. Mr. Boddy ends up dead, which he had coming as he was blackmailing them all, but then so does the cook. And a traveling motorist. And the maid, and a cop, and a singing telegram girl. And so before you can dash down a secret passage, they’re all trying to guess whodunnit.
Good grief, it’s so silly. Between pratfalls, long pauses, collapsing furniture, ridiculous delivery, and Mull just gift-wrapping lines for Curry to destroy, it’s just not possible to watch this movie without smiling. I’m sure this felt like work for everybody involved while they were on set – especially Curry, who I swear must be speaking for forty of the film’s ninety minutes – but the payoff is giggles and smiles all the way through it. It takes tropes and cliches and embraces them like they were best friends. It’s a movie that is having an absolute ball and wants to entertain you.
But of course anybody can make a silly movie. It took Madeline Kahn to make this one a classic. She’s so understated and subtle in this film, as her character chooses to let Miss Scarlet attract all of the attention. Mrs. White fades into the background deliberately, until “that scene” in ending C. If you have heard of it, I implore you, don’t try to watch it out of context on YouTube. It’s made into perfection by the hour and a half of silliness and good humor that precedes it, and the stream of chuckles and giggles and smiles turn a little moment of improv into something so much more.
I’m reminded of Bob Woffinden’s book The Beatles Apart, when he describes the Concert for Bangla Desh. Now, if you’ve ever heard Bob Dylan’s numbers on the LP, you’ve probably thought they were pretty good, apart from George Harrison and Leon Russell’s attempts at harmony on “Just Like a Woman,” but it’s the context: “Half-way through some already memorable proceedings, [Harrison] calmly played his masterstroke, by bringing onto the stage Bob Dylan.” He hadn’t played live in about three years at that point, an absolute eternity in the terms of the era. Madison Square Garden lost its mind during that show.
And that’s what Clue was like. Two-thirds of its audience went home thinking that was a silly movie. One-third drove their cars off the road laughing.