Clue (1985)

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.

The Muppet Movie (1979)

Sometimes it just takes kids a while to fall in love with the Muppets. Some adults never quite manage it. Once upon a time, one of my colleagues at the museum where I used to work confessed – and “confessed” is the right word because we’d just lunched with our counterparts at the Center for Puppetry Arts – that she found the Muppets monotonous.

“They’re what?” I said.

“Monotonous,” she said.

“Manna-wha?” I said.

“Monotonous!” she yelled. And of course I sang “Doo doo doo-doo-doo,” and she looked at me utterly baffled before it hit her and she gave me a death glare. I do miss her.

And our son, he didn’t get them either when we first showed him the program around age four. It probably didn’t help that we started with the first season of The Muppet Show, which honestly isn’t really all that good, but he found the normal-sized Muppets creepy and strange and the full-sized monsters horrifying. After a few days, we skipped ahead to season two, which is infinitely better thanks in no small part to the addition of Jerry Juhl as head writer, and because I adore Madeline Kahn, we watched that episode. She did a sketch with one of the big monsters, Doglion, and it scared the absolute life out of him and he’s had no time for the Muppets ever since.

I’d say that maybe he was too young, except my older son was loving the Muppets when he was four. He drew a picture of Elton John surrounded by his adoring food after watching that one in 2001 or so. You can never tell.

So this morning it was time to push the issue and he didn’t sit down to this movie with very much enthusiasm. Making matters worse, there’s a great big ungainly Criterion package of classic Godzilla movies just sitting on the shelf he could be watching (be here next Sunday). So we sat down to watch something he really didn’t want to watch, and apart from giving me a death glare for joining in with Floyd Pepper on some of the verses in “Can You Picture That?” – I do tend to draw those – he had a really good time apart from the slower songs. It could have been worse. I really wanted his mom to sing Janice’s part. Get back to me in about nine years. I bet when our son’s seventeen he would not find our singing along to what may well be the best song released in 1979 in any way funny.

Incidentally, I completely love Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. They’re the best band-within-a-fiction that’s ever been. And while “Can You Picture That?” is the centerpiece of this movie for me, the other six songs are every bit as flawlessly crafted. I’d mentioned Paul Williams’ curious luck when we ran into him in a 1977 episode of The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries; it remains absolutely bizarre to me that the fellow who wrote these great, great songs for the film never had hit singles of his own. Sure, a couple of these aren’t the sort of songs I’d listen to regularly, but it’s a weird, stupid world when “The Rainbow Connection” loses out on an Academy Award to… errr… “It Goes Like It Goes.”

So anyway, the film’s infectious mix of goofball puns, how’d-they-do-that effects, and incredibly lovable characters won our son over and he really did like the movie and laughed a lot. For us grownups, there’s also the astonishing number of cameo appearances by big celebrities, like Kahn again, and Telly Savalas as her tough boyfriend. Only Steve Martin and Mel Brooks try to steal the film from its stars and they’re both hilarious, but I also love James Coburn owning the only bar in the world too tough for James Coburn, and, in perhaps the greatest stupid gag I can think of – because I can’t think of it without smiling – Carol Kane answering “Yeth?” whenever anyone shouts “Myth!” I fed that to Marie last night and she left me hanging. I’m still shaking my head.

And of course even though we try to watch movies without interruption or comment, our son had been chuckling at Animal so much that I couldn’t resist because the puns were so infectious. They got parked in that ghost town and when Floyd says he needs to walk Animal, I asked our son whether he wishes Animal had a bigger part. Was what happens next his favorite part of the movie? Do bears go “Moving right along” in Studebakers?

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1973)

When I was about our son’s age, my mom would drop my brother and me at the Lewis A. Ray Public Library to see summer movies. One that has always stood out in my memory was 1973’s adaptation of a novel by E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Of course I didn’t know then what a bad print was, but my memory has always “shown” me this film as a very beat-up and faded 16mm print all covered in cigarette ash and hair.

A few years ago, the Warner Archive – no expense incurred – reissued this movie on DVD-R. I don’t mean the title, I mean the exact same print they showed us in ’79 or so. It even has the projectionists’ “change reel” burn marks in the upper corner, which was thoughtful of them, since we were telling our son about those earlier in the week.

If you click the picture, you can order this film under its later title, The Hideaways. I’m not sure why it gained that name for home video. At one point, as you can see on Wikipedia, it was doing the rounds with a cover that featured photos of Richard Mulligan and Madeline Kahn and claimed them as co-stars. These actors are maybe onscreen for a combined two and a half minutes. It’s like the home video people don’t want to admit that this is a movie starring children for children. Until the movie takes us to the house of the reclusive Mrs. Frankweiler, the real stars, Sally Prager and Johnny Doran, have delivered about 90% of its dialogue.

Critic Vincent Canby really didn’t like this film. I love this line from his NYT review: “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of those G-rated movies about children, not as they are but as they appear in television commercials for things like peanut butter and potato chips.” But while I love Canby’s wordplay, I think he’s wrong. Prager’s character, a middle-schooler named Claudia, is perfectly real and believably high-strung as middle school girls are. When she gets discouraging news, the world ends.

Claudia takes her younger brother and his money with her when she runs away to have an adventure. They set up camp in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, avoiding guards and bathing in the fountain after hours, and Claudia goes gaga over a statue that might be a Michelangelo that can’t be positively identified. It was not donated to the museum by the rich and very grouchy widow Mrs. Frankweiler, because she doesn’t donate things, but she sold it to ’em for a paltry $225. Claudia figures that a couple of days in the NYPL will positively identify the piece, but when her amateur investigations don’t turn her into Nancy Drew and her world ends, she decides that forcing the issue with Mrs. Frankweiler – played by a too-young Ingrid Bergman, I say – is the only thing she can do, but what she doesn’t expect is that some people enjoy the power of secrets.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is an amusing diversion for kids and an entertaining time capsule of design, costume and signage for grownups. (The Amtrak line from rural Jersey to Boston was $9.90 when this was filmed.) But the story is merely pleasant and incredibly convenient for its protagonists, who navigate obstacles with superhuman luck and confidence. The movie doesn’t find any teeth until we meet Mrs. Frankweiler. Bergman is hilarious, and I enjoyed watching the children upend her static and stifling existence with their intrusion, and Claudia’s demands that her own secrets stay hidden. But in the end, it’s more amusing than thrilling, and you’d kind of expect a movie about hiding from grownups to have a thrill or two.