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Breathless, Heaving Flames

Note: This column originally ran in The Loafer in December of 2015 to mark the 30th Anniversary of "Clue." I thought it had been uploaded here at the same time, and I recently found out it wasn't, nor was it archived on The Loafer's website. 

If there’s one thing about Hollywood you can still count on these days, it’s the axiom that the true test of movies is time. Films that were hits can become forgotten footnotes, and films that were flops can become cherished classics. A shining example of this would be Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” “Vertigo” wasn’t a hit at the box office, and critics hated it. Yet today “Vertigo” is not only considered to be Hitchcock’s masterpiece, it’s also considered by many to be finest film ever made. 

There’s a film which falls into that category, flop now beloved. The film in question happens to my favorite movie. A movie that I can almost recite word for word, and a movie which celebrates its 30th anniversary this coming Sunday. On December 13, 1985 Paramount Pictures released a little comedy called “Clue.” Now if you, like I, are a devotee of this movie, I bet our stories are similar. There seems to be a connection between people of my generation with “Clue” because we were the ones who “discovered” it. 

Now if you’re one of a handful of people who have never heard of this movie, let me fill you in. “Clue” is based on the board game we have all grown up playing, or in my case loving. Someone gave me a copy of the game for my fifth birthday and it quickly became my favorite. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a movie based on the game was a thing. How did that happen? Forgive me, I’m going to jump around again. Let’s go back to the theatrical run of “Clue.” 

“Clue” was met with mixed reviews, most critics didn’t know what to think of it, or they didn’t care for it. They were confused by the film’s multiple endings--perhaps a gimmick, but something well within keeping the game’s “anyone could do it” theme. On home video and TV you see all three endings, but in the theaters, each screen showing the film had a different ending. It was also a box office flop making only $14.6 million at the box office, just shy of recouping the film’s $15 million budget. “Clue” was released on home video, and to television, and that was the end of the story. Or was it? 

Back to when yours truly first encountered the film, which was in actually a bittersweet moment due to the events surrounding me. The year is 1992, I’m seven years old, and my grandfather was battling cancer. I understood he was sick, but the weight of the matter was lost on my young mind. We were in Ohio so he could get some type of “top treatment,” I can’t recall exactly. I do recall that the TV in his hospital room was on a crane that allowed it to be lowered, raised, and moved around the bed area. 

My grandfather was one of the kindest and warmest human beings to ever walk this Earth. He said to me “Here, Andy. Lower the TV so you can sit in the floor and find yourself something to watch.” This was back when cable was still young, cost about $20, and everyone had different channel numbers everywhere you went. A local TV channel in wherever we were Ohio was on as the TV warmed up. I can’t recall if the movie has just begun--as I recall seeing the titles, or if an announcer said the film was about to start. What I do remember vividly was being blown away there was a movie based on this board game I love. 

I didn’t get to see all of the movie that day. Back in our hotel I tried to find it on the TV and couldn’t. This was pre-internet, pre-netflix, pre-IMDB. If you saw a movie on TV you wanted to see, you had to fight like hell to track it down. My parents--who were the font of knowledge when you’re seven, didn’t even know the film existed. But the film stayed with me, I kept hoping my local video store would have it, or it would turn up on TV again. It would be two years before I saw the film in its entirety. 

In the local video shop in 1994 “Clue” still was in the back of mind. After years of waiting, I finally asked if they had the movie. The clerk typed into their computer “No, we sure don’t.” I was sad “But let me see if we can order it for you.” What!? Order it!? This is a thing!? You can order movies for people!? I was once again shocked. The clerk reached underneath the counter and produced a huge paper catalog of movies. “Clue” was in there, they could get it for me. Not just to rent, but a copy of my own. My mom gave her approval, and after what seemed to be two months of wait, it arrived at the video store. I watched it, I loved it, my mom loved it, I showed it to friends, they loved it. 

As I aged into my early twenties it struck me as strange that more people didn’t love this movie as I did. That when I would say it was my favorite movie, I would get looks from people. Why? I didn’t understand why people seemed to think of “Clue” as a “lesser film.” Let’s look at the cast and crew for one thing. The cast is perfect, it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the game’s infamous house guests: Martin Mull as Col. Mustard, Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock, Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum, Michael McKean as Mr. Green, Lesley Ann Warren as Miss Scarlet, and the two characters not from the game, Wadsworth--the butler--played by the glorious force that is Tim Curry. Along with Colleen Camp as Yvette--the maid.  

The film was written and directed by Jonathan Lynn, an Englishman best known for the UK sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister” and stateside--outside of “Clue”-- “My Cousin Vinny.” “Clue” as a film began as a project for American director Jonathan Landis--who shares a story credit with Lynn for the film. Landis, of course, would be a film God if the only film he ever made was “The Blues Brothers,” but let’s not forget this is also the man whose filmography includes “Animal House,” “An American Werewolf in London,” “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” “Coming to America,” “Three Amigos,” and a little music video you may have heard of called “Thriller.” Power creative forces here. Before I jump back into my own love of the film, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Buzzfeed ran a piece about a year or so ago that is the most in depth look at “Clue” to date. Google “Something Terrible Has Happened Here” and you should find it--it’s a must read, and far beyond what I could offer you here. 

Instead, I just want to tell you why I love “Clue.” A love letter to my favorite film on the eve of its 30th Anniversary. I’d be willing to bet I have seen “Clue” more than any other movie. I think of “Clue” as the last great Screwball Comedy. It’s a brilliant farce with one of the wittiest screenplays any Hollywood comedy of last 30 years could have. Matter of fact, there is only one single bit of improvised dialogue in the entire film, perhaps “Clue’s” most famous line. A line that was improvised by the great Madeline Kahn. When Mrs. White talks of her hatred of one character she states “It flames. Flames on the side of my face. Breathing, breathless, heaving breaths.” Perfection from a genius comedic actress. 

The rapid fire pace of the dialogue is clearly of the screwball tradition, to prepare the cast, director Lynn showed them all the rapid fire masterpiece “His Girl Friday” from 1940. It all shows on screen. “Clue” is a movie that I hold very dear to my heart. If you tell me you haven’t seen it, I’ll show it to you or buy you a copy. As someone who has loved the film for most of his life, and questioned why others haven’t, you can imagine my delight in the past few years seeing the film getting its due. Articles online, and in print--all largely from people of my generation. “Clue” is one our touchstone films. The movie that was out when all of us were barely one, and a film we all discovered on TV or video during the ‘90s. 

“Clue” also was given a tribute episode on the comedy-detective series “Psych,” an episode that is worth seeking out if you too love “Clue.” The cult of “Clue” is alive, well, and growing. A few months ago I sat my 12 year old cousin, and his 16 year old sister down and showed them the movie. They loved it. Matter of fact, I can’t think of a single time I’ve shown “Clue” to anyone and them not liking it. 

Everything about “Clue” is perfect. No changes could be made to improve upon it. Perhaps that’s why when Universal announced plans to remake the film a few years ago, the backlash was strong. Universal canceled their plans to remake it. Which is as it should be. “Clue” to me is just as scared as “Casablanca” or “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It’s precious and you share it with others. And now, if you’ll allow me, I shall close out this week’s column with one of my favorite exchanges from a film that is full of favorite exchanges. 

After a series of murders have taken place, the doorbell rings. Mrs. Peacock rushes to the door exclaiming “Whoever it is, they gotta go away, or they’ll be killed!” Mrs. Peacock opens the door and finds an evangelist there: 

Evangelist: Good evening. Have you ever given any thought to the kingdom of heaven? 
Mrs. Peacock: What? 
Evangelist: Repent. The kingdom of heaven *is* at hand. 
Miss Scarlet: You ain't just whistlin' Dixie. 
Evangelist: Armageddon is almost upon us. 
Professor Plum: I got news for you - it's already here. 
Mrs. Peacock: Go away. 
Evangelist: But your souls are in danger!
Mrs. Peacock: Our lives our in danger, you beatnik!

Mrs. Peacock slams the door in his face, and film continues. That, my friends, is everything.


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