“Seven Suspects, Six Weapons, Five Bodies and Three Endings.”
—Tagline for Clue
In 1985, Paramount Pictures took a chance on the first film based on a board game. They also made the unheard-of choice of releasing the picture in three different versions, each with a different ending. Their gamble on Clue may not have paid off initially, but over time the picture has become a major cult hit.
The game Clue debuted in England as Cluedo in 1949, followed soon after by the American version with its better-known title. It quickly became one of the world’s most popular board games, eventually selling more than 100 million units and earning in excess of $1 billion. Debra Hill first secured the film rights and approached John Landis to direct. He quickly worked out the basic plot, with six strangers invited to a dinner party where they learn that all are being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy, who promptly turns up dead. Landis suggested filming the picture with four different endings, so that four different versions of the film would be sent out to theatres. It was his hope that audiences who liked one version of the film would go back to see it again with another ending. He only had one problem – he couldn’t come up with any workable endings.
So he, Hill and the other producers set out to find a screenwriter. The first person hired was Tom Stoppard, but after a year of work, he gave up on the film and returned his advance. The producers then tried to enlist Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, who had co-written The Last of Sheila (1973), but their asking price was too high. Finally, they turned to Jonathan Lynn, the award-winning creator of the popular Britcoms Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
Lynn’s screenplay adheres closely to the board game. Not only do the six guests’ aliases coincide with characters from the game, but their cars match the colors of their playing pieces (and names). The murder weapons match those used in the game, and the secret passages the guests find follow the same routes as those on the game board. Except for Mrs. Peacock’s peahen feather hat and Professor Plum’s burgundy vest, however, none of them wear their characters’ colors. In fact, Miss Scarlett and Mrs. White wear the opposite of their colors, with Lesley Ann Warren’s Miss Scarlet in green and Madeline Kahn’s Mrs. White in black. Since Lynn had friends who had gone through the era of anti-Communist witch hunts and blacklisting, he set the film in 1954 and made the characters Washington, D.C., residents, many of whom were caught up in the madness of McCarthyism.
By the time Lynn had finished the script, however, Landis had committed himself to another project. Since Lynn already had experience directing for the stage, Landis asked him to take over as director. English actor Leonard Rossiter, who had starred in the popular British comedy series Rising Damp and its 1980 feature incarnation, was Lynn’s choice to play Wadsworth the butler, the only main character not in the original game, but he died before production started. Lynn suggested casting Rowan Atkinson in his place, but the producers felt he was too little known in the States (this was before he became an international star with his Mr. Bean character). Finally, Lynn turned to Tim Curry, an old school friend of his who was delighted at the chance to work with him.
Christopher Lloyd was cast on the strength of his performances on the TV series Taxi (he would make his first appearance as “Doc” in the Back to the Future movies the same year). Lynn felt the only part not fully fleshed out originally was Mrs. White. Then Kahn expressed an interest in doing the role, and Lynn built it up with the kind of material he knew she could do well. Eventually, Kahn would also ad lib her most famous speech, her description of how angry she had been to learn her second husband was having an affair with Yvette, the French maid. Lynn considered several actresses for the role of Yvette, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demi Moore and Madonna. Colleen Camp was so eager for the role, she auditioned dressed in character. She was so funny (and well-built), she won the role.
Carrie Fisher was originally cast as Miss Scarlet but went into a drug rehabilitation program shortly before filming was set to start. She had permission from the program’s managers to check out during the day in order to shoot her scenes, but the production company’s insurance company refused to cover her, so she had to be replaced. Ann Warren, who had been married to producer Jon Peters from 1967 to 1975, took the role on four days’ notice. There were no problems insuring Eileen Brennan, playing her first role since leaving the Betty Ford Center, where she had fought an addiction to painkillers that developed after she had been hit by a car in 1982. The physical aspects of the production were a trial for her, but she never complained and approached the role with her usual professionalism. Sadly, her rehab stint made Kahn so uncomfortable that they barely spoke during the shoot, ending a longtime friendship.
Lee Ving, front man for the punk band Fear, was cast as Mr. Boddy as much for the pun made by his name (making him the first to be “LeeVing” the cast) as for his acting talent. In addition, Paramount executives thought his popularity as a rock star would help sell the film. Adding to the picture’s appeal to music fans is the casting of Jane Wiedlin, rhythm guitarist for The Go-Go’s, in a cameo as a singing-telegram girl.
Before production started, Lynn assembled the cast for a screening of His Girl Friday (1940), Howard Hawks’ classic newspaper comedy famous for its fast-paced line delivery. That was the start of a bonding experience for most of the actors. The seven principals were in almost every scene together. Between scenes, they often hung out in the set’s billiard parlor, shooting pool, though Warren’s dress was so tight she couldn’t sit. She had to relax using a reclining board. The cast cracked each other up so much that before each take Michael McKean, cast as Mr. Green, would say “Something terrible has happened here” to get them to play the comedy more seriously, which only made the action funnier. The film’s pace ultimately took its toll on Curry, who had to rattle off lengthy speeches in the final act while racing around the set. By the time the film was finished, he had to see a doctor to get his blood pressure under control.
The house’s exterior and the ballroom were shot at the Max Busch House in Pasadena, which is no longer standing. All of the other scenes were shot at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood. The sets were decorated with 18th and 19th century antiques, including materials that were once part of the Theodore Roosevelt estate. The main set was then bought by Aaron Spelling, who used it as The Carlton hotel on Dynasty.
The film was shot with three different endings. A fourth ending, in which the entire cast dies, was ultimately deemed too grim. There’s disagreement among those who worked on the film as to whether that ending was shot in its entirely, abandoned half-finished or abandoned altogether. In some venues, ads indicated whether the ending was A, B or C. Television airings show all three endings, while some DVDs allow viewers to choose the ending before starting the film. Landis’ hopes that the multiple endings would inspire people to see the film more than once were dashed, however, and Clue underperformed at the box office, earning less than its $15 million budget. Some have suggested the multiple endings hurt the film at the box office. Nor was it helped by mixed reviews, with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune characterizing it as “a lot of characters running around on a treadmill to nowhere.”
The immediate result of the film’s box-office failure was Lynn’s becoming persona non grata in Hollywood. He had been in talks to direct Roxanne (1987), starring Steve Martin, but suddenly was replaced by Australian director Fred Schepisi. He would not bounce back until he scored a hit as writer and director of Nuns on the Run (1990), with Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane
By the ‘90s, however, Clue had found its audience. With its lack of nudity and strong language, it became a staple of cable programming, particularly during daytime hours, bringing it a new generation of fans. It is now considered one of the best comedies of the 1980s. A stage production in Los Angeles had audience members shouting the lines along with the actors. Midnight screenings of the film are attended by fans in costume, often with them acting out the film in pantomime in front of the screen. The 100th episode of the USA cable series Psych was a tribute to Clue, featuring guest appearances by Martin Mull (Col. Mustard), Guest and Warren. A remake was announced in 2016 with Ryan Reynolds later announced to star in and with a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, his co-writers on the Deadpool series.
Producer: Debra Hill, George Folsey, Jr., Peter Guber, John Landis, Jon Peters
Director-Writer: Jonathan Lynn
Based on a story by John Landis and Jonathan Lynn and the Parker Bros. board game
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Score: John Morris
Cast: Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Tim Curry (Wadsworth), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Martin Mull (Colonel Mustard), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlet), Colleen Camp (Yvette), Howard Hesseman (The Chief)
By Frank Miller