How do you take a simple and beloved board game and turn it into a full-length feature film? This was the challenge for Paramount Pictures in 1985.
Clue: the Movie is a 1985 black comedy based on the popular Parker Brothers board game. It used the same characters, weapons, and situations to create the ultimate whodunnit. The movie didn’t meet expectations but eventually became a cult classic.
There were so many great things in the 80s. The movies, the cartoons, TV shows, toys, music, video games, that our brains could only hold so much. Clue: the Movie, is something I totally forgot about until it was recommended for a movie review by someone on my Patreon to do for the Everything 80s Movie Review Podcast.
(if you’re interested in supporting me and the show, and getting access to this other podcast) you can find out more at Patreon.com/80s.
The mention of this movie instantly triggered old memories. I remember being so excited for this movie. I loved the game, it had Doc Brown in it and just looked amazing. But according to my mother, it also looked way too risque, and there was no way I would be allowed to see it.
It would be years until I finally watched it. But despite a great cast, a great premise, and the recognition of the name, the movie didn’t do too great in the theaters. And this is too bad. Eventually, it would develop a cult following, but this is a look back on how a board game was brought to the big screen in a pretty unique way, and I think is pretty underappreciated for how groundbreaking it was.
The Plot of Clue: the Movie
The Clue movie is set in 1952. It is set in a New England mansion and we meet a cast of characters who arrive via an ominous invitation. The guests come from various areas including Washington D.C.
We meet Wadsworth the Butler, played by the great Tim Curry. Before Curry, the producers had considered the also great Rowan Atkinson, who I could definitely see in this role. It was thought, however, that Atkinson was not yet famous enough. We also meet Yvette the Maid. Then, the six strangers start to arrive. They include::
- Colonel Mustard played by Martin Mull
- Mrs. White played by Madeline Kahn from several Mel Brooks films
- Mrs. Peacock played by Eileen Brennan
- Mr. Green played by Michael McKean. You probably know him for a wide range of roles including appearances in Spinal Tap, Laverne and Shirley, and Saul’s brother, Chuck McGill in Better Call Saul
- Professor Plum by Christopher Lloyd (this was the same year as Back to the Future so it was easy to overlook him in this role due to the enormous success of Doc Brown)
- Miss Scarlet played by Lesley Ann Warren in the role which was initially awarded to Carrie Fisher. This would have been pretty cool to see the year after Return of the Jedi but it’s when Fisher entered into drug rehab
Then, a seventh guest arrives: Mr. Boddy (dead body, get it?) played by Lee Ving who was in Flashdance and is also a musician in the punk band Fear. We find out that Boddy has been blackmailing all of the others. And there is some other corruption going on.
Mrs. Peacock is married to a senator and is accused of taking bribes for him, but says she paid the blackmail to keep it all quiet. Mrs. White is suspected in the death of her husband. Professor Plum apparently has had an affair with a patient and lost his medical license. Miss Scarlett runs a brothel in Washington, etc.
Basically, all of the guests have a scandal of some sort they are trying to keep under wraps.
Mr. Boddy is the one causing all of this but he threatens to expose all of the guests if they have him arrested. The only way out of this is to kill Wadsworth because then all of the secrets will be contained by the seven of them. So, he gives them each a weapon:
- A candlestick
- A knife
- A lead pipe
- A revolver
- A Rope
- A wrench
When Boddy turns out the lights, we hear a gunshot and someone scream. When the lights come back on, Boddy looks to be dead. So just like the game we loved: who did it?
The guests spend time investigating the death. Wadsworth the butler lets them know the police are on their way and the group has under an hour to figure out what happened. Wadsworth explains how his wife killed herself because of Boddy’s blackmail because of some weird socialist connections.
I don’t remember that part in the game…
This is why Wadsworth was forced to become a butler (almost like it was right out of that Seinfeld episode). Wadsworth got everyone together to try and force Boddy to confess and then they could turn him in. This didn’t happen, so now it becomes a whodunnit.
The cook is suspected, but she ends up dead. She was stabbed with the knife. Boddy’s body disappears and when they find it, it looks as if he was hit with the candlestick. The weapons are locked up and Wadsworth attempts to throw away the only key to the front door. But then a stranded motorist arrives.
Wadsworth locks him in the lounge and the guests break off into pairs to search the rest of the mansion. But while this is happening, someone burns the blackmail evidence, unlocks the weapons, and kills the motorist with the wrench.
Meanwhile, Mustard and Miss Scarlett find a secret passage. It takes them to the lounge where they find they are locked in with the dead motorist. Yvette, the maid, shoots the door open using the revolver.
A cop has found the abandoned motorist’s car and goes to the mansion to use the phone. Then, J. Edgar Hoover of all people calls the mansion. The rest of the guests try to distract the cop but then the lights cut out. When they come on, Yvette, the cop, and a singing telegram girl that had arrived for some reason are all dead. And they three died by the rope, the lead pipe, and the revolver.
When the lights come back on, Wadsworth says he knows who the murderer is. And this leads to a variety of conclusions.
The Three Alternate Endings of Clue: The Movie
This is probably the most groundbreaking feature of the movie: there were three different endings. And each theater would receive one of the three. Some theaters would advertise which ending they received, and some kept viewers in the dark.
I can see how this could be detrimental, but I think it’s a really cool idea and one that could create some extra buzz for the film.
Yvette killed the cook and then Boddy because she was ordered to by Miss Scarlett. Yvette had worked for her as a call girl, but then Scarlet kills her, and the other victims. Scarlet plans to sell all of the guests’ secrets and then kill Wadsworth. He is able to take her down when the cops arrive. It turns out that Wadsworth is actually an undercover FBI agent. He says how the revolver was empty the whole time, but accidentally shoots off one remaining bullet knocking down a chandelier.
The victims were all killed by Mrs. Peacock. She was trying to hide all the bribes she had received from some foreign powers. In this ending, she holds all the others at gunpoint and they let her leave. We also find out in this ending that Wadsworth is still an undercover FBI agent, and he was sent out to investigate her. The evangelist we met later in the film turns out to be the police chief and he captures her on her way out.
In this ending, everyone but Mr. Green has killed at least one person. It gets a lot more complicated such as Professor Plum trying to kill Boddy with the revolver but then takes him out later with the Candlestick. We find out that Mrs. White kills Yvette for having an affair with her husband. We learn that Wadsworth is the real Mr. Boddy, and the person Plum killed was actually Boddy’s butler.
But Mr. Green Kills Wadsworth and reveals that he is in fact the undercover FBI agent. It was he that J. Edgar Hoover had called earlier. The evangelist is still revealed to be the police chief and Wadsworth reveals he has killed Boddy.
Scrapped Ending #4
There was even a fourth ending filmed but it was thought that it wasn’t good enough. In that ending, Wadsworth has committed all the murders. He was driven to this because of his desire for perfection. He couldn’t be the perfect butler or husband, but he could be the perfect murderer. He poisoned all the guests so there wouldn’t be any witnesses. Wadsworth gets arrested by the FBI but escapes, steals a car, and is taken down by three police dogs.
Production on the Clue Movie
John Landis was involved in the movie’s creation and we know him from many classics. Fun fact: Landis directed the Thriller video. Clue was directed by Jonathan Lynn who made My Cousin Vinny.
Plans for a Clue movie had been in the works for years and most of the script had been ready for a while. Many people warned Landis about getting involved in a novelty film. There was no backstory to it, and you’re coming in with just one simple idea. How do you flesh it all out over a full-length film? It’s like movies that are made on a simple Saturday Night Live sketch such as Cone Heads and Night at the Roxbury.
But in all honesty, Clue should work. At the core of the game, is a good old mystery story in the mold of Agatha Christie or Murder on the Orient Express.
This could work, but there was a big problem: they couldn’t figure out how to conclude the movie. There needed to be multiple murders to create a mystery, and they didn’t know how to bring it all together.
Multiple writers had been brought in before Lynn with the idea the film should have four different endings. They obviously went for three, but this alternate ending gimmick would be the main draw for the movie.
In future TV airings, all three endings would be shown after the movie. Ultimately, the movie would have to go in the comedy/mystery/dark comedy style. And it was impossible not to include other murder mystery themes throughout it. But to attract families and younger viewers, the movie would go for a PG rating.
Most of the set was built completely from scratch and did a great job of recreating the rooms from the board game.
How Did Clue the Movie Do?
Ultimately, not great. Clue was released on December 13, 1985. This was a good release that should have captured a lot of the holiday crowd. But the movie didn’t come out to favorable reviews. Many thought the alternate endings were too gimmicky. I can see that, but I think it was a risk worth taking.
The movie would make $14.6 million against the $15 million budget. This isn’t a total financial failure as it almost broke even, but a lot more was expected of this movie. If you think about the stellar cast, and a perfect premise based on a beloved game, it’s surprising that it failed.
The holiday release may be to blame. The Christmas period has become pretty hallowed ground with several huge blockbusters releasing at this time. This wasn’t necessarily a thing yet during the 80s.
There wasn’t a ton of competition, but Rocky IV was still going strong and continued to be the number one movie when Clue was released. Clue also opened on the same weekend as The Jewel of the Nile which was a pretty big hit.
Holiday-wise, you had Santa Claus: The Movie and One Magic Christmas released the week before, and some huge releases the next week including The Color Purple, the re-release of 101 Dalmatians, and Out of Africa.
Not to mention, Back to the Future was still in theaters and was actually the 14th highest-grossing movie of December despite being released in July.
To me, Clue didn’t have enough time to build a big word of mouth. Back in the 80s, it could take weeks for word to spread. And with all of the huge movies released the next weekend, I can see how it got pushed to the side. After all, 1985 was one of the best years of the decade for movies.
A lot of people are big fans of Clue, and a lot didn’t even know it exists. There are some problematic things in it that people didn’t seem to care about back then, but critics seemed to find other issues.
Is the biggest problem the fact it doesn’t have a definitive ending? Did the issue of not knowing to end it create problems for the audience? Were the multiple endings more of a way to create an “ending” because they were stuck and not actually a clever gimmick?
Some people have seen it this way but I don’t really think that’s the case. The essence of Clue: the game is that there can always be multiple endings. I think this would have to transfer over into a feature.
I think this style of movie would work perfectly today on Netflix or any other streaming service. There have been talks of it being remade with Ryan Reynolds and some of the creators of Deadpool. There were also talks of Jason Bateman being involved, but it doesn’t seem much has come of it.
If it were to be remade, I think it would have to include some massive stars, and really focus on the unique format and alternate endings. Many of us have nostalgia for Clue: the game, but is it as popular with kids today? Is there enough of an older audience that would be interested in a remake?
Is Clue in the “it’s so bad it’s good” category? I don’t see it that way. I think it’s pretty good, and unique, it just wasn’t seen by many people. Murder mysteries are always interesting, but I see Clue as more of a parody movie, and I think that was lost on a lot of people.
Ultimately, Clue: the Movie was a unique approach to filmmaking and marketing. It would eventually find a new, and younger, audience going into the 90s when it started to be aired on HBO and the Comedy Network.