On December 13, 1985, Clue opened in theaters and, by Christmas, the screwball whodunnit proved to be one of the major bombs of the holiday movie season.
Thirty years later, Clue stands as one of the best loved and most often quoted comedies of its era. It’s a genuine cult sensation that rose from its own ashes to gain a worldwide following and win over multiple generations of ongoing admirers.
Let’s celebrate three decades of Clue now with facts, figures, allegations, and evidence as to testify to how a witty script performed with enormous energy by a cast of comedic greats transformed into cinematic triumph. Really, it’s no mystery!
1. Boasting an all-star cast (albeit not quite plucked from the A-list) and based on a board game (a notion that, at the time, appalled cultural tastemakers), Clue boasted multiple endings that played in different venues, allowing moviegoers to choose from outcomes “A,” “B”, or “C” (a unique gimmick, to be sure, but tellingly not one that any other film replicated since).
2. Clue’s potential audience initially exercised their own option—“D,” stay home or see something else—but the movie’s original small but vocal fan-base stayed loyal and spread the word that this was a film worth discovering.
3. Against a budget of $15 million, Clue grossed just $3 million in its initial release.
4. Paramount had such high hopes for Clue it issued two book tie-ins: a proper novelization by mystery author Michael McDowell and a kid’s collectible called Paramount Pictures Presents Clue: The Storybook.
7. The non-Clue megaton box office bomb of the ’85 season proved to be Santa Claus: The Movie. You might notice that we’re not running a 30th anniversary tribute to that ho-ho-horrible mess.
9. Clue gained a second life on home video with all three endings included as part of the final narrative. That version’s frequent cable airings consistently won over fans and ultimately turned the film into the phenomenon it’s become.
10. Clue was adapted from a still popular board game that, in North America, goes by that same name. In England, where musician Anthony E. Pratt invented the game in 1944, it’s called Cluedo—pronounced “kloo-doe”—a combination of the word “clue” and Latin term “ludo,” meaning “I play.” Pratt originally pitched his game under the title Murder!
11. Clue was the first major motion picture based on a board game. Battleship (2012) was the most recent. That flopped in grand fashion, too.
12. Animal House and Trading Places director John Landis came up with Clue’s overall concept, plot, and multiple ending gimmick and had been pitching the project for years before teaming with director Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of the quintessential British television series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
13. Throughout its development, Clue went through a platoon screenwriters, including playwright Tom Stoppard, composer Stephen Sondheim, and actor Anthony Perkins before Jonathan Lynn finished Landis’s original story ideas in script form.
14. Lynn ultimately wrote, filmed, and discarded another ending, wherein Tim Curry as butler Wadsworth commits all the murders. That outcome is included in Paramount Pictures Presents Clue: The Storybook.
15. Debra Hill, best known for co-writing and producing Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980), produced Clue. She would go on to produce Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Big Top Pee-Wee (1988), and The Fisher King (1991), among many other films.
16. “Hill House,” the mansion in which Clue takes place, is both a reference to Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, as well as to the last name of the movie’s producer.
17. Lee Ving, who plays Mr. Boddy, was (and remains) frontman of the notorious L.A. punk band, Fear. On Halloween night, 1981, Fear notoriously performed on Saturday Night Live for a battalion of imported punk-rock hooligans who psychotically slam-danced and tore up the studio. Ving’s movie star charisma, however, is unmistakable in the 1982 music documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, and, for a brief spell, Hollywood set out to make him a leading man.
18. Amidst a cast of top-notch comedy pros that included Madeline Kahn, Michael McKean, Tim Curry, Martin Mull, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, and Colleen Camp, Lynn felt Lee Ving had been forced upon him. “The studio wanted him,” Lynn said. “He had some big hit record or something. I had imagined somebody rather different, but I said no to every one of the studio’s requests, and so finally I thought, Well, I’d better say yes to something.”
19. Jonathan Lynn and Tim Curry had been friends since they attended boarding school together. Both Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese were in the running to play Wadsworth the butler, but Lynn opted his long-time pal. It’s impossible to imagine Clue without him.
20. Madeline Kahn entirely improvised her famous “Flames on the side of my face!” meltdown. It appears only in Clue’s “C” ending, meaning that two-thirds of the movie’s original ticket-buyers didn’t get to see it.
21. Carrie Fisher initially won the role of Miss Scarlett, but had to bow out due to landing in rehab four days before shooting commenced.
22. Somewhat ironically considering Carrie Fisher’s status, Eileen Brennan came to play Mrs. Peacock shortly after being released from the Betty Ford Center, where she addressed her addiction to painkillers.
23. Colleen Camp beat out Madonna, Demi Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh to play Yvette, Hill House’s sexbomb maid.
24. Attention was paid to match details of the movie to those of the game. For example, the mansion’s parquet floor resembles the actual Clue board; the secret passageways in between rooms in the game connect the same rooms in the film; and each character’s car is the same color as their playing piece.
25. Productions in other media based on Clue include a 1990 UK TV series, a 1997 Off-Broadway musical, and a 2011 miniseries on the Hub network. John Landis also said he received a videotape of an unofficial eight-grade stage adaptation of the movie (and he loved it).
26. In 2013, the 100th episode of the TV series Psych, titled “100 Clues,” centered on a mansion-set murder mystery and features Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren. The show also featured multiple endings, and was dedicated to the memory of Madeline Kahn, who passed away due to cancer in 1999.
27. Psych creator Steve Franks is a lifelong Clue fan and yet wasn’t sure the show’s audience would get the episode’s reference—until he ran it by a massive crowd at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con. “We had a room with like 4,600 seats in there,” Franks said, “and I was thinking that 12 people might stand up and get excited. As soon as we said ‘Clue,’ instantly there was this huge swell of excitement. We’re like, ‘All right, I guess we’ll do this!’”
28. Beginning in 2002, Sins o’ the Flesh—the long-running Rocky Horror Picture Show live “shadow cast” ensemble at L.A.’s Nuart Theatre—mounted a midnight screening of Clue, Rocky Horror-style. It proved to be a smash, and the troupe regularly performs along the movie for crowds who come dressed up as their favorite characters.
29. Shadow-cast productions of Clue regularly take place at arthouse theaters throughout North America, including the Music Box in Chicago. Among the most impressed is Tim Curry himself, who said, ““It’s got a life of its own now, this movie. It’s a bit of deja vu for me, really, after Rocky Horror. There are really rabid fans
30. Clue is oddly embraced today by Millennials, despite its rampant (and riotous) political incorrectness. Let’s hope this is a promising sign.