“What Are You Afraid Of, A Fate Worse Than Death?”: How Funny Women Survive Clue’s Anti-Party

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

A party, according to Clue (1985), is a sinister exercise in social engineering and surveillance. Set in 1954 in a remote, gloomy mansion and laced with references to McCarthyism—“Communism was just a red herring!” is a famous quote—the film chronicles a soirée where the guests are held captive and must conceal their true identities. As the plot unfolds it becomes clear that all of the characters are spying and being spied on, and by the end of the evening six people are dead and the FBI is making arrests. Throughout, the performances and dialogue gleefully caricature the malaise of socialising in a repressive era, and although the film never explicitly addresses the claustrophobic sexism of 1950s America, each female guest’s secret identity reveals a struggle to wrest power from a male-dominated society.

Despite its intricate murder-mystery narrative and political undertones, at its core Clue is a campy comedy whose satire relies heavily on the performances of its ensemble cast. In contrast to many contemporary ensemble comedies (The Hangover trilogy, Anchorman 2, This Is the End), the now 30-year-old cult classic prioritizes women’s comedic roles to a remarkable extent. From Lesley Ann Warren’s sarcastic vamping as Miss Scarlet and Eileen Brennan’s physical buffoonery as Mrs. Peacock, to Madeline Kahn’s deadpan slapstick as Mrs. White, the sheer, in-your-face funniness of these performances is a mutiny against the social restrictions imposed on women both onscreen and in real life where being the clown of the party remains a man’s prerogative.

And oh my, this soups delicious, isnt it? Mrs. Peacock, in the Dining Room

From the moment Wadsworth the butler (Tim Curry) welcomes the first nervous guest (played by Martin Mull) into the mansion and coyly reminds him to use his assigned alias of Colonel Mustard for the duration of the evening, Clue establishes the coercive phoniness of that most upper-middle-class of social functions: the dinner party. Five more guests arrive—Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Miss Scarlet, Mrs. White and Mr. Green (Michael McKean)—bearing the cryptic, threatening invitations they received, ignorant of the purpose of the event or the identity of its host, yet compelled to attend. The six strangers greet one another stiffly, sipping champagne and cautiously upholding the pretense of civility until they are herded into the dining room by Wadsworth, who performs his duties expertly, if slightly sardonically (Colonel Mustard: “What exactly do you do?” Wadsworth: “I buttle, sir”).

The mood during dinner is equally joyless and fearful. Taking it upon herself to perform the emotional labour of easing the tension, Mrs. Peacock delivers a famously breathless monologue as the leaves of her ludicrous bird’s nest hairpiece twinkle and dance above her head: “Well, someone’s got to break the ice and it might as well be me, I mean I’m used to being a hostess, it’s part of my husband’s work and it’s always difficult when a group of new friends meet together for the first time to get acquainted so I’m perfectly prepared to start the ball rolling, I mean I—I have absolutely no idea what we’re doing here, or what I’m doing here or what this place is about but I am determined to enjoy myself and I’m very intrigued and oh my, this soup’s delicious, isn’t it?”

Following Mrs. Peacock’s lead, the others begin to make half-hearted and cagey attempts to get to know each other that quickly devolve into uncomfortable mutual scrutiny. Dinner is interrupted by the arrival of a seventh visitor (Mr. Boddy, played by Lee Ving), whereupon the guests learn that they are physically locked into the house. Panicked outrage turns to moral outrage and finger-pointing when Wadsworth explains that all of the guests are being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy and proceeds to divulge the basis for each guest’s extortion, exposing elements of their identities in the process. These disclosures reveal the ways in which the women characters’ ambitions are circumscribed by their gender. Mrs. Peacock—smoking feverishly, protesting her innocence at every opportunity, and clinging to the social pretensions of her class—is unmasked as a senator’s wife taking bribes in exchange for delivering her husband’s vote to various lobbyists. Any power she can publicly lay claim to is refracted through the lens of her marriage; confined to the role of hostess, she is doomed to exist in the shadow of her husband.

By contrast, Miss Scarlet, who proudly outs herself as a Washington madame, seems to have found one of the few direct routes to power for a woman in 1950s America: selling sex. Cheerfully impervious to the evening’s bourgeois code of conduct, she is the only character who appears to be enjoying herself, delivering a stream of Mae West-like wisecracks throughout the evening (Professor Plum: “I am [a doctor], but I don’t practice.” Miss Scarlet: “Practice makes perfect. I think most men could use a little practice, don’t you?”). Yet despite all her swagger, Miss Scarlet is ultimately relegated to the margins of society by her hypocritical male clients, politicians who uphold the laws that ensure her business remains illegal and socially condemned.

When asked what her husband does, Mrs. White responds, smiling enigmatically, “He just lies around on his back all day.” Wadsworth later informs the group that she is a widow suspected of murdering and castrating her spouse, and she continues to deliver disparaging one-liners about marriage throughout the film. In spite of these callous quips, Mrs. White is the only guest to express any pathos, tearfully imploring Wadsworth, “Don’t you think you might spare us this humiliation?” and arguing that the husband in question was abusive and had threatened to kill her (Miss Scarlet: “Do you miss him?” Mrs. White: “Well, it’s a question of life after death. Now that he’s dead I have a life.”). Of the three women she is the most attuned to the dangers of monogamy and the most resistant to its prerogative; if women are to be wives, she shall be a widow.

As soon as all of the guests have been exposed the lights go out, the first shot is fired, the first body (that of Mr. Boddy) is discovered. The evening’s focus shifts abruptly to survival—the group must identify the murderer and clear their names before the police arrive. If anything, the performance of partying intensifies as the level of fear, surveillance, and distrust increases. Party-crashers take the form of a stranded motorist, an off-duty cop, and a singing telegram girl, all of whom turn out to be the blackmailer’s informants and meet an untimely end, along with the cook and the maid. The cop’s arrival prompts a comically gruesome parody of festivities: “Life Could Be a Dream” plays merrily in the background while the guests bamboozle the officer by pretending to make out with two corpses and propping a third into a slumped seated position, doused in alcohol. The event’s casualties continue to pile up until, upon discovery of the sixth victim, Wadsworth mutters resignedly, “This is getting serious,” followed by, “I know who did it.”

The female of the species is more deadly than the male.  Colonel Mustard, in the Dining Room

In a nod to its board-game origins, Clue offers three separate endings, each of which presents a different possible solution to the whodunnit mystery. During the film’s original release, each screening included one solution; subsequent television and home video releases have presented the three endings in succession, introduced by title cards indicating that the first two depict “how it could have happened” while the third reveals “what really happened.” The three outcomes share one common trait: they portray women as extremely dangerous threats neutralized by (always male) authorities.

In the first ending Miss Scarlet is the murderer, a criminal mastermind collecting blackmail fodder and important state secrets from sex-addled male clients to sell on the international black market. Her earlier, false admission to being blackmailed for running an escort service has allowed her to hide in plain sight, a strategy mimicked by her wardrobe: a slinky, low-cut green dress with a matching jacket whose enormous, copper silk-lined hood frames her face like a cartoonish vulva. Lesley Ann Warren’s equally brash ‘camp-vamp’ performance situates her character within a proud lineage of femmes fatales, untamed broads gaming the system à la Kitty Collins (The Killers, 1946). She doesn’t walk, she oozes like Jessica Rabbit, and she’s never at a loss for a dirty joke (Colonel Mustard: “Do you enjoy Kipling, Miss Scarlet?” Miss Scarlett: “Sure, I’ll eat anything.”). Most of all, she is determined to enjoy herself under any circumstances; even as the FBI swarms into the house to arrest her, her final onscreen moments are spent smirking in satisfaction, suggesting that she may find a way to sidestep incarceration.

As soon as Wadsworth accuses Mrs. Peacock of being the murderer in the second possible ending she whips off her gem-encrusted cat eye spectacles and assumes a cool, arrogant expression completely at odds with her previously flustered demeanour. Every silly and neurotic aspect of her appearance and behaviour up until this moment has been a distraction, the perfect tool for the puppet-master wife of a senator. Just as Miss Scarlet forges a weapon from men’s projected sexual fantasies, so Mrs. Peacock—in her fur stole, peacock brooch, shiny dress dotted with flower appliqués and bizarre bird’s nest headdress—wields to her advantage men’s assumptions regarding female foolishness and hysteria. But the price of playing the fool is steep, and it’s clear that Mrs. Peacock yearns to be recognized for her genius. Wadsworth—who turns out to be an undercover FBI agent in both the first and second endings—wisely stokes her ego, leading the other guests in a round of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” as she exits the mansion. Seconds later she is intercepted in the driveway by the FBI who, Wadsworth reminds the other guests, “always get [their] man.” These references to Mrs. Peacock’s manhood reflect her thwarted aspirations to be acknowledged within the “masculine” forum of politics, even as her character successfully dodges the common tropes imposed on women in comedy. Unlike Miss Scarlet and Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock doesn’t perform the double-duty of titillating an imagined male audience or make any bids for the viewer’s sympathy. She is simply a clown, allowing Eileen Brennan to unleash her slapstick and physical-comedy powers to their fullest potential: ranting, flailing, panicking, and delivering the film’s most memorable screams.

Mrs. White, on the other hand, is introduced wearing a conservative all-black outfit complete with a veiled hat, and as her costume suggests she is a widow with something to hide. In fact, although she initially admits to having two former husbands—the one who was murdered and an illusionist who disappeared and never returned (“Well, he wasn’t a very good illusionist”)—in a later scene that number increases to five (“Yes, just the five. Husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and disposable”). Although the third ending (“what really happened”) presents a solution wherein each guest has committed one murder during the party (except for Mr. Green, who is an FBI plant), Mrs. White stands out as the only guest to arrive at the party already a killer. She admits to slaying both her most recent husband and Yvette the maid after learning that they were sleeping together, which seems a rather unjust and unfitting motive, given how little Mrs. White seems to care for men or for being married. Notwithstanding its clichéd sexism, the jealous wife trope has a silver lining in the form of Madeline Kahn’s rivetingly absurd “hell hath no fury” performance—likely the most quoted and gif-ed moment of the film. Eyelids fluttering, red fingernails flickering around her face, Mrs. White seems to achieve catharsis through her confession: “Yes, I did it. I killed Yvette. I hated her SO much…it, the, it—flame—flames…Flames, on the side of my face…breathing, breath—heaving breaths.” According to interviews with the cast, this is the only improvised line in the film, meaning Kahn’s extraordinary comedic talent transcended the strict parameters established by the medium’s (male) writer and director.

Whats your little secret?Miss Scarlet, in the Living Room

A slapstick comedy based on a popular board game may seem an unlikely medium through which to critique the stifling roles assigned to women both on and off screen, but ultimately it’s impossible to ignore Clues many, well…clues. The film throws the ultimate anti-party, the host of which is at worst a murderous blackmailer and at best J. Edgar Hoover staging a sting operation. Within this dystopian setting, two wives and a sex trade worker attempt to stretch, sidestep or shatter the limitations imposed by their gender, as the actors portraying them simultaneously clown their way into the elusive male limelight.

During a climactic scene a terrified Mrs. Peacock answers the door to find a Jehovah’s Witness who warns, “Armageddon is at hand. Your souls are in danger.” As she slams the door in his face, Mrs. Peacock shrieks, “Our lives are in danger, you beatnik!” But for Clue’s central women characters, death does not present the ultimate peril; the risk they face in challenging male power is perhaps worse, or at least more long-suffering. It takes the form of the triumphant trumpets whose blaring accompanies the arrival of the FBI in all three conclusions, signalling the suppression of female unruliness. There is no ending in which these women escape the long arm of the patriarchal state, but through scene-stealing and hilarious performances they are able to create more room for themselves and other women, and their resistance is felt. If they must go down they’ll do it having fun, getting credit, and making a scene.

Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse is a writer and senior cléo editor from Quebec living in Toronto.

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Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse is a writer and senior cléo editor from Quebec living in Toronto.