Clue, the Mere Exposure Effect, the Costanza Gambit, and the Musical without a Song

Warning Spoilers!!!!

Warning Spoilers!!!

Warning Spoilers!!!

Warning Spoilers!!!

The Perils of A Favorite Film

In the following post, I’m going to argue something a bit odd about a movie I love. I’m going to argue that Clue (1985) can be thought of–or at least discussed in terms of–a musical, even though none of the characters sing. Now, you might be saying to yourself, “but Clue isn’t a musical.” Let me present a case, otherwise.

Clue is perhaps my favorite film, and writing about one of my favorite films comes with special trepidation. I feel like a critic walking into a cosmic maelstrom, a portal to another dimension. Within the context of such a meteorological event, it might be best if I ceased moving toward the maelstrom, but I’m drawn, for better or worse, toward making my foolhardy claim.

And so I walk, with trepidation, like Mr. Green and Yvette in the attic:

Yvette: “Go on; I’ll be right behind you.”
Mr. Green: “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Of course, this bit of dialogue comes from the cult classic, Clue, a film based on the Parker Brothers board game of the same name. The film is a dark comedy, a parody, not just of the children’s classic game but of the whodunnit film-noir genre of film. The story is set in an old Edwardian-type mansion in 1954, with the House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings conspicuously dramatized as part of the backstory. But communism, as multiple characters say, “is just a red herring,” and not the only one either.

It would appear from the RottenTomatoes tomato-meter that not everyone shares my affection for this film. And as YouTube detective-critic Pushing Up Roses observes, the reviews range “from mixed to savage,” at least in terms of Clue’s reception after its theatrical release. But this board game comedy didn’t really become a fan favorite until it went into syndication.

Comedy Central, along with other networks, incessantly screened 80s and 90s comedies in the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, many 24-7 basic cable comedy channels were desperate for content. For Comedy Central, that meant repeat after repeat of The Daily Show, screenings of The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), Office Space (1999), and Better Off Dead (1985). It meant repeated viewings of syndicated tv shows like The Kids in the Hall, Who’s Line is it Anyway (the British version), Car 54, Where are You?, Soap, and The Jack Benny Show. And, of course, it meant the movie Clue, repeatedly. (Can you tell I heavily identified with Jim Carry’s character in The Cable Guy (1996)? I know my television.) I grew to love many of these shows, and their repeated broadcasts on television is surely part (though not all) of the reason why.

The Mere Exposure Effect and Clue

All of these repeated viewings though influence how we think about creative works. Familiarity with a creative work can increase a person’s appreciation for the text. The growth of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) into a film of legendary status has been attributed in large part to its ubiquitous screenings on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A person might assume that the movie’s ubiquity results from the film’s iconic nature, but the reverse is true. It’s actually the film’s never-ending presence on television that made it a fan favorite, and people assume because of it’s presence that it must be an American classic. So at this point, you might be wondering, “why was it on television every Christmas, if not because of its intrinsic quality?”

Even if you were right that would be 1+1+2+1, not 1+2+1+1.

Good question–the answer, as will probably not surprise you, is that it came down to money, as in none, as in free. The production company that owned Frank Capra’s classic was Republic Pictures; this company let It’s a Wonderful Life fall out of copyright in 1974. Broadcasting stations across the country now had a free film they could play on endless loop, without having to force a poor soul (or several) to manage the complexities of a tv station during the holiday season.

Everyone was happy. The network’s employees were able to eat their turkey, dressing, and egg nog on Christmas day; the networks could save money, and viewers had a film that became a family member, something that they saw-once-a year, sort of loved, sort of disliked, but always felt at home with, if only annually (as I said, like a family member). In 1993, Republic Pictures reasserted their ownership of the film’s intellectual property based on related copyrights, such as the original script. But by that time, George Bailey was part of film history and America’s Christmas lore.

What happened with It’s a Wonderful Life is what psychologists call the mere exposure effect, what epistemologists might call the illusory truth effect, and what the rest of us call Kevin Bacon. There are other examples of the mere exposure effect. Coca-Cola gained dominance over other carbonated beverages more because the company gained dominance in terms of price, and then leveraged that dominance through the mere-exposure effect and people’s preference for what they already knew–Coca-Cola.

Adam ruins everything, including It’s a Wonderful Life.

One of the reasons we remember Charlie Chaplin so much more as a comic genius than his fellow silent film star, Harold Lloyd, is because Chaplin made it fairly affordable and easy for people to screen and broadcast his films, and Lloyd made it neither easy nor cheap. Over the decades, Chaplin’s films were screened more, and he benefited from the mere-exposure effect.

Another example of the mere exposure effect has to do with love and romance. In the article, “Attitudes Exposed: How Repeated Exposure Leads to Attraction” in Social Psychological Online, the author explores the possibility that simple familiarity with someone might make them more sexually attractive. So if you’re interested in establishing a relationship with someone, one possibility is just to be around, so to speak.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the concept made it’s way into our popular culture. One example comes from the often quoted and sometimes maligned 1990s tv sitcom, Seinfeld. In episode 8 of season 8 of the show, one of the sub-plots involves George’s theory of attracting women: “You know the way I work; I’m like a commercial jingle. At first, it’s a little irritating. Then you hear it a few times. You hum it in the shower. By the third date, it’s “by Mennen” [ . . .] Caa-Stanza.”

George Costanza, practitioner of the mere exposure effect

This gets us back to Clue. This ensemble comedy obviously benefits from the mere exposure effect, just as several other syndicated comedies on basic cable have. This movie was screened so many times on Comedy Central, that accidentally avoiding it would be like never needing an umbrella in Seattle. Possible, but unlikely. As Pushing Up Roses observes, these repeated viewings certainly helped grow the film’s base of supporters. We like what we are around, and in the 90s and early 00s, we were around Clue. She also points out that this film is imminently quotable, which makes repeated viewings all the more enjoyable. We watch, then quote, and others watch, and quote, and so on.

Clue and The Music That Isn’t There

But I think there’s more to Clue‘s widespread affection than just how quotable it is and how familiar so many of us are with it. I think we should ask why it’s so quotable and fun to re-watch. Here’s part of my theory: Clue’s plot, pacing, dialogue, and acting are musical in nature, and it’s this musical quality that makes it a cult classic. You’re probably wondering if I drank the cognac–and if it was poisoned. Allow me to explain my theory.

When looked at separately, each scene of Clue feels syncopated, it’s rhythm and beat not just thought out, but distinctive. This rhythmic quality emerges from the blocking of the characters, their movement around the room in each scene, and the way the film’s editing and the acting merge the characters’ quotable lines seamlessly together. There’s the scene when Wadsworth names off the characters’ reasons for being blackmailed, the one where they decide to search the rest of the house, and the scene where Wadsworth admits that he and his dearly departed wife were being blackmailed. And then of course, there’s the final third of the film, which is a madcap recap of everything that happened in the film.

Each of these four scenes is as much a choreographed dance number as anything else. They have an emergent dance-like quality, and one way of thinking about Clue is that it’s a musical without the music. To explain what I mean, let’s look at the definition of musical in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Musical, also called musical comedy, theatrical production that is characteristically sentimental and amusing in nature, with a simple but distinctive plot, and offering music, dancing, and dialogue.”

As Wadsworth would say, “let’s take these [characteristics] one-by-one.”

Characteristics of a Musical and Clue

Sentimental

This film is sentimental in two different ways. First, and most importantly, it’s a parody of the whodunnit genre and the murder in a mansion genre. As such, it invokes our associations with those genres in a type of mock-seriousness, effecting a type of mock-sentimentality. Second, as a cult-classic, it has collected a type of sentimentality among its many fans, myself included.

“And it was Mrs. White, looking pale and tragic.” — Wadsworth

“Mrs. White, all looking pale and tragic.”

Amusing

This is a difficult characteristic to discuss because it’s such a subjective characteristic, but no one can doubt either that the film intends to be amusing or that many people, myself included, receive it that way.

Here are some notable amusing moments:

Mrs. White: a lunatic! He didn’t actually seem to like me very much; he had threatened to kill me in public.

Miss Scarlet: Why would he wanna kill you in public?

Wadsworth: I think she meant he threatened, in public, to kill her.

***

Mrs. White: Oh, Wadsworth, I’ll make you sorry you ever started this. One day, when we’re alone together…

Wadsworth: Mrs. White, no man in his right mind would be alone together with you.

Plot, Simple but Distinctive

The plot is designed around a well-known board game, which I think qualifies as distinctive. Simple is a bit more of a stretch, since there are innumerable details, and a murder mystery is definitionally supposed to be complex. However, the plot takes place in one house, in one evening, over the course of just two-three hours. There is a type of elegance in this arrangement that makes the plot simple, even as it takes many twists and turns.

Music

This is the toughest of the characteristics to connect because obviously there’s no music, per se. But it’s also the crux of my point. The film’s dialogue has a type of musical quality to it. But it isn’t just the dialogue–it’s the movement of the characters, the pacing, and everything else. Some might argue–erroneously–that the film has uneven pacing, from slow to fast, back to slow, then fast again. But another way of looking at this is that the faster scenes are like musical numbers. Their disconnection from the feel of the other scenes is part of the point. They are meant to feel different. They are meant to feel like a dance, a musical number with each character knowing his or her part.

The “a simple yes or no” scene (shown below) is a good example of what I’m talking about, as is the “Will you stop that?” scene (also below). What I want to point you to in these scenes is how the rhythm of their speech, their movement, and their interaction with each other, works not just in terms of semantics, but on a visceral level. When I watch these scenes, their conversations have a feel, much like a song. The characters move, much like in a musical. There’s a type of destiny to them, as you see them going through the motions.

I can see how this routine might seem dull or predictable to some, but I liken it to a number from My Fair Lady or watching one of the many slightly different iterations of “Who’s on First” by Abbot and Costello. It’s not just the semantics that matter; it’s the procedural expression, the step-by-step affirmation of their performance–the execution of the scene and the joy of watching them execute it. This scene has rhythm, pauses and rests, and even high and low notes, just like a well-written, and well-rehearsed song would.

Dialogue that plays like music.

As a side note, I’d like to point out that if we carry this musical approach further, we could classify Wadsworth as a type of conductor or maestro, orchestrating everything, both in terms of plot and in terms of the ineffable metaphorical music. This is especially the case in the film’s final 30 minutes, where he reenacts everything from that evening.

Dancing

I don’t think I need to defend this one if you’ve seen the film. The dancing is implied by what I’ve written about above, but here’s a scene that shows what I mean about the actors’ blocking that I would say is functionally the same as a dance choreography. It also shows how Wadsworth is a maestro on three levels: in terms of the events of the evening, the retelling of the plot, and the coordination of the characters.

“Will you stop that?” “No.”

Dialogue

The dialogue in this film is the most famous characteristic. It’s what endears people to this film and what makes it so quotable and memorable. It’s the primary way people bond through this film.

Cop: That’s right! The head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation!

Colonel Mustard: Why is J. Edgar Hoover on your phone?

Wadsworth: I don’t know, he’s on everybody else’s, why shouldn’t he be on mine?

Classic Songs On Repeat

I think these two principles reinforce each other. The Mere Exposure Effect generates nostalgia for something, making it intimate and dear to our hearts; and the musical qualities of Clue accentuate the likelihood that the film will resonate in our head. As the film echoes, we become ever more familiar with it, making us like it more, wanting to “sing” the dialogue to ourselves. The dynamic creates a virtuous cycle of a film that functions like an earworm. Anyways, “to make a long story short” (“too late!”), that’s part of my theory on Clue.

Professor Plum: “So everything is explained.”

Miss Scarlet: “Nothing’s explained!”

Well, maybe not everything, but a little bit more than at the beginning of this post!

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