The Big Bus
The Big Bus
Paramount Home Video
1976 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 88 min. / Street Date July 16, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, Rene Auberjonois,
Ned Beatty, Bob Dishy, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Harold Gould, Larry Hagman, Sally Kellerman,
Richard Mulligan, Lynn Redgrave, Richard B. Shull, Stuart Margolin, Howard Hesseman,
Mary Charlotte Wilcox, Walter Brooke
Cinematography Harry Stradling Jr.
Production Designer Joel Schiller
Film Editor Edward Warschilka
Original Music David Shire
Written by Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman
Produced by Larry Cohen, Fred Freeman, Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips
Directed by James Frawley
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A comedy takeoff on disaster pictures that somehow missed the acclaim and success that Airplane!
garnered four years later, The Big Bus is a charming and funny trifle, spectacularly
produced to get maximum laughs. The stupid Irwin Allen disaster formula relied on
high-concept calamities (capsized ships, burning skyscrapers) for idiotic Grand Hotel soap, and
sadistic-but-sanitized mayhem. Writers Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman miss no opportunity
to lampoon the disaster craze, as well as any number of earlier Hollywood clichés.
On the eve of the maiden run of Coyote Bus Lines' Cyclops, a nuclear-powered
... bus ..., someone tries to blow it up, and the drivers are injured. Spirited
bus designer Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing), the daughter of Professor Baxter (Harold Gould) who
was also injured in the explosion, recruits an unlikely prospect: Ace driver Dan Torrance (Joseph
Bologna), a pro
who's been blackballed because of a bus wreck in the mountains that turned into a replay of the Donner
Party. Protesting that "I only ate a foot", Dan gets the job and nominates his two-fisted pal
Shoulders O'Brien (John Beck) as copilot. Unfortunately, Shoulders got that name because he has
a hard time staying on the road. He also has a tendency to black out in moments of stress, a
slight problem for a bus driver.
The passengers are a pack of jokers. The bickering Cranes, Claude and Sybil (Richard Mulligan and
Sally Kellerman)'s divorce will become final at midnight but are still maniacally attracted to each
other. There's a
sourpuss with only six months to live (Richard B. Shull), a faithless priest (Rene Aberjonois),
and a nymphomaniac heiress with her own reasons to want Dan dead (Lynn Redgrave). While the paying
customers enjoy the bus's
piano bar, bowling alley and swimming pool, the support team back at base (led by Ned Beatty) talks
them through tight spots via the radio - like a time bomb attached to the bus by Alex (Stuart Margolin),
the slimy henchman of an iron lung-bound madman (José Ferrer) who wants the nonstop
NYC-to-Denver bus utterly destroyed.
It's a shame that The Big Bus didn't do better, because it's a lot more entertaining
than the inane movies it parodies. The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The
Towering Inferno are remembered as pleasant pastimes, but mostly by people who saw them at an
impressionable age (which of course, is fine). All I remember are the awful actors elbowing each other for
attention and the insulting criteria used to ruthlessly kill off cast members. Any character who gets
sentimental is surely being set up for tragedy. Not only do the cardboard villains get their just
desserts, but any hint of adultery will result in a horrible death, all for the enjoyment of the
crowd. Perhaps the stark
reality of the 9.11 deaths will finally make people realize the reprehensible taste that most of The
Towering Inferno embodies, especially the spectacle of torched people falling hundreds of stories
as 'retribution' for their sins.
The Big Bus is fun from one end to the other. It has some of Airplane!'s oddball sight
gags, such as the press tram taking the reporters waiting to see Cyclops in a circle around the
parking lot, just to create time for more credits in the title sequence. The acting is all right-on,
with everyone approaching his role in earnest. Director James Frawley (The Muppet Movie) finds
a tone of straight Hollywood hokum and sticks with it; there's no mugging at the camera, no matter how
absurd things get.
The design of the Big Bus is nonsense. It's a tacky, showoff monstrosity that's a cross between a
interstate cruiser and the Discovery from 2001. The giant blast nozzles on the 'atomic
engine' at the rear are pretty funny, as are features like the automatic tire-replacing device, or
even better, the giant rollers that wash the bus while in motion, leaving behind a wake of soap
bubbles on the highway.
The 'bus of fools' hodgepodge of corny passengers, each with their clichéd theme, works
There was always some self-absorbed whiner at the bar - The Big Bus gives us two of them, who
have to compete for the honor of being the most miserable. The 'priest with a crisis of conscience',
is lifted fairly intact from Richard Basehart's character in the 1951 Titanic. Here, Rene
Auberjonois delights in being abusive and rude to stock busybody Ruth Gordon, as if compensating for
his years of patient understanding. Richard Mulligan
(S.O.B.) and Sally Kellerman make a great
pair of oversexed loonies.
Joseph Bologna (My Favorite Year) does
most of the work carrying the picture, making his daredevil bus driver (a hardy breed, they) simply
hilarious. The tough peer pressure from the fraternity of drivers goes back as far as .. only Angels
Have Wings for its inspiration.
Stockard Channing is a personal favorite. You'd get the feeling that her talent was being wasted here,
if she didn't appear to be having so much fun.
Relating too many of the jokes isn't doing potential discoverers of The Big Bus any favors. Let's
just say that, if you think it's funny for Ned Beatty to walk nonchalantly into the radioactive hot room to
unsnarl the isotope that Harold Gould can't move with his remote hand controls, this show is for
you. The scene is done in such a deadpan way, it almost sneaks by before the audience breaks up.
When a runaway pickup truck spears the bus, like the small plane from one of the Airport sequels,
the Cyclops hurries on to its oddball conclusion, sticking to its line of whimsy. Perhaps the
reason The Big Bus didn't take off is because it maintains a consistent level of spoofy 'realism',
whereas Airplane! lets the jokes fly every which way, shredding reality like an anarchic
Tex Avery cartoon. Audiences watching The Big Bus have to work a bit, and maybe know a bit
too much about old movies to get all the jokes here ... and they gags aren't as nonstop as in
the Zucker & Abrahams movies.
Paramount's DVD of The Big Bus is just what's needed, a widescreen rendition of the show's
wide 'scope frame-ful of tacky production values. Especially fun are the purposely awful costumes, from
Stockard Channing's dowdy dresses, to the Coyote Bus Lines' garish uniforms. There are no extras
whatsoever, not even a rundown of the stars' filmographies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Bus rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 14, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson