A comedy satirizing the then-popular (if waning) craze for disaster movies, The Big Bus (1976) predates Airplane! by just four years, but where Airplane! was wildly successful, with audiences roaring with laughter and the sleeper film spawning a wave of similar machine-gun fire comedies culminating with The Naked Gun (1987) and its two sequels, The Big Bus was a bust in every department. It doesn't seem to have earned back even its modest negative cost and it was greeted with largely negative reviews, though it has become a minor cult item. I had seen it only once, when it premiered on network television a year or two after its release, and my reaction then pretty much matches my reaction to it now.
In retrospect, it's surprisingly how closely it resembles Airplane! and the later comedies of the ZAZ team (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker). Both Airplane! and The Big Bus are on a very similar wavelength, though there are subtle yet crucial differences. Each is a broad spoof, but where Airplane! is dominated by jokes, The Big Bus is dominated by humor. Similar humor pops up in Airplane!, but the quotable, jokey dialogue of Airplane! (and the marvelous deadpan performances delivering these lines) is what everyone remembers.
The Big Bus was first released to DVD by Paramount in July 2002 and returns here as an (Region 1 encoded) MOD title from Warner Archive, otherwise identical to that first release. No extras.
The best thing about The Big Bus, and emblematic of the film's approach, is the basic concept: instead of a glamorous ocean liner, German dirigible, sparklingly new skyscraper, or jumbo jet (still a novel form of travel in 1976), the film takes place aboard a colossal Greyhound-type bus that doesn't even attempt a coast-to-coast journey, but whose run is limited to a non-stop route from New York to Denver. (The movie, however, was filmed entirely in Southern California and looks it.)
Cyclops, the bus of the title, is a nuclear-powered wonder, complete with self-changing tires and on-board car wash. It has a Chinese-themed lounge/observation deck, an indoor swimming pool, sunken baths in its first-class cabins, and, best of all, a single-lane bowling alley. An oil tycoon (Jose Ferrer), concerned that the nuclear-powered big bus will revolutionize cross-country travel, plots with underling Alex (Stuart Margolin) to sabotage its maiden voyage, first planting a bomb at the nuclear facility from which it's launched, and where scientist Professor Baxter (Harold Gould) and the drivers are seriously injured. Needing last-minute replacements, the scientist's daughter and the bus's designer, Kitty (Stockard Channing), reluctantly hires her ex-boyfriend, experienced but controversial driver Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna) to pilot the vehicle.
Various passengers, modeled after characters from past disaster films, board the bus: disgraced veterinarian Dr. Kurtz (Bob Dishy), surly, existential priest Father Kudos (René Auberjonois), terminally-ill man Emery Bush (Richard B. Shull), divorcing couple Sybil and Claude (Sally Kellerman and Richard Mulligan), a foul-mouthed senior citizen (Ruth Gordon), and fashion designer Camille Levy (Lynn Redgrave) among them. When the first act of sabotage fails to forestall the bus's grand departure, another bomb is planted in her undercarriage.
As a comedy, The Big Bus is pretty broad, though like Airplane! the performances are deadpan serious, which helps. Stockard Channing, always an underrated actress, is particularly good in this regard though Joseph Bologna is uncharismatic and not at all funny. Most of the humor is conceptual: the art direction of the bus's interior is deliberately tacky, overly luxurious as if designed by nouveau riche on a wild spending spree, a bus whose interior might have been decorated by Mike Tyson. The Chinese-themed lounge-observation deck, for instance, is overdone with Asian iconography, complete with grand piano and hilariously untalented lounge singer. The main seating area is garishly appointed with multi-colored seats resembling a McDonalds while the Captain's dining room is, amusingly, more cramped than one might find aboard a submarine.
The script can't sustain the promising concept, resulting in some aimlessness similar to the frenetic shipboard panic during the second act of The Magic Christian (1970) and the climax is too similar to the big finale of The Italian Job (1969). Partners Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen (Bewitched, The Andy Griffith Show, S*P*Y*S) were journeymen writers with no particularly noteworthy credits.
There are some very funny gags amidst the feeble ones. When Professor Baxter struggles with robotic hands to access the bus's nuclear reactor core, technician Shorty (Ned Beatty) casually opens a sealed door and, using a handkerchief for protection against the high levels of radiation, jostles it into place. And the film wraps things up with a great final sight gag.
The 32-wheel, double-decker bus, resembling Amtrak's bi-level Superliners, was built full-scale and road-worthy, though most of its interior was an empty shell. Designed by Joel Schiller, it's both extraordinarily silly yet strangely believable, and possibly based on a real bus used for about 15 years in Germany, the Neoplan Jumbocruiser, built the year before and which could hold up to 170 passengers. It had no bowling alley, however.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, The Big Bus looks good on DVD in its enhanced widescreen transfer, though it's the 5.1 Dolby Surround remix, adapted from the original mono, that really impresses, particularly in the way it enhances David Shire's terrific, aptly epic score. The original mono mix is included, along with a French track, but no subtitle options and no Extra Features.
I found The Big Bus mildly amusing but not much more than that, though I wouldn't begrudge those that might find it completely hilarious. Worth seeing once, however. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.