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Tense coach rides have always made for good drama: Mademoiselle Fifi, Stagecoach, even Luis Buñuel's Subir al cielo (Mexican Bus Ride. John Steinbeck's 1947 book The Wayward Bus substituted sexual tension inside the bus for threats from without, a gambit that earned the author a needed best seller. Hollywood snapped up the story as soon as it was published, only for the film adaptation to be delayed in equal measure by studio politics and censorship issues. Psst! -- everybody on the bus has S-E-X on their minds, or at least heavy duty romance. It's that kind of story.
As this is also the kind of story that usually turns out overblown, over-glamorized and/or psychologically fraudulent, the miracle is that 1957's The Wayward Bus is even watchable. Filmed with reasonable skill and performed by a fairly offbeat group of committed actors, Steinbeck's rolling soap opera offers a few interesting surprises. Once a familiar sight pan-scanned on syndicated TV, the movie has been more or less absent from view for ages. Now, due to the strange state of the disc business, it arrives on Blu-ray in full CinemaScope.
Rebel Corners, California, is a back-road bus stop run by the alcoholic Alice Chicoy (Joan Collins). Always in a bad temper, Alice gives her counter girl Norma (Betty Lou Keim of Some Came Running) a hard time, along with the young helper Ed Carson (Dee Pollack), who likes to filch desserts. Alice's young husband Johnny Chicoy (Rick Jason) keeps a half-sized bus in marginal working order, to take tourists on side trips to the prominent Spanish Mission in San Juan. After an argument with Alice, Johnny embarks with his passengers, a full busload of human desires.
Stripper Camille Oakes (Jayne Mansfield) just wants to get to a work engagement. She immediately attracts the attention of the eager salesman Ernest Horton (Dan Dailey), who is actually a nice guy on the inside. Crabby Van Brunt (Will Wright) insists that Johnny get to San Juan on time, as he must make a crucial appointment -- even though there are storm warnings ahead. Old biddy Mrs. Pritchard (Kathryn Givney) has insisted that her husband Elliott and daughter Mildred (Larry Keating & Dolores Michaels) take the trip to the mission for "spiritual" reasons, but she really seeks to pry Mildred away from an unacceptable boyfriend. Elliott is the one to discover Camille's occupation, in a magazine called "Naked Truth". Add to that Norma, who has quit the lunch counter to seek a future in Los Angeles, and Ed, who's come along to help Johnny.
After barely surviving a landslide, Johnny is going to call off the trip. But another argumentative phone call to the drunken Alice, and he elects to take his passengers down an unpaved "washboard road", where they face more dangers: a bridge in danger of washing away, and a steep hill where his brakes give out. Camille and Ernest begin to see eye to eye, but Ernest doesn't yet know the truth about her vocation. Alice has recanted, sobered up, and hitched a ride on a helicopter to make amends with her husband, only to find that Mildred Pritchard has cornered Johnny in a dry barn, filled with hay... and no mother around to throw a bucket of water on them. The broken-down bus isn't wayward -- the people are.
The Wayward Bus is a big surprise -- it's a pretty good movie, directed with flair by Victor Vicas, a European who apparently fast-talked a meeting with Darryl Zanuck into this hot assignment. Obscure Vicas may be, but I remember seeing a very exciting train-based suspense thriller he co-wrote called Stop Train 349. This show benefits from sure camera placement -- fairly creative for CinemaScope -- and interesting direction of the actors. Both leading ladies come across very well. This is surely Jayne Mansfield's best film. She plays a character and not a cartoon, and handles the role with more than a little sensitivity. She brings out some real warmth in Dan Dailey.
Joan Collins plays her role in almost complete un-glamorous mode, which was definitely not her style at Fox in the '50s. She wears very little makeup at first. The plot cooks up a cheap excuse to steer Joan into a bathtub, but doesn't dwell on the opportunity long enough to compromise the integrity of her character. I've already marveled in various reviews at Collins' ease with comedy and dance and am beginning to think that the super-glitz image short-changed her potential ... you know, playing nuns in full glamour makeup. Here Alice Chicoy shows up at the scene of a bus mishap, and notices that her husband is missing. She narrows her eyes: "Okay, where's that blonde?" To its credit The Wayward Bus does not indulge in a catfight scene.
Dolores Michaels didn't make the big time like Joan or Jayne, but she provides a very interesting character for a '50s Hollywood picture, a fairly mature young woman in pursuit of amorous adventure -- and yet not a tramp. The screenplay instead demonizes her mother, perhaps the film's least interesting character. The crotchety old guy who insists that Johnny take unreasonable risks turns out to have an unexpected personal reason for his trip as well. I guess we're all hormonal on this bus!
The production makes use of every stretch of asphalt on the old Fox ranch in Malibu. Very good miniatures (for 1957) augment the landslide and bridge washout sequences, and the rain scenes are fairly compelling. I do have to say that no sane person would set foot in that wreck of a bus, no matter how hungry they might be for adventure. It's interesting that the major bus line we see is called "Grey Fox". I guess Greyhound wanted no part of a movie that portrayed a bus trip as a hazardous proposition.
Steinbeck's Mexican-American character apparently wouldn't do for Hollywood. Johnny is "Juan" in the book -- having Joan Collins married to a Mexican-American laborer was also too much to ask. The film makes Johnny Mexican only on his father's side. Known mostly for his major '60s TV role in Combat, this is a plum role for the relatively unknown Rick Jason. He's quite good, so we can only think that something went wrong with his management situation. Perhaps his agent didn't follow up well enough for him.
In their commentary Alain Silver and James Ursini explain how the final scenes in San Juan were all invented for the film, wrapping things up in a conventional manner. The ending may be false to Steinbeck, but it concocts a satisfying conclusion for Alice and Johhny. The Wayward Bus overall is very entertaining, with the most fun seeing actresses Collins, Mansfield and Michaels in such well-considered roles.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Wayward Bus once again presents a little-known Fox title in a superb presentation. B&W 'Scope always looks great; the relative ease with lighting B&W often shows up in more and more creative camera setups. This must be one of the last CinemaScope films to use the older, unimproved lenses -- numerous close-ups of the leading ladies spread their heads out on the horizontal axis, in a slight case of the 'CinemaScope mumps." Director of Photography Charles G. Clarke had plenty of anamorphic camera experience, so I'm not going to make any guesses why.
In addition to an Isolated Score Track for Leigh Harline's music, the disc comes with the James Ursini - Alain Silver commentary mentioned above. They go deeply into the book-to-screen route taken by Steinbeck's novel, a ten-year trip with its own bridge washouts along the way. Just about every actor imaginable was attached to the show at one time or another, including Marlon Brando.
Julie Kirgo's pamphlet liner notes amplify the filmic genesis story while examining the film's fairly honest (for the time) array of sexually charged characters. She mentions a Joan Collins autobio that reportedly dishes a lot of dirt about this particular production. The only in-joke I saw was a Joan Collins dialogue line, where Alice Chicoy name-drops Robert Wagner as a good example of a glamorous star.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wayward Bus Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.