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In 1940 at RKO Orson Welles was submitting scripts and making film tests for Citizen Kane, while the only other hot property on the lot was Ginger Rogers. The country was trying to face up to the hard choice of whether to remain neutral or get involved in the European war. But one of the smaller production units in the studio at Melrose and Gower was working hard on a film about a topical subject to make all others dim by comparison: the dreaded Wildcat Bus racket!
I'll bet you weren't paying attention in high school when your teacher lectured on this phenomenon, which threatened the very fabric of American society. But now you have the chance to make amends.
1940's Wildcat Bus is a bizarre little romantic crime thriller most notable for its gorgeous star, Fay Wray. The script and the direction aren't exactly A+ in quality, and the leading man looks great but has difficulties in the acting department. But it's not easy to imagine how the pitch meeting for this show played out. We know that Frank Capra's It Happened One Night either started (or transcended) a minor sub-genre of dramas about cross-country bus journeys. But was a "Wildcat Bus" menace really making newspaper headlines?
The story and screenplay (original, mind you) by Lou Lusty gets right to the heart of a matter that would give Al Capone pause. Newly penniless playboy Jerry Waters (Charles Lang) and his loyal chauffer/buddy Donovan (Paul Guilfoyle apply for jobs at the troubled Federated Bus Lines, run by old Charlie Dawson and his daughter Ted (Fay Wray). Donovan signs on to drive but Jerry's insolence and lack of experience insures that he moves along to the next job opportunity, 'wildcat' driving for an outfit run by the crooked Sid Case (Don Costello). Casey, lawyer Regan (Paul McGrath) and thug Burke (Joe Sawyer) follow orders from Ma Talbot (Leona Roberts), who pretends to be a cleaning woman but in reality has organized the racket to put Federated out of business. Ma's unlicensed drivers (like Jerry) take private passengers from L.A. to San Francisco, while her wrecking crew commits sabotage and fakes traffic accidents to clobber Federated with unhappy customers and injury lawsuits. While romancing Ted, Jerry learns more about how Ma and Sid operate. But the crooks have an inside man in the Federated company as well. The drama plays out on the open highways, where daredevil drivers run Federated's buses off the road!
The awkward Wildcat Bus meanders along, seemingly unable to decide if it's a hardboiled crime story or a light romance. The 'meet cute' occurs when Jerry kicks Ted in the posterior while she's on the garage floor fixing a bus. Donovan's comedy business includes straightening out papers on Ted's desk, misunderstanding what a Mexican-American client is saying, and stopping his bus twice to retrieve a hat lost by a bratty kid passenger.
The crooks behave as if there's a million dollars to be made driving four or five passengers to San Francisco at $4 dollars a head. We just can't get worked up over such a mundane criminal scheme. As it turns out, the real reason all this grief is going on is a personal vendetta against Dawson's Bus Line. The fake lawsuits that are draining Federated's bank account make more sense. The only way the story conflict could be fun is if it were used as a foundation for a wild farce about cutthroat business practices, as in Zemeckis & Gale's anarchic Used Cars or Bill Forsythe's unseen gem about competing ice cream vendors, Comfort and Joy.
As irrelevant as the story may seem, it actually connects up with present-day issues, at least here in California. We've had a rash of deadly tour bus accidents that may be due to poor maintenance or overworked, inexperienced drivers. There's also a big controversy about web-based drive sharing companies that are basically a non-licensed (or under-licensed) alternative to taxis. So take my word for it, Wildcat Bus is actually 75 years ahead of its time.
Fay Wray is always a good reason to see a movie. Although not a highly skilled actress, her sincerity, poise and charm win us over time and again. In this film she has to prop up her leading man. Charles Lang quit baseball to act and after this leading part was soon playing much smaller bits. He looks great but doesn't connect with the character or the audience. Many of these also-ran actors must have had great personalities off-screen; Lang soon turned to screenwriting with much more success. He wrote a minor film for Budd Boetticher (Killer Shark, 1950) and eventually turned out the scripts for two very good Boetticher westerns, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone.
The movie really belongs to second-tier supporting player Paul Guilfoyle, who appeared in innumerable films and is best known for his role as a luckless victim in White Heat, the one that James Cagney rubs out while locked in the trunk of a car: "How about a little air, Cody?" Guilfoyle has the best scenes with Fay Wray (Lang's romantic efforts are pretty pitiful) and does more than anyone to clear up the mystery and rout the bad guys.
The bus stuntwork is mostly limited to Federated's buses being run into a ditch, or a brick wall. The only real action occurs at the end, when all the Federated bus drivers rush across town (in a bus, naturally) to duke it out with the bad guys. Lou Lusty might be commended for his proto- feminist notion of writing women characters as both the 'big boss' company manager and the brains behind the crooks. But his idea of a great finish is to have the victorious bus drivers coerce Jerry into marrying Ted. It's not the most brilliant of endings.
Why buses come across as funny as they do, I'm not sure. Is it movies like Bus Stop, in which bus travel across the plains is an exciting subject, with a dedicated driver wearing a snappy uniform and behaving like a ship's captain? Or does the disaster spoof The Big Bus have something to do with it? 1
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Wildcat Bus is in fine shape, with a good image (a few scenes seem a little dark) and strong sound. Nothing else about the show really stands out. We can imagine an RKO executive hiring Val Lewton a year or two later to head a B-picture unit -- perhaps to make cheap movies a little more memorable than Wildcat Bus.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wildcat Bus rates:
1. Wildcat Bus reminds me of the "thrilling" WW2 movie Red Ball Express, which saluted the Army's enormous truck convoy system that supplied the front lines during the post- D Day race across the French countryside. Yes, they were in a war zone and did a terrific, necessary job. But in dramatic terms they're still just truck drivers. I think National Lampoon magazine's spoof "Battling Buses of WW2" was suggested by Red Ball's championing of the 'two-fisted, gutsy' army teamsters that showed Hitler who really ruled the highway.
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T'was Ever Thus.