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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 double-decker ... 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 Greyhound 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 beautifully. 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
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 14, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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