“Here are the Steinbeck People! The Steinbeck Power! The Steinbeck Passion! There’s Violent Love… There’s Second-Hand Love… There’s Young Love with Nora, who crawls to the threshold of Womanhood!”
Of the roughly 9 John Steinbeck novels and short stories Hollywood has made into feature films, The Wayward Bus is the oddest choice. Its minimal story gives little room for directors to engage in cinematic sequences beyond bad weather misadventures, and its mélange of ‘everyday’ characters – hardworking Joes and Janes – mandates the use of an earthy argot which only under the guidance of the most meticulous screenwriter can withstand the test of time and not age into something stilted.
As chronicled by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in the Blu-ray’s edifying commentary track, Bus had a rather tumultuous production history, being initially set up as a vehicle for Marlon Brando and director Henry Hathaway before the principles drifted away and new talent became attached, including headliners Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield. Rick Jason was so much of a Fox newcomer that he virtually received third-level billing in spite of being a co-star.
French director Victor Vicas was apparently another of Darryl F. Zanuck’s European imports, and like German director Bernhard Wicki with whom Fox had set up a multi-picture deal (The Longest Day, The Visit, Morituri), Vicas’ tenure at Fox was similarly short-lived – perhaps due to the combination of fighting with cast & crew during filming, and being attached to a less-than commercial Steinbeck adaptation.
Even with its production issues (which were hardly unique by Hollywood standards), Bus generally succeeds as a small character drama, and much of the story’s tense moments come from seething secrets and discord between everyday citizens packed inside of a rickety bus, travelling from highway to a ‘washboard’ back road that ultimately brings the whole journey to a crashing stop.
Within the shell of the bus are a series of increasingly interconnected personal dramas: while the marriage of driver Johnny Chicoy crumbles to pieces, a young woman (Warlock’s Dolores Michaels) determined to spite her over-protective parents tries to steal his attention; and as her father becomes aware of Camille Oaks’ (Mansfield) sultry past as a burlesque dancer and escort, the travelling salesman (Dan Dailey) smitten with her must reassess his intense devotion, feeling he’s been played for a fool.
The lives of the group are literally in Johnny’s hands, an able driver with 10 years experience behind the wheel, taxed with emotional knots after having just left wife Alice (Collins), a drunk who must ultimately choose between loving the man, or drowning in the sauce of evil alcohol.
Mounting bad weather easily represents a portent of the emotional turmoil that’ll affect every passenger, and a treacherous bridge crossing injects a needed dose of physical action (although the entire crossing is frankly an act of utter irresponsibility, since no sane driver would risk crossing a bloated river whose natural power will clearly tear away an already rickety wooden structure. Then again, the same journey during a torrential downpour was brilliantly exploited by William Friedkin two decades later in Sorceror, and later aped by Roger Donaldson in the daft disaster drama Dante’s Peak.)
The location and solid model work enhance the story, and the cast is uniformly strong, particularly Mansfield, who ought to have been able to break out from sexpot roles and use her moderate voice and restrained performance style in further dramatic ventures.
The two female leads used Bus as a needed break (if not to escape) from sexier studio-imposed roles, yet Collins, who went for the de-glamorized role of a drunk, is less successful than Mansfield's subdued version of a burlesque character who remains dolled up to the end; one can see Collins struggling to appear Serious, yet Mansfield glides though her scenes using a less flashier (and more believable) performance style.
Bus isn’t a wholly satisfying film because it starts with a series of conflicts that become melodramatic clichés by the time the group is stranded near a farm, but seen in another light, it does have the elements that make up a classic disaster film: bickering characters are introduced in the first act; conflicts start to brew within a restrictive location; natural / overwhelming events threaten the group’s safety (rock slide, storm, and no brakes); support for the macho hero is variable among the divisive survivors; and in the end there’s a rescue that begins a healing process among all, including the angriest group members.
There’s also the beginnings of new romantic journeys for young & old, and like every classic disaster film, audiences can walk out from the cinema with a small sense of empowerment, having vicariously experienced a journey where ordinary people managed to triumph and learn a few life lessons along the way. It’s the same emotionally interactive template in The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and relatively recent homages like the dopey Volcano, and the dreadful Poseidon.
Twilight Time’s BD sports a great widescreen transfer of this beautiful black & white film, and an isolated stereo score track features Leigh Harline’s score. The included trailer (fully tracked with music from Harline’s House of Bamboo) is a clear example of the studio's marketing department trying to sell a non-commercial drama by emphasizing its saucy sexual conflicts. (Witness the narration quotes at the beginning of this review.)
Silver and Ursini’s commentary is as detailed and informative as their discussions on prior Fox film noir DVDs, and TT’s excellent The Egyptian [M] release. The pair discuss the careers of the cast, as well as the film’s production history during a period when studio bigwig Zanuck stepped away to become an indie producer in Europe and indulged in a series of projects which often starred his then lovers. (Vicas had in fact directed Zanuck’s discovery, Bella Darvi, in I’ll Get Back to Kandara / Je reviendrai à Kandara in 1956, which Fox distributed in France.)
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide some backstory to the film, as well as tidbits of director Vicas, an arguably underrated filmmaker who had in fact filmed & directed several documentaries in the U.S. before returning to France for feature-length films.
In 1957 Vicas directed the Fox-distributed Count Five and Die with contract actor Jeffrey Hunter (Lure of the Wilderness [M], King of Kings) before leaving Fox and returning to Europe, whereas Collins and Mansfield still had a few classic films at the studio before facing the challenges as freelancers after the disintegration of the studio contract system. Rick Jason’s minor film career was ultimately eclipsed by his success on TV’s Combat! which ran for a solid 5 years.
Feature film adaptations of John Steinbeck novels include Cannery Row (1982), East of Eden (1955), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Moon is Down (1943), Of Mice and Men (1939 + 1992), The Pearl (2001), Tortilla Flat (1942), and The Wayward Bus (1957).
Steinbeck also wrote or contributed to the following screenplays: The Forgotten Village (1941), Lifeboat (1944), A Medal for Benny (1945), The Red Pony (1949), and Viva Zapata! (1952).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan