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Wayward Bus, The (Blu-ray Review)

18 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey, Rick Jason.

With its shaky reviews offset by hefty sales, John Steinbeck’s same-name 1947 novel was, at least on a commercial level, a natural for the screen — putting aside, of course, sexual content that guaranteed it would be watered down if filmed before Hollywood’s cretinish Production Code imploded. By 1957, it hadn’t (yet), so this 20th Century-Fox release is only “kind of adult” for its day (in the vein, of say, the same studio’s movie of No Down Payment, which came out almost exactly five months later). Yet in retrospect, the brave and even gonzo casting choices here worked out surprisingly well, and Twilight Time’s most welcome release of a film that came and went (into oblivion) deserves a pat.

With points, plugs and a chassis that have seen better (well … one is almost tempted to joke, centuries), the title vehicle isn’t even a regular bus but a tiny commuter job into which travelers transfer — after a far more elegant version of “Leave the Driving to Us” deposits them at the entrance of a Southern California hash-house. This dinky little thing’s driver (Rick Jason, later of TV’s "Combat") is half-Irish and half-Mexican, which is enough to earn him racial slurs on the latter count from passengers more than once here. His wife (Joan Collins, sans much makeup) operates the indoor counter and accompanying fly-swatting concession, while taking verbal swats as well at a distracted young femme employee who has Hollywood stars in her eyes. Lumbering into the joint before the bus’s latest run comes an array of life’s marginal characters and better-off folks journeying to an obscure burg. The first of these sub-cultures includes a busty platinum blonde played by Jayne Mansfield — casting that was obviously only gonzo in that this was a straight dramatic role for the actress on the heels of her immortally ditsy turn in Frank Tashlin’s rock-cinema deity The Girl Can’t Help It. Jayne’s hair (and yes, likely more) capture the eye of a travelling salesman of novelties played by Dan Dailey — who at one point pulls out a ware that looks a lot like a whoopee cushion but turns out to make a slightly less humiliating kind of noise when you sit on it. Dailey, Mansfield and more pile into Jason’s wreck, even though monsoons and attendant rockslides are in the forecast. And when indeed they materialize, our driver is forced to detour down an unpaved road and shaky bridge that look like something out of an old Death Valley Days episode that Ronald Reagan might have hosted, leading to some of the best and unheralded miniature work of flooding I’ve ever seen from this screen era (and in CinemaScope to boot). 

You have to remember that, like Mansfield, Collins was being largely groomed as a sex-bomb at the time — and that Bus came out only two years after her diaphanous negligee had driven Jack Hawkins’ Egyptian ruler all hot-and-loony in Howard Hawks’ undervalued, except by cultists, Land of the Pharaohs. (Collins’ bang-heavy haircut around this time inspired Oscar Levant to note that he had seen every part of her anatomy except for her forehead). The actress’s glamour is significantly underplayed here — though for a truck-stop woman swatting flies, a guy could do a lot worse. And as with Mansfield’s, Collins’ acting is strong enough to make a case that more could have been done with their both of their careers at the time — though think how tough it was for even Marilyn Monroe to get any respect when she was alive.

Cast as the eatery’s starstruck teen was the relatively soon-to-retire Betty Lou Keim, who’d previously had the title role replicating her stage performance in a movie Fox elected to call Teenage Rebel (the result turning out to be better than the title portended). And in her first role beyond bit parts, Dolores Michaels plays a mother-smothered passenger who, sexually speaking, is kind of “low-key frisky” — a young woman who either ends up doing something (or not) with Jason in a barn; we’re never sure. I’ve always dug Michaels in her follow-up movie, Time Limit — where she looked almost as enticing in an unpromising army uniform than Janet Leigh did being frosty in Blake Edwards’ The Perfect Furlough.

The director here was the Russian-born and almost completely obscure Victor Vices, who had worked in France with Darryl Zanuck’s mistress and brief Fox contract player Bella Darvi (a name to send chills up the spines of Fox stockholders everywhere). Vicas convinced the studio chief that he could direct (I only know this from Julie Kirgo’s keen Twilight Time liner notes) and speared the assignment. But the funny thing, judging from just this movie, is that he kind of could — even though the picture quickly dropped off the radar.  Though it isn’t any forgotten masterwork, I have to say it is something of a surprise — and, as always, Twilight Time knows how to make Fox black and white sing.

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