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The Big Bus

by Glenn Erickson Jun 03, 2023

It hasn’t much of a reputation, but James Frawley’s kooky Disaster Movie spoof may fill the need for silly comedy — it has a crazy premise, a truly ridiculous ‘star’ in its enormous atom-powered bus, and a jolly all-star crew of comedic performers: Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, Rene Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Larry Hagman, Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Lynn Redgrave, Stuart Margolin and Howard Hesseman. It definitely has film history’s best cannibalism joke: “You eat just one lousy foot and they call you a cannibal. What a world!”


The Big Bus
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1976 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date March 28, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, Rene Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, Bob Dishy, José Ferrer, Murphy Dunne, Ruth Gordon, Harold Gould, Larry Hagman, Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Lynn Redgrave, Richard B. Shull, Stuart Margolin, Howard Hesseman, Mary Charlotte Wilcox, Walter Brooke, Vito Scotti, Vic Tayback.
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Production Designer: Joel Schiller
Costume Design: Marianna Elliott
Film Editor: Edward Warschilka
Original Music: David Shire
Written and produced by Lawrence J. Cohen & Fred Freeman
Executive Producers Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips
Directed by
James Frawley

A scattershot spoof of disaster pictures that somehow missed the acclaim and success that Airplane! garnered four years later, The Big Bus is an often charming and funny trifle. Engineered for maximum in-joke laughs, it lampoons the terminally stupid 1970s ‘disaster’ subgenre most notably mined by Irwin Allen. That cheesy formula exploited 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 skewer the disaster craze, as well as any number of earlier Hollywood clichés. Although it has a good attitude and some supremely witty / silly jokes, the movie doesn’t quite ring the laugh bell as did the later Zucker-Abrahams airliner-in-distress comedy.

On the other hand, when I showed the old DVD to a roomful of 13 year-olds they loved every minute of it. It’s not as if It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is world-class filmmaking either. Funny is in the eye of the beholder. The absurd The Big Bus will strike many as hilarious.

 

Believe us folks, this is one Very Important Bus!

On the eve of the maiden run of Coyote Lines’ Cyclops, a nuclear-powered double-decker … bus …, someone tries to blow it up, injuring its hand-picked driver-pilots. Its inventor Professor Baxter (Harold Gould) was also injured in the explosion, and his spirited daughter, bus designer Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing) recruits an unlikely replacement pilot. Ace driver Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna), has been blackballed because of a bus wreck in the mountains that turned into a replay of the Donner Party: “But I only ate a foot!”

Despite his tarnished reputation, Dan gets the job to captain the Cyclops. He nominates as copilot his two-fisted pal Shoulders O’Brien (John Beck), who unfortunately got that name because he has a hard time staying on the road. Shoulders also has a tendency to black out in moments of stress, a problem one would think would be a serious professional liability. But he isn’t stressed: “It’s okay, I only pass out when we’re moving.”

The passengers are a predictable pack of jokers. The divorce of the bickering Claude and Sybil Crane (Richard Mulligan and Sally Kellerman) will become final at midnight yet they are still maniacally attracted to each other. A sourpuss (Richard B. Shull) has only six months to live. Also taking up seating space are a faithless priest (Rene Aberjonois) and a nymphomaniac heiress with personal reasons for wanting Dan Torrance 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) uses a radio hookup to talk them through tight spots — like a time bomb attached by saboteur Alex (Stuart Margolin). He’s 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 perform better for its makers, because it’s a lot more entertaining than the inane movies it parodies. The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno have inexplicably good reputations. All I remember are the cheesy visual effects and the awful actors elbowing each other for attention: Supporting Nomination! Supporting Nomination!

Perhaps we like The Big Bus because it so effectively slams this hated Disaster film subgenre. The lazy scripts simply line up name talent, and then place them in jeopardy. Any character given sentimental emphasis is surely being set up for tragedy. Cardboard villains are dealt their just desserts. We found the bad taste of most of The Towering Inferno to be reprehensible, especially the spectacle of torched people falling hundreds of stories as ‘retribution’ for so-called sins. Inferno punishes garden-variety adultery with horrible death, all for the enjoyment of the crowd. Irwin Allen wasn’t the genre’s only offender, but he may have been the worst — years later he was still flogging the same pitiful formula, wasting good film and star talent in When Time Ran Out.

 

Considerable effort was placed on the design of the Big Bus, a working vehicle. The garish monstrosity is a cross between a Greyhound interstate cruiser and the spaceship Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The giant blast nozzles on the ‘atomic engine’ at the rear are pretty funny, as is the automatic tire-changing device that doesn’t require the bus to stop. Giant brush rollers wash the bus while in motion too, leaving a wake of soap bubbles on the highway behind.  *   (Top image )

The Big Bus has nothing on its mind but fun, and doesn’t stray far beyond its one-joke premise. It sometimes uses Airplane! — like oddball sight gags. A press tram takes 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 paper-thin 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.

 

Casting agent Lynn Stalmaster secured a good lineup of comedic players. The ‘bus of fools’ is hodgepodge of corny passengers, each with a clichéd theme to thump. Disaster films always had a self-absorbed whining barfly somewhere — The Big Bus gives us two of them, who must compete for the honor of being the most miserable. The ‘priest with a crisis of conscience’ is lifted fairly intact from Richard Basehart’s cleric in the 1951 Titanic. Here, Rene Auberjonois delights in being abusive and rude to stock busybody Ruth Gordon, as if compensating for his years playing patient understanding clergymen. Richard Mulligan (S.O.B.) and Sally Kellerman are an amusing pair of oversexed loonies. Their gross overacting frequently hits the film’s desired level of crazy. Of special note is the piano bar host, played by Murphy Dunne — everything about his lounge schtick gets laughs.

We still enjoy the breakneck performance of Joseph Bologna (My Favorite Year). His Dan Torrance is the only cartoon character with even a hint of depth. The peer pressure Dan feels from his tough fraternity of drivers reaches back 40 years to Howard Hawks’ adventure picture … only Angels Have Wings.  The basic joke about daredevil bus drivers being a hardy breed still holds up. Dan denies that he ‘personally ate 110 people’ and a silly fight breaks out. Its most-quoted gag is when John Beck holds the brawling bus drivers at bay by smashing a paper milk carton on the bar, and brandishing it as if it were a broken bottle.

 

Stockard Channing is a personal favorite, despite the fact that few of her movies (The Fortune) were roaring successes. Kitty Baxter is nothing more than a cipher to tout the Bus’s futuristic features, and she almost drowns when the kitchen floods with hundreds of gallons of soft drink liquid. We’d think her talent were 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 budge with his remote hand controls, this show is for you. The scene is played in such a deadpan manner, the joke almost sneaks by before the audience breaks up.

 

At one point a runaway pickup truck spears the bus, sticking out from its side like the small plane in one of the tacky Airport sequels. Undeterred, the Cyclops hurries on to its oddball conclusion, sticking to its line of unapologetic silliness. True, the finale of The Big Bus lacks a memorable ‘big’ joke to create buzz, but there are funny gags along the way. A real comedic disaster in the same vein is John Schlesinger’s Honky Tonk Freeway, a hugely expensive film that hasn’t three funny moments in almost two hours of film. This show wasn’t that expensive — the one major budget item seems to have been mocking up that enormous functioning bus.

Perhaps the show didn’t take off because it maintains a consistent level of TV-movie ‘realism,’ whereas the monster hit Airplane! lets the jokes fly every which way, shredding reality with the anarchy of a Tex Avery cartoon. Audiences watching The Big Bus have to maybe know a bit too much about old movies to follow all of its jokes … and the gags aren’t as nonstop as in the Zucker & Abrahams movies.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Big Bus is fine encoding from a 4K scan; technically it’s never looked better. Until the 2002 DVD most people encountered it pan-scanned on TV, but it now looks big, wide, and impressive again. We enjoy the film’s purposely tacky production design: the bus interior, the awful costumes, the Coyote Bus Line’s garish uniforms.

Included are a TV spot and a trailer, neither of which makes the movie look like a winner. Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson deliver a joky commentary, conversing about their reactions to various scenes and describing scenes inspired by other disaster films. The usual suspects range from The Last Voyage to a scene in the original The Italian Job. But the commentary doesn’t mention a failed TV show that seemed inspired The Big Bus, 1979’s Supertrain.

Berger discovered an article in a Bus Magazine (?) that explained how much of the The Big Bus prop was a working vehicle, and which aspects were faked. The monstrosity was constructed from two enormous trucks; it was too wide and much too tall to operate in normal highway lanes, with 14-foot overpasses.

When Berger gets around to talking about executive producer Julia Phillips’ notorious tell-all book, all we hear is that the producers weren’t happy with director James Frawley’s work. We agree with Berger and Thompson — from what we see, the show is agreeable comedy fare, and occasionally quite funny.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Big Bus
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson
TV Spots, Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 31, 2023
(6935bus)

* ( Thanks to executive producer Julia Philips, Douglas Trumbull’s effects facility for Close Encounters of the Third Kind ‘inherited’ some of the talented men that built the functioning bus, and its effects gags that did things like change tires while in motion. Master machinist George Polkinghorne operated a mill as if it were a sewing machine, and with Trumbull’s talented engineer-inventor father Don Trumbull machined amazingly intricate motion-control inventions. They were my favorite people on the show. )
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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