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The Big Bus – Media Play News

Scott Marks


Kino Lorber;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Stockard Channing, Joe Bologna, John Beck, Rene Auberjonios, Jose Ferrer, Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Ruth Gordon, Larry Hagman, Harold Gould, Stuart Margolin, Vic Tayback, Vito Scotti.

By the very nature of the genre’s calamitous subject matter, unifunctional characters, and opiated storytelling aimed at lulling viewers into believing that special effects and dramatic structure are one and the same, disaster films spend a good deal of their running times circling the caractural drain. The broad brushstrokes of drollery and literal interpretation of idiomatic phrases made popular by Mel Brooks helped to put Zucker, Abrams and Zucker’s disaster film parody Airplane! on the map. Tough though it may be to parody a parody, it hasn’t stopped Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg (Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, etc.) from making a decent living at it. Before Airplane! landed and Seltzer and Friedberg’s scattergun approach had transformed itself into a cottage industry forged by Xeroxed tropes, The Big Bus drove through Hollywood.

Quick! Name a job that’s cushier than a San Diego weather person. A superfluous narrator tasked with reading aloud an opening crawl printed across the screen. One hopes this was intended as part of the satire instead of a patronizing nod to viewers unaccustomed to working for their art. The press had gathered to get a glimpse of Cyclops, the world’s first nuclear powered bus about to embark on its maiden journey, a non-stop excursion from New York to Denver. Cyclops was a double-decker gargantuan, the King Kong of articulated buses and one of those rare cases where an all-star cast took a back seat to a titular prop. Those digging for Easter eggs will be disappointed to learn the WZAZ-Radio truck that’s there to greet us was a happy accident that bears no connection to the Airplane! boys.

Director James Frawley seemed well on his way to a career on the big screen, but after only four features (The Christian Licorice Store, Kid Blue, The Big Bus, The Muppet Movie) he decided to make a name for himself directing television. Next to the colossal coach, the film’s driving force was screenwriters Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen, the duo behind Start the Revolution Without Me, S*P*Y*S (a wretched follow up to M*A*S*H that owed little to Altman’s original save his two leads and the asterisks) and Delirious (John Candy at his least dandy). One can always tell a disaster film by the number of boxed head shots of the actors strung together and stretched across the bottom quarter of the poster. The first of the film’s myriad of guest stars to hit the screen was Stewart Margolin as Alex, the brother of an evil industrialist known as “Ironman” (Jose Ferrer). In stark contrast to Marvel’s tin can man, our Ironman was awarded the nickname based on his permanent accommodations in an industrial-sized iron lung. (Let’s see them get away with that today.) Masquerading as a hot dog vendor, Alex sticks around just long enough for an explosion to rock the nuclear plant without doing damage to Cyclops. No sooner does the blast hit, Alex abandons the stand and hops through the rear passenger window of a Cadillac getaway car, leaving a construction worker customer to steal as many dogs as he could carry. Nonsensical plotting like this plagued the picture from fade-in to fade-out.

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It would be next to impossible to spoof a disaster film without becoming one. Had they spent as much time working on structure and character as they did designing the bus, there might have been a masterpiece in the making. As is, how Alex goes from hot dog vendor to Arab Sheik is never explained. The art of Z.A.Z. was making cliches seem original simply by admitting they’re cliches. Take away the hard-edged lunacy the Z.A.Z. brought to AirplaneI and what’s left doesn’t amount to more than a pile of silliness held together by applying cliches generally associated with airplanes to another means of transport. And speaking of cliches, at the time of its release, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was so commonplace thanks to Kubrick’s 2001 that it had become a favorite of TV commercials looking to avoid paying royalties. Its inclusion here to back Cyclop’s big reveal was a groaner even as far back as 1976. 

Rounding out the cast are Stockard Channing, still going through her baby-faced ‘Liz Taylor’s little sister’ phase, starring as the architect of Cyclops; Lynn Redgrave as a nymphomaniacal fashion designer; Sally Kellerman and Richard Mulligan as a battling married couple who can’t wait to get remarried as soon as their divorce clears; and Ruth “Senility for Hire” Gordon in the role originated by Helen Hayes in Airport. Ned Beatty and Howard Hessman play a pair of Stooge-like engineers with Bob Dishy co-starring as a disgraced veterinarian opposite Richard Schull’s man with six months left to live. As good as Joe Bologna is as the driver, a running gag involving cannibalism that stemmed from a real-life plane crash and the rugby team who had friends for dinner goes nowhere. (The movie adaptation, Survive!, also was released by Paramount in 1976.) The production design, in particular a bus terminal bar with walls adorned by photos of great drivers from the past, is more amusing than any talk of dining on foot that Bologna had to tell. Ditto the interior of the bus, complete with a bowling alley and swimming pool, that appeared to have been filmed on sets left over from a Goodson and Todman game show.

It’s a comedic law of averages: If one joke doesn’t work, wait a minute and another will. We end on the promise of a terrific sight gag: The bus breaks in two while going downhill. Rather than a kicker, it swerves out of view as the credits begin to roll. For more on the origins of the bus, Google: “Big Bus”; Bus World magazine. You’re welcome!

Special features include a new audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and TV Spots and the theatrical Trailer.

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