Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Unsung!: The Big Bus

Say what you want about the sadly neglected The Big Bus (1976, James Frawley), you cannot deny that this is a film…

…that got there first!  Yes, we all know of the accolades, the love and affection that movie lovers have for Airplane! Oh, the one-liners! Oh, the sight gags! Oh, the quotable dialogue!

FULL DISCOLSURE: The first time I saw Airplane!, I almost died. Seriously, a joke at the end of the film got me laughing so hard, I fell out of my seat. I was down on the floor of the theater, hitting my hand on the cement I was laughing so hard. I almost had a heart attack. Funny stuff.

Yet The Big Bus was released a full four years before Airplane!, and the two films are mighty similar.  They are both parodies of the then-popular disaster movie genre and so feature the standard plot: an assembly of lovable B-movie character actor types climbing aboard for some unusual vehicle’s maiden/final voyage, leaving no hoary old cliché unturned.

So both films lampoon the typical plotting of movies like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno, but their similarities do not end there. I find the “sense of humor” in the two films to be rooted in the same spot: a willingness to throw everything in but the kitchen sink, to crowd the frame and the soundtrack with multiple jokes so that the film resembles a Mad magazine movie parody from that publication’s heyday.

In fact, I do not see much that is different between the two films—which leaves me scratching my head about why one was a flop and the other has become a comedy classic. Because here is a warning: some people HATE The Big Bus.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: The Coyote Bus Company unveils its new flagship vehicle, The Cyclops, a two-block long, nuclear-powered bus. Because all reputable drivers refuse to pilot the test run of the new vehicle, the company hires Dan Torrence (Joseph Bologna), a bus driver with a deep, dark secret. Shady Arab Oil Interests, fearing the success of a nuclear-powered vehicle, try to sabotage the bus, but their efforts are unsuccessful. The rest of the movie centers around the bus’s maiden voyage, which runs New York-to-Denver (because a bus that goes all the way to California would be CRAZY). A weird assortment of passengers take the trip: a discredited veterinarian, a divorcing couple, a cute elderly lady, a man who has just been told he has six months to live, and a priest who is questioning his own faith. Will the bus make it to Denver on time and intact?

The stereotypical passengers in the film are played by a bevy of my favorite over-the-top character actors from the Seventies: Ruth Gordon, Richard Mulligan, Rene Auberjonois, Bob Dishy, John Beck, Stockard Channing, Sally Kellerman, Ned Beatty, Stuart Margolin and Lynn Redgrave. This movie is a supporting actor’s paradise. Come to think of it, every disaster movie is a supporting actor’s paradise.

Some of my favorite gags (again, MY favorites—some people HATE these gags):

  • Early in the film the inventor of the nuclear bus (Harold Gould) is the victim of an explosion in his lab that blows him right into the parking lot. His doctor (Larry Hagman) insists that the inventor CAN NOT BE MOVED, and so a makeshift hospital room is set up around him. Even when a torrential rain shower moves in, the doctor steadfastly holds a tiny umbrella over his patient. The explosion was powerful enough to propel a Saint Christopher’s medal halfway through the inventor’s chest, and he spends the rest of the film threatening to “pull the chain” on himself.
  • A full two years before Bill Murray would debut his “Nick the Lounge Singer” character on SNL, Murphy Dunne appears here as the quintessential cheesy lounge act, making up ditties about the customers in the bus’s upstairs bar. Upon learning that one of the customers has a terminal illness, he improvises, singing “Six months to liiiiive, he’ll see the spring but not the fall! He won’t see Christmas…”
  • The other bus drivers shun Joe Bologna’s character because of a shady event in his past. This leads to a memorable monologue in a noir-ish bar where all the bus drivers hang. Here is the clip. (Sorry for the terrible sound quality. The subtitles might help!) Your response to this sampling will be a good indicator of how you might like the entire film.  WARNING: Many people HATE this film!

Critics blasted The Big Bus and it was a huge disappointment at the box office. Airplane! broke box-office records and is beloved. I guess with comedy, it is all in the timing.

The Big Bus is available to buy or rent from Amazon Video-On-Demand and iTunes.


  1. I didn't even know this movie existed! MUST SEE!

  2. I've always thought Richard Mulligan was a greatly underused actor. He did a couple of episodes of 'CBS Radio Mystery Theater' which are among the best ever done, as well as "The Toys of Caliban" on the 80's 'Twilight Zone'.

  3. I have always loved Mulligan. His performance in Blake Edwards' S.O.B. is a tour-de-force.

  4. Thanks for the clip---I always kind of liked Joseph Bologna (the bus driver everyone hates) a talented, underrated comic/character actor who's known mainly for being in the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year,which he was good in---he was also in another obscure but good '70s flick called Cops and Robbers, in which he plays half of a cop team who decide to become robbers. I do remember seeing this on TV as a kid years and years ago, but for some reason, I've never seen it shown anywhere on TV since then---it's that obscure.