It was tragic, the day Judge Daryl Loomis's vehicle was sent to the home for wayward buses.
The Steinbeck people! The Steinbeck passions! The Steinbeck power!
Few authors have had more success with film adaptations of their novels than John Steinbeck. East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, major motion pictures with all the backing their respective studios could muster. Even if The Wayward Bus wasn't his biggest commercial success, 20th Century Fox was prepared to give it the same A-level treatment as the rest. Production stalled, though, and for a decade, support eroded until it was a decidedly B-picture. Despite the budget and production limitations, the end result is a great surprise. The Wayward Bus captures the ambiguous morality of Steinbeck like no other. Forgotten for half a century, it has been delivered from obscurity by the folks at Twilight Time, who have blessed it with this fine Blu-ray release.
Facts of the Case
Random strangers board a bus to San Juan, CA. It's a short trip, but fate is not on their side. Soon after setting out, a massive storm hits, causing a mudslide and forcing a longer, more treacherous route. Tensions build, emotions run high, and when the bus gets stuck in the mud, the tenuous relationships these passengers have built suddenly collapses, leaving them deep in an ennui filled mire only Hollywood storytelling can resolve.
The Wayward Bus may not have the popular performers or expert crew of the Steinbeck adaptations considered classics, but in many ways, it's just as good or even better than any of them. A strong young cast in front of the camera and a reliable veteran crew behind delivers a tense potboiler with all the turgid emotions we expect from the author.
The events of the movie don't match up all that closely with those of the novel, but director Victor Vicas (Count Five and Die) and screenwriter Ivan Moffat (Giant) make the story Hollywood-friendly, while still keeping the spirit of Steinbeck's characters intact. We have Johnny Chinoy (Rick Jason, Sierra Baron), the Mexican-Irish mechanic and captain of this voyage; his drunk, jealous, and oversexed wife, Alice (Joan Collins, The Virgin Queen); an aristocratic couple taking their man-eating daughter Mildred (Dolores Michaels, Warlock) on a trip to calm her down after an affair with her teacher; Ernest Horton (Dan Dailey, The Girl Next Door), salesman looking for a quick buck and maybe a girl on his side; and Camille Oakes (Jayne Mansfield, It Takes a Thief), the object of Horton's affection and a stripper on her way to a stag show who wants nothing more than to keep her identity concealed. Every part of this group is a piece of work with a ton of problems, too many emotions, and way too much time to think about it all.
Even if the plot veers from the original, the film's tight script, quickly and sharply delineated characters, and the performances (which are dramatically better than I anticipated) let Steinbeck's ideas come to life. The two cult figures today, obviously, are Jane Mansfield and Joan Collins; everyone else is pretty obscure. Without the associated baggage of big stars, though, we can focus on the story and characters, letting them shine instead. Mansfield and Collins, both in early roles (and both the same age, though Collins plays a woman at least ten years older), are considerable forces on screen. Collins isn't exactly playing against type, but Mansfield is in a more serious and down-to-earth mode than I've ever seen her. The real revelation is Delores Michaels, who had a small and obscure career. On the surface, her character is a simple man-eater, but Michaels is penetrating and absolutely compelling. All of the performances are above average, especially for the budget, but her work as Mildred will stick with me.
The budgetary limitations are hidden in Vicas' direction. In a huge scene that has nothing to do with the novel and everything to do with Hollywood spectacle, the bus starts careening down a mountain road, threatening to collapse at every turn. Vicas incorporates a combination of live-action filming, process shots, and miniatures in an exceptionally smooth way to make the event seem almost seamless today, let alone how it must have played in 1957. This, amongst other things, shows the effort that went into what had become a B-level film. The melodrama may be a bit overblown, but if you're watching a Steinbeck film that stars Jayne Mansfield and Joan Collins, I'm not sure what you were expecting.
Considering its obscurity, Twilight Time's release of The Wayward Bus (Blu-ray) is excellent. The 2.35:1/1080p Cinemascope image isn't as strong as it could be, but they've done a fantastic job on the restoration. Though not completely free of damage, the visual contrast is amazing and the frame cleaner and more detailed than I imagined. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is not as strong or dynamic as the image, but it works just fine. There's not much noise to speak of and the music always sounds good, but some bits of dialogue which get drowned out. For bonus features, we get an audio commentary from film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, who present a ton of great information about the production, especially in discussing the people originally slated to the project. We also get an isolated music score from composer Leigh Harline, which is always a nice inclusion.
The Wayward Bus isn't a perfect or even particularly close adaptation of Steinbeck's novel, but the tone and emotional level are spot on…at least until the very end. This is a true gem any classic movie fan should check out.
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