THE WAYWARD BUS ought to have been called ‘The Wayward Property’, considering how many hands signed up then bailed out before it finally got underway, and how it turned out on release in 1957. A bus needs a driver who knows where it’s going. Like the title contraption, this vehicle is a rattletrap jalopy in need of brakes and shocks to cushion the jarring from potholes of muddy melodrama.
California, in the hamlet of ‘Rebel Corners’, south of L.A., Mex-Irish ‘Johnny Chicoy’ (Rick Jason) drives an aging local bus while wife ‘Alice’ (Joan Collins) runs their rest stop diner. The marriage is strained by the jobs and their mutual easily riled tempers. When Johnny takes a disparate clutch of passengers on a trip to a cross-border Mexican town, all dramatic heck breaks loose: a storm lashes them with landslide, flood and a collapsing bridge, the truck’s brakes are shot, the passengers all have pressing personal issues (mostly relating to sex), and back at the diner alcoholic Alice goes on a jealousy bender. What, no dog? At least there isn’t an ‘adorable’ kid with a medical condition.
John Steinbeck’s 1947 novel had been purchased, planned, cast and scuttled for years. First George Stevens was to direct, then Henry Hathaway. William Saroyan wrote the first script. Over the decade-long germination, the stars courted or signed up, then opted out included Marlon Brando, Jennifer Jones, Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, Shelley Winters, Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Joanne Woodward. For some reason Fox honchos assigned direction of this steam-driven slice of Steinbeckian Americana to Victor Vicas, a Russian-born writer-director who’d worked in Germany and France. Ivan Moffett took over screenplay duty. Moffett had handled high-profile novel adaptations for Giant and Bhowani Junction and would later do so for They Came to Cordura and Tender Is The Night. Vicas explained the tack taken: “We’ve had to make a few changes. We’ve reduced the sex angle so it’s acceptable to the film medium, lowered the overall ages of the passengers and thrown in a few of the modern conveniences such as a helicopter rescue service. In addition, we’ve supplied a bit more suspense to the bus ride. A landslide which just misses the bus for example, and a bridge going out under the weight of the vehicle. And instead of the bus getting mired in the mud, we have it caught with one wheel over the edge of a cliff on a washed out road.”
Since Steinbeck’s musings were a mindfield of introspection, it made movie-sense to balance babble with action, thus the insertion of the reasonably decent effects sequences involving the rockslide, river-swamped bridge and generally perilous driving. Reducing 352 pages to 87 minutes interspersed with storm scenes resulted in unsubtle choppiness and portentous, pushy dialogue exchanges that don’t ring true. Director Vicas (sorry, we can’t help it, but Vic Vicas ! ?) may have fared well with his European assignments, but he was out of his quartier with this regional Americana exercise (his other English-language picture, Count Five And Die, was a dud for Fox contract star Jeffrey Hunter).
Collins is first-billed (on view that year in Sea Wife, Stopover Tokyo and the big hit Island In The Sun), newcomer Jason was 4th, with the key passengers played by Jayne Mansfield (as a man-wary stripper), Dan Dailey (a blathering salesman who goes gaga for Jayne) and Dolores Michaels (a hormone-erupting teenager who tempts Jason in a hayloft). Mansfield was being pushed big-time that year, adding va-voom to Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Kiss Them For Me, and this drama contains her best attempt at halfway decent acting: whose daft idea was it to stick her with Dan Dailey? “Thanks a lot, guys, why not Peter Lorre?” Jason is too intense (badly written & directed) to convince: the tepid response to this movie didn’t give his budding film career any traction. Purposely de-glammed, Collins is not bad, and Michaels does well as the girl-with-longings. Heavy going stuff, started off with a soundtrack blast from composer Leigh Harline that announces it’s Big & Really Important. *
Costs came to $1,465,000, grosses $5,000,000, 47th for ’57. With Dee Pollock, Larry Keating, Betty Lou Keim, Robert Bray, Will Wright, Kathryn Givney and Milton Frome.
* Ticket price—though reviews weren’t his best, Steinbeck’s ruminative road trip sold like hotcakes: sex helped (cue page-burners Tobacco Road, Forever Amber and Peyton Place) but his reliance on internal monologues was AWOL in the movie, the trip juiced up with natural calamity elements. He had dedicated the book to ‘Gwyn’ (his 2nd wife, Gwyndolyn Conger), but that bliss went wayward as Gwyn filed for divorce a year later.
Though this misfire wasn’t the direct cause, the starbound trajectories of Collins, 23, Mansfield, 23, vet Dailey, 41, and Jason, 33, shortly went wobbly. Dolores Michaels, 23, also flared out within a few years. Collins and Jason were later saved by TV, first Jason with five years on Combat (1962-67), 152 episodes identity-fixing him as ‘Lt. Hanley’ for a generation of Boomer boys. Then Collins began a rebound in the 70s, en route to vixen victory via Dynasty.