The Big Bus (1976)
Being a child of the seventies I have a soft spot, cinematically speaking, for the various disaster films of that time. Iconic titles such as The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Airport franchise. The latter was superbly lampooned in the 1980 movie, Airplane! by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. The team of writer/directors went on to make numerous other comedies in a similar idiom. However Airplane! was not the first major spoof of this particular genre. Four years earlier, director James Frawley made The Big Bus which similarly sends up the standard tropes of all major disaster movies. Where Airplane! was right on the money, The Big Bus is a little more scattershot in its approach and takes a while to find its feet. But James Frawley had a background in TV comedy, having worked on The Monkees TV show, and he does much within the limitations of the films budget. The films greatest asset is that it keeps up the pace. If a gag doesn’t work then don’t worry, there’s another immediately afterwards.
The titular bus is in fact a nuclear-powered articulated vehicle that can carry 100 passengers on a luxurious non-stop trip from New York to Denver. However, someone seems hellbent on sabotaging Coyote Bus Lines new flagship project and a bomb goes off at the lab where it is being prepped for its maiden voyage. Professor Baxter (Harold Gould), is seriously injured while the driver and co-driver are killed. Hence, Baxter’s daughter, Kitty (Stockard Channing), has to find new driver. Kitty turns to a former lover, Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna), to drive the bus. Dan is currently in disgrace within the bus driver community, after a serious crash at Mount Diablo and allegations of eating the passengers. However, he accepts the job and recruits “Shoulders” O’Brien (John Beck) to be his co-driver, who unbeknownst to him is narcoleptic. The bus departs New York along with all-star cast including Lynn Redgrave, Richard Mulligan, Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, and Ruth Gordon. However, the real star is bus itself AKA “The Cyclops”. Which features a bar (with Murphy Dunne as lounge singer), a bowling alley and an exclusive captain’s dining room. However, the saboteur has no intention of giving up and plants another bomb onboard. Hilarity ensues along with a never-ending barrage of verbal and sight gags.
The Big Bus hits many of its marks as it dismantles a well-known genre. Many of the cast are exactly the sort of actors that would have appeared in genuine disaster movies. Character actors such as Ned Beatty, Larry Hagman, Bob Dishy, Jose Ferrer, and Howard Hesseman. And then there’s David Shires score which totally gets the musical idiom of these movies and delivers a suitably hyperbolic soundtrack. Like Airplane! there are many sight gags and a strong streak of absurdist humour. There’s a bar fight in which a milk carton is broken and used as a weapon and then there’s the recurring gag of “Shoulders” O’Brien constantly falling asleep at inopportune moments. I was not familiar with actor Joseph Bologna and his previous body of work but he gives a good performance as the flawed hero. It should also be noted that The Big Bus is a little more rating conscious and doesn’t stray as far into adult humour as Airplane! Plus there’s a lot of conspicuous product placement which obviously helped with the movies financing.
The Big Bus doesn’t outstay its welcome, clocking in at sensible 88 minutes. The ending is a little lacklustre compared to the first two acts and it seems that the writers Lawrence J. Cohen, Fred Freeman were a little lost as to how to wrap things up. However, there is still much to enjoy. There are several good physical stunts involving The Cyclops which would nowadays been done with CGI. The cast chews the scenery exactly as you expect them to. René Auberjonois is rather good as a priest on the brink of losing his faith. However, despite being very well intentioned, The Big Bus only did moderate box office upon release and received mixed reviews. Director James Frawley later directed The Muppet Movie and subsequently returned to television Over the years, The Big Bus has lost its crown to Airplane! which is a shame. It isn’t as polished or as accomplished as its predecessor but it certainly pioneered the zany parody genre. Furthermore, it can still raise a wry smile.