Directed by James Frawley
Written by Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman
I know, I said we were done. But, in practice, one can hardly ever really be done with a whole genre if one's aim is to be encyclopedic about it; even if one is limiting one's scope to a single decade (the 1970s) and to a single format (for the most part, theatrically-released films), there will almost always be some minor entry that has evaded your notice. Even before we took on the last post-70s sneer of the great disaster cinema movement with Airplane II: The Sequel, I knew that our survey would probably have to be revived in order to retrieve those less-well-known films that had, to my shame, fallen through the cracks. For one thing, there is still the nettlesome matter of having skipped the two major Japanese disaster films, Japan Sinks and Bullet Train, which were not available to me then but are available to me now, and, of course, given today's subject, Bullet Train likely would have been a most valuable comparison, though that's not how it shook out. If I'm honest then I'll admit to being vaguely aware of 1976's The Big Bus for some time prior to the "completion" of this whole "what a disaster" project—maybe even long enough that I could have simply done it in due course, in between The Hindenburg and Two-Minute Warning where it belongs, though I no longer recall if I had at that point actually heard of it yet—but when I did hear of it, I will admit to initially dismissing it as too extrinsic to the genre, if not altogether too minor to care about. I was already doing Airplane!—I was already doing Airplane II!—and doing another disaster movie parody seemed superfluous. But then I felt bad, and then Kino Lorber released it on blu-ray, so the whole universe seems to have been gently nudging me into giving it the respect it deserved.
And the respect it deserves is not, it turns out, nominal, not at all: it's not remotely as good (though it is good), so let's just exile that thought from our minds right now, but that we live in a world where Airplane! remains one of the most beloved comedies of all time, while The Big Bus has been rendered so obscure as to be practically erased, never even brought up as a precursor to Airplane!'s success—and of course I haven't helped!—that is downright unjust. It is doing so many of the same things in something akin to the same way that realizing that this came out four years earlier ought to take your feet out from under you a little; its jokes are more specifically applicable as "a direct parody of 70s disaster film" than Airplane!, but the "deadpan performances that refuse to acknowledge the unrelenting cartoonishness of the world around them" is so similar that it is, earnestly, more than a little fucking weird. It calls into question the novelty of the whole Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker triumvirate and makes me wonder if I should be better-read in 70s comedy.
There is a rumor that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams did some uncredited work on The Big Bus for its credited screenwriters—and producers—Lawrence Cohen and Fred Freeman, and this is completely unsubstantiated. Given the trio's country-bumpkin small-time stature until selling John Landis on the prospect of directing The Kentucky Fried Movie for them, I think it's entirely implausible. I mention it only because it is extremely easy to see how this rumor started and even knowing it's unlikely I'm still not totally sure I don't believe it. (It is, for the record, better than The Kentucky Fried Movie.) And there's obviously going to be some parallels—The Big Bus was just an early adopter of the whole "spoof movie" concept as pioneered by Mel Brooks with Blazing Saddles—but consider an early joke in The Big Bus, also maybe its very best joke (though this is competitive), regarding our protagonist visiting his father's grave to have a heartfelt one-sided conversation with his memory, only to become inch-by-inch aware, with a final zoom-out onto the whole scene for our benefit, that the cemetery is thronged with dozens of other people doing exactly the same thing with their dumb problems. I guess it's a matter of taste if this feels more Brooksian or ZAZesque, but I would say "more ZAZ," in the particular way it surreally lampoons a whole cinematic trope rather than a specific thing, and uses the frame as part of its gag delivery. (On the other hand, another early gag, involving a comical absence of any consequences from blithely handling radioactive materials, feels "more Brooks.") Or maybe it simply owes more its own director, James Frawley, who, as any Muppet fan knows, was pretty talented himself.
I belabor it, but the strangest part is that it basically has the same plot as Airplane!, which is to say—and this probably does remove a bit of the uncanny resemblance—it has the same plot as 1957's Zero Hour!, which must've inspired more than just ZAZ in its remarkable tidiness. That plot, then, kicks off when "Cyclops," the brainchild of Professor Irwin Baxter (Harold Gould) and his engineer daughter Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing), is targeted with sabotage on the morning of its unveiling by an oil baron known only as Ironman (José Ferrer) and his brother Alex (James Margolin). Their aim: to discredit or, failing that, destroy the remarkable new machine that the Baxters have built to revolutionize tranportation, a clean, carbon-free, nuclear-powered bus. Their bombing attempt fails to destroy this big bus or its powerplant, but they did manage to nearly kill Prof. Baxter while putting its driver and its co-driver out of action. If they intend for Cyclops to make its maiden voyage after all, the first non-stop bus trip from New York to Denver, Kitty knows they only have one choice, and she has to reach out to her disgraced ex Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna*), once considered the world's greatest bus driver, but not after a mysterious mountain crash, not unlike that of a recent Argentinian rugby team, that left him the only survivor—yet curiously much fatter!—by the time they found him.
This can't be a concern for Kitty, because she needs her driver now, and Dan brings along his new friend, who'd helped him in a barfight relating to his aforementioned reputation as a cannibal; this is Shoulders O'Brien (John Beck), thus named, it turns out, because he has a propensity for driving on the shoulders due to frequent attacks of narcolepsy. The passengers are the usual random collection of misfits, notably the perpetually divorcing/reconciling couple Sybil and Claude Crane (Sally Kellerman and Richard Mulligan), a horny priest (Rene Auberjonois), a depressed disbarred veterinarian (Bob Dishy), a man with six months to live (Richard B. Shull), and a combination of Gloria Swanson from Airport 1975 with Van Heflin from Airport, though she only wants to shoot Dan for eating her dad (Lynn Redgrave). Despite a successful departure from the parking lot and a smooth ride across the Great Plains, however, there is another attempt at sabotage awaiting them—a bomb smuggled into a wheel-well to make it look like a nuclear bus is not a good idea.
Given that this is a freewheeling comedy, it will sound strange, perhaps, if I say that The Big Bus's biggest problem is that its screenplay is insufficiently tight, but this is so: it is operating against the very difficult challenge of somehow keeping its disaster going once it starts, which is easy and natural if you're riding in an airplane, or sailing on a cruise liner, or if you're flying in a space shuttle, and which is very difficult to motivate if you're on a bus. This is of course a joke ("they paid for non-stop and they're getting non-stop"), and The Big Bus is indeed normally at its absolute funniest when it's not stressing its jokes.
Its best material arrives parallel to its plot and to its characters, who always shrug it off or accept it as merely the normal expression of their abnormal world—for instance, in another big premonition of Airplane!, when Prof. Baxter's doctor (Larry Hagman) tells the injured scientist he can't be moved, this is zanily literal, so they spend half the movie out in the parking lot, then when he's finally brought inside it's on a dolly carrying the chunk of the pavement that Baxter is, even now, still lying on. And I may take back what I said about "best jokes": the best joke is just the joke that permeates the entire film, totally unstressed and so allowed to be a constant source of baseline amusement, and that's just the way it's about a nuclear bus, which is making history not just by being a nuclear bus, but with the amazing feat of a non-stop ride that still doesn't even cross the whole North American continent. I mean, that's hilarious. (At some point, I should start mentioning that a fair amount of it just doesn't work regardless. It's predominantly quite funny, but while it's a normal thing not to remember the precise details of a comedy's middlingly-funny stuff, there's a fair amount; I recall, for instance, that there's more wordplay around the concept of farting than I found agreeable. And high up on the list of dysfunctional material is the "what is this a spoof of again?" Bondian complexion of its villains, particularly once they deploy their... earthquake machine? Nonetheless, I appreciate the basic idea of that—Cyclops is actually pretty safe!—and I like this disaster movie's politics better than, say, The China Syndrome's.)
But I was saying that it has problems because there is, still, an emotional reality that a movie like this has to enforce, and that's a major reason why Airplane! is a masterpiece and The Big Bus is a movie you might not even be aware of. The thing here is that Airplane! did conjure a sense of, well, disaster movie peril. The Big Bus doesn't even take Redgrave's assassination attempt on the driver seriously, let alone the bomb that goes off—I might say there was never an obvious reason not to have ripped off Airport further and put the bomber on the bus—and, confusingly, I'm not sure it entirely commits to the one explanation, or if it tries to do "the ticket says non-stop" and "we can't stop, like in Speed (or Bullet Train)" interchangeably, very much either/or. And in its absence of commitment, it leaves on the table the real gimme of a gag, Dan giving a rousing, idiotic speech to sway his stupid passengers to strive for the achievement; as far as Bologna's performance goes, this seems like a real miss, because Bologna is genuinely good, and he's one way The Big Bus actually is wrenching itself out of Airplane!'s future shadow, with an amusingly-irritated and endlessly put-upon heroic figure who mostly finds the correct ways to belligerently respond in kind to the insane bullshit of his existence.
What makes up for it even more, however, is a whole hell of a lot of physical reality. I've heard it referred to as "low-budget," but I barely see how. They presumably saved some pennies on their "all-star cast"—it has several recognizable TV faces, but the biggest movie star here might be Ned Beatty—but I refuse to believe it was truly cheap, and it undoubtedly cost more in constant dollars than Airplane!, for there is the irrefutable fact of that damn bus. Conceived as a luxury liner, as much S.S. Poseidon as a 737, or, you know, a bus, there's some fun studio production design even before we get to the actual, no-really bus of it, like the bowling alley, or the swimming pool, or the satirically-racist longue, or the gaudily-timely Bicenentennial-themed stateroom, or the gaudily-timely passenger compartment arrayed in rainbow colors (which is a bit of a funny eyesore but unfortunately grows more toward just an eyesore as the film proceeds, though I feel like half its problem is that it's too cramped, and accurate accounting of the square footage of this thing shouldn't have been a serious concern of production designer Joel Schiller). Even some studio-shot exteriors help reinforce the physicality of it—there's a swell bit where Bologna has to clamber about on the side of the bus that benefits enormously from Frawley's insistence that we see the spinning wheels. If you look very closely, you can tell it's a mock up and the wheels aren't spinning on the ground, but why ruin a good illusion for yourself?
And like I said, that's before we get to the real show, the very real existence of a fully-functional 155 foot double-decker articulated titan of a bus, the result of special effects artists Gail Brown and Lee Vasque. It was really two buses, bolted together, that had to be driven to the shooting locations separately, but Goddamnit, that makes it more impressive because they drive the thing on camera—the second section's driver had to be directed by radio!—and even before the finale, its majesty is hilarious and tongue-in-cheek and parodic and satirical and all that, but nevertheless it always remains majestic, defined by its almost supernatural size and futurist contours. It's a reason all by itself to shoot in Panavision—Harry Stradling Jr's photography being another surprisingly well-appointed element of the film, often clowning around with solid sheets of color, but in a "parodic science facility" vein, and the "normal" scenes look great—and very few, bordering on no, other disaster films of the movement so completely demand that widescreen framing. The only thing about this bus that's not majestic is Frawley's tired-ass "Thus Spake Zarathustra" needle-drop upon its reveal—and if we're talking strange directorial choices rather than just boring, cliché ones, he also has a terrible time figuring out how tease Cyclops without revealing it before its appointed hour, in one instance just straight-up cutting so we can't see what the celebrating crowd of engineers is looking at—but the 2001 jibe makes me want to cut Airplane II even less slack than I did about its 2001 references, whereas it's actively disappointing here because David Shire has done such a bang-up job with his original score. It's almost too good, a delirious combo of action cues and jazz-funk and even disco elements that, contra "Thus Spake," presents the proceedings with enthusiasm and excitement but also serious investment in its goofy stakes, which is always funnier than just pooting out ironic references.
But as for the bus, just existing as a functional object is not the end; I've had some complaints about The Big Bus, but they vanish by the finale, which is just a superb little twenty-minute setpiece of escalating gags and stuntwork treated with sufficient severity that you can wonder what the distinction between "action" and "gags" actually is, though one little problem with this disaster movie is that it's basically bloodless. Still, it's pretty funny when it parodies, or even homages, one of its chiefest influences, Airport 1975, taking on its mid-air collision but now with flying automobiles and a truck full of Okies that impales the Cyclops. (So another potential contender for best joke: when the annoying piano player (Murphy Dunne) doesn't skip a beat welcoming them to the Oriental Lounge.)
It's a little astonishing the lengths this comedy goes to—the finale is devoted to a stunning amount of Californian mountain location shooting and that big bus perched Italian Job-style on the edge of a precipice with what must've been some real fuckin' big pieces of offscreen machinery—and there's enormous joy to be taken in the special effects creativity attending this, like the idea of generating "drag" by deploying a couple dozen "flags of the world" or the wonderful surrealism of using the bus's soda fountain for counterweight. (The image of Channing backstroking in a flood of six different sodas while glazed donuts float around like parodies of life preservers: indelible.) It's a movie that actually lives up to the bursting-at-the-seams zany imagination of that Jack Davis poster. That's a rare feat—this film might love It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but I would rather watch this and get a punch in the face than watch It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World again—and so I'm delighted to recognize that very real accomplishment.
*Joey Baloney? Goodness.