26 August 2010

Bus Stop (1956)

Bus Stop is a Lovely, Quirky Character Piece
By Kristin Battestella

Though its one of her more critically acclaimed films, 1956’s Bus Stop doesn’t have all the musical flare and comedy marshmallow of Marilyn Monroe’s more famous movies. This brooding examination of flawed ruffians and singers isn’t happy go lucky by any means, but it deserves another look thanks to tight performances and vintage charm.

Strong but naïve Bo Decker (Don Murray) and his old ranch hand Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) take a bus trip from Montana to the big city of Phoenix for a rodeo where Bo is sure he will win every event.  Bo also hopes to find an ‘angel’ to marry, but he is very inexperienced with women and city customs.  After seeing Cherie (Marilyn Monroe) perform in a club, Bo is quickly smitten and promptly expects to marry Cherie and take her back to Montana.  Cherie, however, has had bad luck with men in the past, and she’s trying to drop her hillbilly roots for Hollywood. Fellow singer Vera (Eileen Heckart) tries to help Cherie escape Bo, but he kidnaps his reluctant fiancée, forcing her onto the bus towards Montana.  When a snowstorm forces bus driver Carl (Robert Bray) to stop over at Grace’s Diner, Grace (Betty Field), fellow passenger Elma (Hope Lang), and old Virgil must confront Bo about his abhorrent behavior.

Let me get some negative out of the way first. Director Joshua Logan (South Pacific, Camelot) and screenwriter George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate) don’t take William Inge’s (Splendor in the Grass, Picnic) source plays as far as I might have liked. Bus Stop doesn’t go to the seriously dark and scary places with which a modern film tends to over desensitizes us.  Even for a film of 1956, we expect more when we hear of brutes taking dames against their will.  The use of the word ‘molest’ might also be odd to modern audiences- again we expect something kinky instead of the traditional meaning of merely bothering someone.  The dramatic commentary about men learning to be men and women expected to marry and stay at home is also thanks to the dynamics of the day. The conclusion here is also a little weak, but Bus Stop still packs a psychological punch and satisfying end. Despite some fifties tameness, there’s plenty of hurt for the cast to dip into and examine. This is after all, a character study.  Who knew so much angst could happen at a bus station?

Bus StopThe abused hillbilly girl trying to forget her past-who would have thought this is a part for the glamorous Marilyn Monroe.  Cherie is similar to our Norma Jean in a many ways. She’s somehow innocently steamy but a little tragic at the same time. For someone who wants to be a singer and star, Cherie doesn’t like to be laughed at in public and doesn’t want the kind of attention she’s getting.  Marilyn only has one song in Bus Stop, but it’s a damn good one. Yes, her Southern accent is a bit off.  However, Monroe keeps in character and puts on a seemingly less that perfect rendition of ‘That Old Black Magic’- and it works more than some of her more famous and carefully conducted big show tune numbers.  She’s close to weeping in the off-key performance but the entire Cherie introductory sequence is just great.  Cherie is actually kind of stupid, but her idealistic Hollywood dreams keep her likeable.  Monroe (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot) is thinner than usual in Bus Stop, and her gaunt, pale look fits the part of an overworked nightclub girl.  We’re used to seeing all the singing and smiles, but Cherie’s stuttering fear of Bo and the shame he makes her feel are wonderfully done. Monroe keeps Cherie angelic and charming despite her seemingly unflattering background. How can the viewer fault such a pretty girl with dreams and desires of real love?  “Now gimme back my tail!”

Some of the fifties colloquialisms in Bus Stop are a little too Howdy Doody and almost redneck, but this helps Bo’s early innocence and dorky style.  His notions that a woman can be broken as easily as an ornery horse or rowdy steer is naive enough to start, but Don Murray’s (Advise and Consent, Knots Landing) debut mix of immature cowboy stupid and unchecked brute ruffian is just bursting to go the wrong way.  Murray’s combination of ill and wrongful obsession with careful orchestration is loud and over the top yet slick and repressed at the same time.  In some ways, his stupidity and Cherie’s wide-eyed innocence are perfectly matched-what a cute, simple hick couple! However, her insistence on ‘Cherie’ being special because it’s French and his insistence it’s just dumb ‘Cherry’ show how ill-advised this pair can be.  We know long before he literally ropes her onto the bus that, as Bo says, ‘he won’t take no for an answer’. His necessary comeuppance is both great to see and somewhat sad at the same time.  Bus Stop is a lesson learned the hard way indeed.

In addition to the stars, Bus Stop has plenty of ensemble talent.  Betty Field (The Great Gatsby, Peyton Place) and Robert Bray (Lassie) are a lot of fun as the sassy diner owner and tough bus driver.  Some of their banter is a little fifties hokey, but there’s also some fun and cheeky innuendo, too.  The underlying if brief triangle between them and Arthur O’Connell’s (Anatomy of a Murder) Virgil is a charming old-fashioned courtship.  O’Connell wonderfully balances Murray’s rowdy Bo and keeps him in his place.   Oscar winner Elieen Heckart (Butterflies are Free) is also delightful as tough waitress Vera.  Her stern help and young Hope Lange’s (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and the real life future Mrs. Murray!) warm Elma smartly lift up Cherie with support and confidence. This ensemble doesn’t have as much to do as the audience expects, but each has his or her moment to shine whilst keeping in the proper supporting shadow of the leads. 

Contrary again to other Monroe pictures, Bus Stop isn’t big on costumes and spectacles.  Although Monroe wears a very small green costume for her one song, she only has that and one other simple set for the entire film. Sure, we can’t help but notice Marilyn, but the smart lack of shiny costumes also forces us to look at her character, too. The colored lighting of the nightclub and its seemingly high-end style contrasts against the rough west wonderfully as well; and the Rodeo scenes look authentic enough.  It doesn’t seem like all stunties, but as if a real rodeo was filmed.  Now the snow probably is fake, of course, but the wintry fight scene is well choreographed and keeps the stark look of Bus Stop harsh.  Congested interior filming and frames filmed through metal headboard bars also perfectly capture the entrapment that is to come.  The camera movement keeps the conversations from being static, and the lovely use of diegetic guitar music adds soft background tunes.   Logan also smartly positions his camera for odd, forceful positioning of the lead pair.  Murray is always behind Monroe or being the physical one dominating the frame, adding another visual layer to the relationship at Bus Stop’s forefront. 

Blessedly, Bus Stop is available in several DVD editions and sets.  My rented netflix disc came from the Marilyn Monroe Diamond collection and had subtitles along with several other features-although it was mostly trailers and promos for the complete set, which promises all the documentaries.  Reading the slides about the restoration and preservation of Bus Stop was interesting enough for someone like me-a fan of classic film preservation- but I’d rather there was a technical feature to go along with the snips of split screen comparisons and before and after shots.  The disc did skip a few times, but that’s understandable with a rental-and it wasn’t nearly as sensitive as blu-ray. Strangely, it doesn’t seem like any Monroe pictures are on blu-ray.  Sacrilege!

I confess some of the country music might jar on certain ears, but that’s no reason to dismiss Bus Stop. Fans of Monroe’s song and dance films might also find the then-contemporary western and serious style too much of a departure.  However, viewers looking for more of Marilyn’s merit will find it here.  Western fans, classic audiences, and nostalgia fans should also give Bus Stop a chance anew.  This quirky little Bus Stop might surprise you!

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