Plays have long been a go-to source of material for the cinema, both because each medium satisfies, essentially, the same desires (seeing actors perform in dramatic stories) and they share comparable running times (roughly the stamina of the human rear). To bridge the two mediums, however, many filmmakers seek ways to “open up” the source, taking a one-or-two-room set-up and tossing its scenes across various locations, a practice that has varying degrees of success. Sometimes, all that is lost is a sense of entrapment, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sometimes, scenes are just jumbled together to create momentum where it previously wasn’t, and very little is lost at all, as with Glengarry Glen Ross.
And then there’s Bus Stop. Loosely, loosely, loosely adapted from William Inge’s 1955 play, in which a group of people are holed up at a rest stop restaurant on a bus journey, it shrinks the entire play into basically its third act, and spends the rest of the time greatly expanding the backstory of its two default leads – cowboy Bo (Don Murray), and the showgirl he’s half-kidnapped in an effort to make his wife, Chérie (Marilyn Monroe).
It’s a great set-up for an ensemble comedy, but something altogether creepier once you really dig into it, as director Joshua Logan and screenwriter George Axelrod have done here. Bo is coming into Phoenix with his partner and father figure, Virgil (Arthur O’Connell), for the explicit purpose of competing in a rodeo, and the implicit purpose of finding Bo a wife. Having spent his entire life on a farm, Bo is accustomed to very few social graces. He barrels through the town as he might a herd, outright stating that he sees no difference between landing a girl and wrestling a steer. Virgil figures he’s just in for a rude awakening, and perhaps he will be, down the line. But once he meets Chérie, he becomes uniquely, and quite alarmingly, fixated.
Now then, what transpires between the two of them is not great drama. The entire second act is spent with Chérie finding ways to escape Bo as he continues to pursue her. Sometimes it’s played for comedy. It’s never played for tragedy. Yet, Logan rarely undermines the very real danger Chérie is in. He empathizes with her, playing up Bo’s grotesqueness and unpleasant qualities. Murray’s inexperience (this was his film debut) translates to uninhibited enthusiasm; he plays scenes at such a high pitch that he starts to seem inhuman, as though an overactive kid grew up into a movie monster.
Monroe, meanwhile, freshly emerged from Lee and Paula Strasberg’s Actors Studio, plays a wounded bird, a girl who escaped what was clearly an immensely unpleasant life in the Ozarks (allusions are made to incest and statutory rape) and is on the road to Hollywood, blissfully unaware that her troubles will only grow upon arrival. She may be the star of half-developed stage shows in midwest cities (she kicks the switches herself, as she dances, to change the light cues), but her talent is woefully underdeveloped, if it were ever there at all. Monroe’s efforts as a vocalist were considerable, even if she probably wouldn’t have made much of one if she hadn’t been Marilyn Monroe, but there’s a pointedly weary quality to her singing here. Her usually-reflexive sex appeal is tempered, her skin nearly translucent and rough, aged well past its time. Bo remarks that she doesn’t get enough sunlight. He’s wrong about many things, but not that. Her ill-fitting clothes (she keeps pulling up her gloves as she sings) half-heartedly suggest a voluptuousness that just isn’t there.
Still, the interactions between the two of them never transcend their initial meeting, wherein they bond over such trivial similarities as each having French-sounding names (Bo’s given name was Beauregard), lack of luck in love, and being physically attracted to one another. After a long, long, long plateau of scenes in which Chérie attempts to escape, only to be (sometimes literally) captured by Bo once again, they settle down in the rest stop that the play made its home, and for all of Chérie’s attempts to do otherwise, dammit, she just can’t help but fall for the lug.
Again, this is not great drama. As decisions that an individual person would make, they’re questionable morally, logically, and professionally. But because Logan and Monroe have so expertly constructed this character, who longs for so many things she’ll never have, who meets a wildly unpredictable man on the verge of transformation, there is a thematic satisfaction to be had. For all the talent Murray lacks, he lacks not in earnestness, so when he is finally directed towards sweetness and humility, he’s outstanding. It’s precisely his unrefined quality that makes his arc, towards understanding his tiny place in this great big world, so affecting. Bad drama can sometimes make for a good story.
This was Logan’s third picture (though he didn’t direct any between 1938 and 1955), and as he displayed in Picnic, his understanding of the frame and visual storytelling was almost innate. He crafts longing, lust, and redemption with absolute mastery, blocking his actors to communicate leagues of emotion. When Virgil notices Chérie across an alleyway, sitting in her windowsill to catch some night air, she is the very image of seduction. Maybe not quite the angel Bo declares he’s seeking When we cut into her dressing room, we get a very different picture – she’s isolated, lonely, flailing to hold off a mob of men desperate to catch a glimpse or land a touch. Her character will be deepened, but we know what kind of person she is right away. She gets, and gives, too much attention in all the wrong places.
20th Century Fox’s new Blu-ray looks very good, nice a bright and colorful, grainy but not too grainy, and a decent sense of density. Depth isn’t tremendously developed, but some of that has to do with the bulk of the films settings – narrow stages against rear projection – and the processed shots definitely belie their true nature (the foreground appearing exceedingly dense as the background is almost blurry). Overall, though, it’s a very pleasing image, and the nightclub scene especially looks magnificent. [screen caps are provided by doblu.com]
On the audio side, it’s mostly good, but there is a weird high-pitched tone that comes through whenever non-diegetic music comes up on the sound track. I haven’t seen any other reviews mention it, so it’s entirely possible it’s just my system, though I tried it out with both my independent sound system and the regular TV speakers, using different connections, and got the same result. Your mileage may vary.
The only special features are a trailer for a film, and a group of trailers for Fox’s other Monroe features (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Niagara, River of No Return, The Seven Year Itch, There’s No Business Like Show Business).
Bus Stop defies genre, encompassing a half-dozen different potentials, and ending up with a fuller portrait for it. For those intent on good drama, look elsewhere (might I suggest Picnic?), but there is a good story buried in here, however wildly it’s often expressed. Especially for those with an eye and ear for 50s melodrama, this should prove one of the more electric entries.