Fasten Your Seatbelts – Rediscovering ‘The Big Bus’ (US 1976 – 88 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - January 16, 2015
Fasten Your Seatbelts – Rediscovering ‘The Big Bus’ (US 1976 – 88 mins)

A funny spoof of 70’s disaster epics, the minor comedy hit ‘The Big Bus’ is a zany delight with a talented cast and plenty of gags. Although it still has a cult following, the movie has been somewhat forgotten and is often side-lined in favour of the enormously popular ‘Airplane’ (’80) which came along just four years later.

As huge nuclear-powered 32-wheel bus named Cyclops prepares for its first non-stop trip from New York to Denver, a corrupt tycoon (José Ferrer) has plans to destroy it. After the development is sabotaged a replacement driver is needed, calling on the washed-up Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna) to take the reigns. With crew and passengers safely on board the luxury traveller, how long will it be before they realise that there’s a bomb on board which plans to make the epic jaunt a very short-lived trip.

Admittedly ‘The Big Bus’ is not as funny as ‘Airplane’, which had far more sight gags and one-liners. But, like ‘Airplane’ the film boasts a wonderful cast of award-winners and cult stars, all getting their own time to shine while on this disaster filled journey.

Talented writer-director Joseph Bologna is good here, playing it mostly straight as the washed-up driver in charge of the bus. Bologna went on to star in the cult Peter O’Toole comedy ‘My Favourite Year’ (’82), and was Michael Caine’s boss in the funny farce ‘Blame it on Rio’ (’84). Stockard Channing is fun as the chief designer and Bologna’s ex, two years before her star-making turn as Rizzo in ‘Grease’ (’78). Pre ‘Dallas’ actors Larry Hagman and John Beck give wacky support as does Robert Altman regular René Auberjonois as a priest, along with a wonderful Lynn Redgrave as a no-nonsense fashion designer. Respected actors Ruth Gordon and José Ferrer also join in the fun as do Richard Mulligan and Sally Kellerman as bickering divorcees. Murphy Dunne is also funny as a cheerfully annoying resident pianist, and the always watchable Richard B. Shull is a delight as a terminally ill passenger.

Watching the movie more recently, I noticed that there were more funny moments than when I first saw it many years ago. Some memorable scenes include a hilarious bar-room brawl involving a broken milk carton, and a dinner scene toast where the clinking of wine glasses goes on way too long.

Director James Frawley later had a bigger hit when he made ‘The Muppet Movie’ in 1979, while acclaimed composer David Shire scored huge with his soundtrack to ‘Saturday Night fever’ (’77) the following year. Special mention should go to the movie’s art director Joel Schiller, who designed the impressive double-deckered bus. With its bowling alley, swimming pool and ability to self-change its own tyres, it’s certainly a remarkable sight to behold.

Although the movie begins to run out of ideas towards the end, it remains highly enjoyable, with the likable cast giving it their all in full spoof mode. ‘The Big Bus’ was a winner with audiences at the time and even watching it today, it zips along almost as fast as the imposing Cyclops itself.

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