Warner Archive's DVD release of the 1976 disaster film parody "The Big Bus" was one of the most anticipated titles in a while if only because watching it on cable movie channels every few years is a nice treat. This glee extends beyond the wonderfully silly story of the world's first nuclear-powered bus facing great peril on its maiden non-stop run from not Boston but New York to Denver, which takes it past every town in between, to the plethora of B-List celebrities in the cast.
The overall plot is that it will be "a miracle, a true blue spectacle, a miracle come true" (millenials know by now to Google this) if said bus makes it there unscathed.
Having Stockard Channing star contributes to the "Six Degrees of Separation" style fun of the cast element. For example, John Beck and Stuart Margolin of the recently reviewed James Garner Western series "Nichols" star in "Bus." "Bus" also stars Larry Hagman, who appears in the original "Dallas" series with Beck. Thus "Nichols" stars Garner only has one degree of separation from Hagman based on "Bus."
Channing plays Kitty Baxter, who designs the titular bus that is also dubbed Cyclops. Kitty's father is Professor Baxter, played by Harold Gould who is best known for playing Martin Morgenstern on "Rhoda," heads the company that owns the bus. The obstacles that are overcome before Cyclops even pulls out include difficulty installing the fuel rods and having to find and train a new driver after corporate sabotage causes the intended driver to sustain the ultimate industrial accident.
The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, depicts the fuel rod scene; yes, that is "WKRP in Cincinnati's" Howard "Dr. Johnny Fever" Hesseman in the background. It is equally true that that the fuelish among us can think of this segment as "Hot in Cincinnati."
The next scenes in which Kitty tracks down highly damaged bus driver Dan Torrance, played by veteran character actor Joseph Bologna, and recruits him to drive the bus is very reminiscent of the classic disaster film parody "Airplane," which is very closely based on the 1957 drama "Zero Hour." One difference is that not even "Bus" star Ned Beatty, who is very famously brutalized in "Deliverance," is called Shirley.
The sabotage relates to nefarious activity by Margolin's character under orders by the evil Ironman, who has absolutely no relation to the Marvel superhero, played by Jose Ferrer. Ferrer is operating in concert with the oil industry, which wants to discredit every alternative to gas-powered vehicle engines.
The "The Love Boat" element is crystal clear the first time that the audience sees the luxurious '70s style bus interior, and the passengers board. There is even a scene at Cyclops' version of the captain's table.
The actors playing these characters include Richard Mulligan of "Soap" and "Empty Nest," Sally Kellerman and Rene Auberjonois whose credits include co-starring in the film versison of "M*A*S*H," Ruth Gordon who is the '70s version of today's version of Betty White, and Lynn Redgrave of "House Calls" and countless other U.S. and U.K. series and films.
"Boat" style story lines include Kellerman's and Mulligan's characters being a bickering couple whose divorce will be final within hours, Auberjonois playing a priest whose faith is wavering, Redgrave playing a fashion designer who is transporting her new line, and another passenger taking a grand tour in response to learning that he has six weeks to live.
The disaster film spoof elements include escalating malfunctions and sabotage efforts threatening the safety of the passengers. This culminates in a genuine cliffhanger.
"Bus" does a good job with each element, and is a nice "unreal" treat on an evening in which escapism is badly needed. It is also a nice entry in the series of parody films from the era that extend beyond "Airplane" to include "Murder By Death" and "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe."
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