Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Wayward Adaptation

American author John Steinbeck wrote stories set mostly in the 1930's, and 40's with sharp social criticisms concerning the people, attitudes and situations of his day. Movie adaptations of Steinbeck's work have almost always been less than satisfying principally because they were products of the same time, usually being produced within a few short years after the publication of the novels, with all the societal, political, moral and code restrictions of the day diluting or outright excising their original message from the films. Attempting to make a movie about complex characters with underlying social criticism is difficult in the best of times, but near impossible in the early to mid-20th century, at the height of Steinbeck's popularity, in such a restrictive environment. It is indeed frustrating that the multi-faceted, often flawed but engaging characters along with the edgy themes in his stories couldn't be fully explored in the cinematic adaptations due to the pervasive cultural fear of any social, political or sexual critic being played out on the big screen. Even with Steinbeck's cache as an important literary voice of the time, his stories often got watered down in the transition to film and sorely lacked the punch of his novels with the sharpest satire blunted, the most extreme characters softened and sexual situations barely hinted at. Ironically, this didn't deter the marketers of the time from playing up the latter components of either movie or novel despite not being the central focus of the material. But as the writer often pointed out, we were a hypocritical society when it came to sex.

However, as disappointing as the cinematic adaptations are in comparison to Steinbeck's original stories, they are from from bad movies. In fact, I've yet to see a less than average film based on Steinbeck's work with some, like The Grapes of Wrath, achieving greatness despite falling short of the original work's powerfulness. Credit the source material for being so strong it can't be ruined, or credit Steinbeck for being a magnet who still attracts talented artists to cover his stories, or just opt for plain old serendipity, whatever the case, there are some pretty entertaining, well-made films with more than a little depth carrying his name in the credits. One of the more obscure and interesting of these adaptations is The Wayward Bus (1957).

Synopsis: A driver in southern California transports a disparate group of passengers stranded at his Rebel Corners diner to San Juan de la Cruz in his ramshackle bus named, "Sweetheart".

Made a full ten years after Steinbeck's novel was published, with various talent like director, Henry Hathaway, and actors such as Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando interested in it along the way, the film wound up being directed by relatively unknown, and reportedly prickly European director, Victor Vicas. Rick Jason, the actor ultimately chosen to play the lead character of the bus driver, Johnny Chicoy, was also unknown at the time. Though he would later gain fame co-starring with Vic Morrow in the popular TV show, Combat!, Jason wound up getting under-billed to his fellow co-stars who included a very young Joan Collins, B-movie bombshell, Jayne Mansfield, and veteran character actor, Dan Dailey. 

Having read the excellent Steinbeck novel and knowing a little of the troubled history of the studio's attempt to bring the adaptation to the screen, I braced myself for a trainwreck but was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the film. The first thing that jumped out at me was the exquisite CinemaScope high definition picture. "Stunning black & white" sounds like either hyperbole or an oxymoron but it is an apt description for the look of The Wayward Bus. Veteran Cinematographer Charles G. Clarke, known for films like Miracle on 34th Street, Tarzan and His Mate and Moontide, shot one of the better looking b & w films of the era and director Vicas used the format well and composed shots that fill every additional inch of the widescreen. If I wanted to demonstrate how good a b & w film of the 50's can look on Blu-ray, The Wayward Bus wouldn't be a bad choice.

Being shot in an eye-pleasing format doesn't make a film, although with this one, I'd almost argue that it does, but what about story and character? Well, like even the best Steinbeck adaptations, this one really got diluted in the translation to the screen. And not just sexually neutered as one would expect with a 50's studio film, but softened up significantly particularly in terms of character. Ed 'Pimples' 'Kit' Carson, played by Dee Pollock is a prime example. In the novel, Steinbeck describes 'Pimples' face as "rivuleted and rotted and eroded" with emotions that match his unfortunate physical features. However, the movie version of 'Pimples' has a complexion I could only have wished for in high school and he's downright gentlemanly and responsible to boot. Now I understand you can't make a 50's audience choke on its popcorn with an Eric Stoltz-level of facial abnormality but to fundamentally change the character from an immature needy, horny, revolting young guy (in other words, a typical teenage boy) to a hero is just lazy script writing by Ivan Moffat who adapted the novel. Similarly, the Pritchard parents, who I find the most darkly comic and interesting in the book, get short shrift in the screenplay. The father, Elliott Pritchard, as described by Steinbeck, "...was a businessman, president of a medium-sized corporation. He was never alone. His business was conducted by groups of men who worked alike, thought alike, and even looked alike." One of the best moments in the novel occurs when he attempts to confront Alice Chicoy about accommodations at the diner and she tells him irritably he's holding up her trip to the bathroom. Uncomfortable when away from like-minded people and not seeing any allies among his fellow passengers, Pritchard is defeated by this simple retort. It's Steinbeck's way of pointing out how ineffectual and worthless the modern day, ultra-conformist businessman is outside of his arena. Unfortunately, the movie version of Pritchard loses this facet and is much less interesting as a result. Mrs. Pritchard, who Steinbeck writes as an early example of the passive-aggressive, master manipulator translates to the screen as a prudish, henpecking shrew - a far cry from the multidimensional, meek but domineering character in the book.

Nevertheless, there are characters that make the transition somewhat intact. The incognito stripper, Camille Oakes, as played by Jayne Mansfield, may be the most faithful to the book. She's a very intelligent, savvy character who is well aware of her effect on men and knows how to manage them. Unfortunately, the male characters around her don't have near the strong reaction to her as is portrayed so well in the novel, and the plot complication with Dan Dailey's novelty salesman character seems more than a little shoehorned just to create dramatic tension. The same goes for the reuniting of the Chicoys towards the end of the film - Alice Chicoy basically disappears from the latter half of the novel but is part of the climatic scene near the end of the film.  As for the central character of the bus driver, Chicoy, whose first name was changed from Juan to Johnny for the film (sigh), he is an adequate, if somewhat underwritten, approximation of his literary counterpart.

The most surprising aspect of the film for me was the addition of a danger element in the form of three cleverly staged and edited set pieces employing miniatures. Steinbeck purists may balk as there was no hint of physical danger anywhere in the novel, but I really enjoyed these brief but effective sequences. Oddly, they don't seem out of place at all, and work well to both provide a break in the melodrama and move the plot forward. The models themselves won't fool anyone, but they are so well integrated into the other onscreen events that I felt genuine concern for the characters' safety. Another component that was integral to both book and film is the heavy rain storm the bus has to travel through. The filmmakers did a very nice job establishing the downpour giving the picture a moody, oppressive tone at times.

Despite not getting the sought after A-list cast, I thought the principal actors did a better than average job given the script deviations from the novel. Rick Jason is decent playing a likable, somewhat put-upon everyman which is basically the thrust of Steinbeck's character. Jayne Mansfield, who is so much better in dramatic roles like this than the stereotypical, giggly bombshell comedy stuff she's known for, is surprisingly good with a character she could probably identify with greatly. She has one awkward scene that's much more the fault of a script contrivance than her acting, but otherwise, she delivers on the role. Dolores Michaels does a very good, understated job playing the Pritchard's daughter, Mildred, a character who in lesser hands could have easily gone off the rails into melodramatic or vamp territory but Michaels keeps it subtle. Joan Collins on the other hand... Well, I'll give her points for taking on as unglamorous a role as she's probably ever played and I heard the English accent only slip out on a couple of occasions. However, she must have been misinformed by someone and believed she was doing Tennessee Williams instead of John Steinbeck because scenery done got chewed. I like over-the-top Joan as much as anyone but I wish Vicas could have told her to take it down a notch.

Despite it's shortcomings, which admittedly come in comparison to one of my favorite Steinbeck novels, I still like Vicas' The Wayward Bus a lot. The rain-soaked atmosphere, the broken down bus, the old diner, the squabbling passengers, and yes, even the dangers of mudslides and rickety bridges prove a decent diversion. Plus, Joan Collins looks good in the tub.
movie - 6.75
novel - 8.25