Sunday, June 16, 2013

Jayne Mansfield Makes "The Wayward Bus" a Worthwhile Journey

I've always liked Jayne Mansfield ever since I discovered her while I was in college by watching her in director Frank Tashlin's "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956) and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957).  Moreover, I always liked her better than Marilyn Monroe, who I've never particularly cared for.  I guess it has to do with the fact that Mansfield is continually regarded as a poor-man's Monroe that I always end up rooting for her no matter how bad her movies became later in her career.  Mansfield had a larger-than-life quality on-screen that people have dismissed as a caricature, but I think at her best she managed to instill her characters with warmth and likeability, and brought a sense of humanity, which helped to undercut that sexpot image.  No doubt Mansfield's best work in comedy was in the Tashlin films, but her best overall work as an actress was her dramatic role in the underrated "The Wayward Bus" (1957), made at the height of her popularity right after she was signed by 20th Century-Fox.  Also featuring an equally impressive and underrated Joan Collins, playing an atypically unglamorous role, "The Wayward Bus" gives Mansfield a thoughtful, fully-realized character that allows her to demonstrate her untapped potential as a straight dramatic actress.

In "The Wayward Bus," which was based on John Steinbeck's novel, Rick Jason and Joan Collins star as working class couple Johnny and Alice Chicoy.  Johnny drives a beat up bus he nicknames "Sweetheart" and Alice operates a restaurant/bus stop at a rural California crossroads called Rebel Corners that caters to customers who are passing through by bus.  On a storm-ridden day, Johnny is transporting a motley assortment of passengers from Rebel Corners to San Juan, Mexico including Ernest Horton (Dan Dailey), a middle-aged traveling salesman; nasty, vile and evil businessman Elliot Pritchard (Larry Keating), his uptight wife Bernice (Kathryn Givney) and their rebellious teenage daughter Mildred (Dolores Michaels); Norma (Betty Lou Keim), a starstruck girl who used to work in Alice's restaurant but who quit after being verbally abused by Alice; Ed Carson (Dee Pollack), Johnny's young assistant; Mr. Van Brunt (Will Wright), a cantankerous old man who insists on reaching San Juan no later than 3:00 PM that day; and beautiful, blonde Camille Oakes (Jayne Mansfield), a stripper on her way to a hired gig in San Juan.

Before they depart, Johnny and Alice get into an argument, which causes her to drown her sorrows in alcohol after Johnny leaves.  Ernest and Camille become better acquainted during the trip and start to fall in love with each other.  Mildred seizes upon the opportunity to flirt with Johnny whenever she has an opportunity.  Malicious Elliot Pritchard discovers Camille's true identity and shares the information with Ernest, which causes him to call off their engagement.  The bus and its passengers survive a landslide, endure crossing a rickety bridge that spans across raging river rapids, and emerge from a near crash after the bus' brakes fail, causing the vehicle to spin out of control.  When Johnny goes off to look for a tractor at a nearby farm to help tow the bus out of a ditch, Mildred follows along and seduces him.  When they return, they find that Alice has arrived in order to make amends with Johnny after hitching a ride with a highway patrol helicopter.

Realizing that Johnny has cheated on her with Mildred, Alice refuses to speak with him on the final leg of the trip to San Juan.  Heartbroken because Ernest cannot accept that she is a stripper, Camille urges Alice not to be a fool and to make up with Johnny before it is too late.  When the bus arrives at San Juan, we learn that elderly Mr. Van Brunt was eager to arrive by 3:00 PM because he was trying to arrive in time for his wedding at the Justice of the Peace.  Ernest realizes that he loves Camille no matter what she does for a living and asks her to marry him again.  And Johnny chases after a bus to Reno that he believes Alice has boarded, until he realizes that Alice, who has taken Camille's advice, is actually sitting behind him in the bus, waiting for Johnny to turn it around so they can return home to Rebel Corners.

People accustomed to the presumed image of Jayne Mansfield as a vacuous sexpot are always pleasantly surprised by her intelligent and thoughtful performance in "The Wayward Bus."  Mansfield lowers the pitch of her voice and restrains her usual mannerisms in order to make Camille a sympathetic and down-to-earth individual.  The result is undoubtedly Mansfield's finest work as an actress.  In her hands, Camille is a woman who has seen it all and has learned how to protect herself from being used and hurt by men.  She has a healthy skepticism against getting taken advantage of, but has managed to not become as cynical as she could be.  Camille is a smart and perceptive woman, but her heart is still open to falling in love when the right man enters the picture.

When Camille first meets Ernest at Alice's restaurant at Rebel Corners, he offers to open the door and carry her luggage for her as she is about to enter the establishment by saying "I wish you'd let me handle those things for you."  Camille smartly brushes him off by telling him "Thanks, can't afford a tip."  Camille clearly doesn't want anyone to act like a "gentleman" with her so that she doesn't have to owe them anything later.  When Elliot Pritchard tries to make conversation with her at the diner, and mentions that he believes he recognizes her from somewhere else, Camille smartly dismisses his inquiry by telling him, "I don't think so.  I've been living in Chicago...I used to do things around a dental clinic."  When Pritchard asks if she worked as a receptionist, Camille puts an end to the conversation by telling him, "No, no more like saying 'Spit out, please!'"  Camille has dealt with enough wolves in her lifetime that she knows how to handle jokesters like Pritchard.

However, Camille's experience with sleazy men like Pritchard in her lifetime has conditioned her to expect all members of the male species to be as unscrupulous as he is.  As such, she initially fails to recognize that Ernest is actually not cut from the same cloth as Pritchard and that he is a genuinely kind human being.  When Ernest pulls up a seat next to Camille at the diner and attempts to start a conversation by telling her, "Well, Miss Oakes, you and I are strangers at the moment.  Perfect strangers meeting at this desert crossways, right?...You'd be surprised how unlike strangers strangers can be when they aren't strangers anymore.  Right?...You and I have got a long way to go today, so who knows what might happen?"  Camille maintains a bemused smile at Ernest's introduction and responds by telling him, "Mr. Horton, everybody knows what might happen.  So for the fifty miles, let's see if we can't just stay acquaintances, hmm?  Think we could?"  What I like about the way Mansfield plays this scene is her heightened sense of awareness as to herself and how men perceive her to be based on her looks.  Camille is not oblivious about herself and the men in her environment the way one might expect from her.

There's a certain poignancy to Camille's wizened view of the world, particularly in the scene when Camille is on the telephone in the diner making a phone call to the client who has hired her to perform a strip tease act for friends in San Juan.  "Hi, Mr. Stanton?  This is Camille Oakes...How do you do?  I hate to bother you at your office but my bus doesn't get in 'til 2:00...Oh swell.  I'll be looking for you then at the bus station....Hmmm?...Well, if your friends want music and colored lights and that stuff that's entirely up to them...What magazine?...Which number?...No, I didn't...Humph, I'm glad you thought so...That?  That was strictly a frame-up!  (sigh)  Yeah, see you later."  Mansfield is very good in this scene, which is shot in one long and continuous and unbroken take, bringing the right sense of wariness, authenticity and concern to the phone conversation.

As she looks at her surroundings throughout the conversation, to ensure that no one is overhearing her, we see how Camille is uncomfortable with people knowing about her true profession and the lengths she goes to hide it from others so as not to be treated differently by society.  This is emphasized by how she goes over to the magazine rack after the phone call to find the issue of the tabloid scandal sheet that features a story about her, and how she tries to hide the magazine at the back of the rack.  It suggests the extent to which Camille still has hopes that she may meet the right guy so that she can quit being a stripper and have the sort of family and home life she clearly yearns for.  Even though she doesn't realize it yet, Camille has indeed met the right guy in Dan Dailey's middle-aged, jokey, but ultimately sincere Ernest.

On board the bus, Camille sits with Norma, the star-struck girl who quit working for Alice moments earlier.  Norma is impressed with Camille's sense of sophistication and asks her for advice about what she should do once she arrives in Hollywood in order to pursue stardom.  Mansfield is very endearing and sympathetic in the scenes between Camille and Norma, as the wizened and worldly lady takes a liking to this younger girl and mentors her.  When Norma expresses how she believes Camille can help her land a job at a drive-in restaurant in Los Angeles, in order to earn a living before she gets discovered, Camille pointedly tells her, "The things I could help you with wouldn't do you any good at a drive-in, honey...Well, I tell you.  There are two ways of getting discovered, honey, coming and going.  You better figure on both."  Even though I sense Camille wouldn't want Norma to find out she's a stripper, you get the impression in this scene that she'll do what she can to try and help Norma find a foothold in Los Angeles once she arrives.  Camille might be skeptical and world-weary, but she hasn't become hardened to the extent that she won't help others if she can.

Ernest witnesses this exchange between Camille and Norma, and senses Camille inherent warmth and decency, and attempts to initiate another conversation with her.  When Norma learns that Camille has never been married and asks why, Camille explains, "The right guys had the wrong ideas."  Ernest interjects by asking Camille, "How about if the right guy had the right idea?"  Ernest eventually softens Camille's resistance to him with self-deprecating humor, as he jokingly demonstrates the products and knick-knacks in his suitcase that he sells, which allows her to see a more genuine and playful side to him.  When Ernest gives Norma a compact as a free gift, Camille later compliments Ernest on his selfless generosity, "You know, it was real nice of you givin' the kid that compact."  Ernest responds, "Well, I am nice."  Camille laughs, "And smart, too, I suppose."  Ernest says, "If I was smart, I'd be settled down and married instead of peddlin' stuff around like this.  Hey, how about that?  Married, you and me, huh?"  Camille opines, "It's original, no question about it."  Ernest continues to joke, "Simple as A-B-C."  Camille pointedly responds, "S-E-X you mean.  Look, you're a salesman.  So am I.  We both know what the score is.  It's even.  So why don't we call it that and quit.  OK?"

After Camille tries to put an end to their bantering, an act of God suddenly occurs that changes the course of both the movie and Camille and Ernest's relationship.  As Johnny drives through a canyon road, the bus is suddenly caught in the middle of a landslide caused by the torrential rains.  As the rocks and dirt race downhill towards the bus, Ernest instinctively covers Camille in order to protect her.  This causes broken glass from flying debris to cut the side of Ernest's face.  When Camille realizes that Ernest has been injured while trying to protect her, she immediately becomes concerned about his well-being and softens her stance against him as she tends to his wounds.  I like how the filmmakers depict Camille as someone calm and resilient during the landslide, but who is quick to tend to Ernest's needs once the danger is over.  When the trip has resumed, Camille is now sitting next to Ernest and the two are genuinely falling in love with each other.  Mansfield and Dan Dailey have natural chemistry in these scenes as Ernest asks Camille if she's in love with anybody.  She tells him no, and he asks "You feel like being or not?...Would it be fantastic if we...I mean you and I sorta possibly could wind up...?"

Camille interrupts Ernest and asks him "Quite honestly, why do you like me?"  Ernest jokes, "Oh, because you're thrifty, you're a good cook, and because you hand-stitch marvelously...Honestly, because you are probably the most physically attractive girl I've ever spoken too...And, on the other hand, I'm a man who never spoke to Ava Gardner!...You sure had me pegged for a fresh guy on the make this morning, didn't you?...And you know something, you are absolutely right...If you scratch the surface just a little, you'll find out I'm really not just a fresh guy.  I have depth, honest, I think I have...Want to scratch the surface a little?"  Because Ernest is candid with Camille that his original intentions about chatting with her were less-than-honorable, and how he's reevaluated his intentions with her, she allows herself to fall in love with Ernest and cuddles up with him on the bus.  An amazed Ernest says aloud with wonder, "Oh, boy.  Nice.  I haven't felt this good in years."  A vulnerable Camille says with equal amazement, "For me, it's been years too!"

Later, after Johnny has accidentally driven the bus into a ditch, Camille and Ernest take a walk and she reveals that she grew up in Salinas, California.  When Camille tells Ernest that he really doesn't know anything about her, Ernest reassures her, "I don't have to know anymore about you.  Everything I said I meant."  As such, Camille allows herself to believe that she's finally found the right guy and that she will get married and leave her days as a stripper behind.  As Camille excitedly tells Norma, "You know, he's never even asked me one single thing about myself...Remember when he said 'Why shouldn't we get married?'  Just kidding?  Well, he said it again!  For serious!  For really and truly!  He's got a little apartment, Spanish type, and he's gonna buy me the latest timing electric stove!  All you do is set it and when the steaks' done it plays 'Tenderly'!"  Mansfield is very touching in this scene, as we see the modest dreams and aspirations that Camille has for her own life.  Since Camille doesn't seem to believe that she's entitled to be happy, we are glad for her that her hopes appear to be on the verge of fruition.

However, Camille's happiness is short-lived after Pritchard, who found the tabloid magazine article which discusses Camille's scrape with a scandalous situation and realizes that he had met her before while she was performing, maliciously tells Ernest the truth about Camille being a stripper.  Mansfield does a great job in the scene when Ernest returns to the bus and looks for the magazine and realizes the truth about Camille.  Mansfield effectively underplays the hurt feelings Camille is experiencing at being rejected by Ernest.  It's a scene with little dialogue, with Camille fighting hard to hold back the tears, and Mansfield makes the most of the moment by bringing genuine feeling and pathos to demonstrate Camille's hurt and disappointment.  Anyone who casually dismisses Mansfield as someone incapable of portraying a sincere and believable human being should watch how effectively she handles this moment.

Later, on the bus, when Ernest attempts to re-initiate a conversation with her by lighting her cigarette, Camille bitterly tells him, "Did I ever tell you I was a school teacher?...I wasn't trying to hide anything from you  I was gonna break it to you gradually.  What do you want me to do, wear a sign on my back?"  When Ernest says he'd still like to see her when they get to Los Angeles, Camille scoffs and says "For old times sake?  OK, might just give you a buzz some time.  Who knows?"  At that, Camille gets up and takes a seat at the back of the bus with Alice Chicoy, who is angry at her husband Johnny when she arrives by helicopter and discovers that he has had an adulterous interlude with passenger Mildred Pritchard.  Even though Camille is heartbroken over being rejected by Ernest, she still has enough compassion for others to try and give Alice advice on how to handle Johnny's betrayal of her.

In probably the best scene in the whole movie, with Fox glamor girls Collins and Mansfield acting opposite one another, Camille explains to Alice, "Mind if I sit here?...None of my business but mind if I tell you what I did to a guy I was in love with once?  Broke a chair over his head after I caught him kissin' some dame at a party."  Alice opines, "Bet he never tried that again."  Camille continues, "Don't know.  Never saw him after that.  But he's married.  Happily married...and I make a living.  Believe me, breaking a chair over a guy's head can sure work miracles.  The kind of miracles that louse up your whole life."  In trying to help Alice realize that she shouldn't throw what she has with Johnny away so quickly, Camille allows us to see how she has made mistakes in her own relationships and how it has led to where she is now with her life.  As such, the character takes responsibility for who she has become and doesn't play victim by blaming her circumstances on others.  She has a maturity and honesty about herself that allows her to be a sympathetic figure in the course of the story.

By the time the bus reaches San Juan, most of the storylines are tied up in a satisfying manner.  Camille meets her client and learns that her striptease performance is actually for the next night and that the client assumed she was also a prostitute who would be willing to spend the night with him.  The wise Camille responds by telling her client, "I see.  So you thought we might get together for a little 'talk,' hmm?...I do my act tonight or I take the first bus back to'd better start looking around for another gal for tomorrow night, Mr. Stanton, and for tonight too!"  Meanwhile, Pritchard smugly attempts to justify telling Ernest that Camille is a stripper by rationalizing that he's saved Ernest from making a bad mistake in marrying Camille.  Ernest comes to his senses and tells Pritchard that Camille is "nice, kind, even-tempered, sweet.  About the most attractive person I ever spoke to.  And you know something?  Physical attraction is a very important thing!"

In so doing, Ernest subtly tells off Pritchard by reminding the cruel, entitled, and elitist snob that Camille possesses all of the positive qualities that Pritchard's uptight, cruel, unappealing, and racist wife does not.  My only dissatisfaction with "The Wayward Bus" is how the screenplay does not sufficiently punish Mr. Pritchard, his wife, and their daughter for insulting and causing hurt to the other passengers on the bus.  The Pritchards are the true villains of "The Wayward Bus," an evil upper middle-class family who has no understanding, compassion or regard for others.  Mr. Pritchard is particularly loathsome when he is incredulous at Ernest's concern over what will eventually happen to Camille.  It's obvious that someone like Mr. Pritchard only views Camille as a commodity to be exploited and not as a genuine human being.  Some reviewers gave good notices to Dolores Michaels as the irresponsible Mildred, but I find her character as obvious, despicable, and annoying as her father.  As such, I don't really have any sympathy or compassion for her character because she doesn't realize how the consequences of her actions have hurt other people.  The only sense of justice for the Pritchards is that Ernest has reminded Mr. Pritchard that he's trapped in an unhappy marriage and family life, with the miserably uptight Mrs. Pritchard, whereas Ernest still has a chance at true happiness if he can do right by Camille and patch things up with her before it is too late.

And Ernest does right by Camille in the nick of time.  As Camille is about to storm off after quitting her job, Ernest rushes up and tells her "Camille can I speak to you for a moment?  It's really important...It's about our electric stove."  Camille stops in her tracks, becomes happy and elated, and turns to Ernest with a sense of wonder and excitement as she realizes that he is again proposing marriage to her.  She accepts his proposal by asking him, "Electric stove, for our new apartment?" as Ernest takes her luggage and the two walk off to a bright future together.  Jayne Mansfield and Dan Dailey do wonderful work together in "The Wayward Bus" that allows the slowly emerging love story between Camille and Ernest to touch our hearts as something genuinely sincere and special.  We see how these two lonely people are slowly able to drop their facades and reveal who they are underneath the surface, and we are happy for them that they have found one another.

Jayne Mansfield's performance in "The Wayward Bus" effectively demonstrates how she was indeed capable of playing real human beings with feeling and depth.  By eliminating the breathy, breathless dialogue delivery she was known for in other films--and by carrying herself in a dignified manner by using a deeper, more resonant speaking voice--Mansfield gives a great performance in "The Wayward Bus" that should silence any of her naysayers.  We realize how she didn't need to be a cartoon caricature of a sexy woman, as she eventually became in her later, inferior films.  "The Wayward Bus" ranks with "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" as the best movies that Mansfield ever made, the ones that showed she had something special that was all her own and that she wasn't just a Marilyn Monroe parody.  However, "The Wayward Bus" eclipses those movies because it's the one time on-screen that Jayne Mansfield lives up to her hype as a screen goddess and sex symbol.  With a more low-key makeup and hairstyle and wardrobe, Mansfield is truly beautiful and sexy in this movie in a way that she would never be again.  In addition to highlighting her acting abilities, "The Wayward Bus" allows contemporary audiences to appreciate her natural good looks and sex appeal in a way that never seems cartoonish.  By properly and appropriately balancing both glamor and authenticity, Jayne Mansfield gives the best performance of her career and makes "The Wayward Bus" a worthwhile screen journey.

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