Thursday, 19 April 2012

Movie Review: Bus Stop (1956)


A romantic dramedy and an early cinematic expression of the rising tide of feminism, Bus Stop just says no to male chauvinism while celebrating perhaps Marilyn Monroe's finest acting performance.

Bo Decker (Don Murray) is a naive young rancher from Montana, travelling by bus with his older and wiser buddy Virgil (Arthur O'Connell) to a rodeo event in Phoenix. One of the regular stops along the way is at Grace's Diner, where bus driver Carl (Robert Bray) has hopes of developing a relationship with owner Grace (Betty Field). Instead, Grace is immediately attracted to the guitar strumming Virgil.

In Phoenix, Bo falls under the spell of lounge singer Cherie (Monroe), insisting that she marry him and relocate her life to Montana. Flattered by the attention but also flustered, Cherie has ambitions to go to Hollywood, and Bo somewhat ruins his expressions of undying love by treating her like a head of cattle. He eventually gets her on the bus for the return trip to Montana, but a snow storm strands the bus at Grace's Diner, where Cherie makes her stand with the help of Virgil and Carl, and Bo learns a thing or two about the difference between women and ranch animals.

Based on plays by William Inge, Bus Stop is necessarily blunt in its messaging. There is nothing sophisticated about Bo's behaviour, his boorishness superficially chalked up to youth and ranch isolation but clearly representing men's more general willingness to mistreat women. More bravely, Cherie's character is no angel, and she has the courage to confess her chequered history to Bo. The script, co-written by Inge and George Axelrod, makes the statement that women don't have to perfect to be treated well, and there is no excuse for abusive behaviour. Interestingly, it is the older generation of men represented by Virgil and Carl that eventually comes to Cherie's rescue, experience trumping youth and overcoming traditional outlooks to encourage the emancipation of women.

Director Joshua Logan makes good use of the limited number of sets: the bus, Grace's Diner, the lounge in Phoenix and the rodeo grounds are the locations for most of Bus Stop's scenes, and Logan maintains momentum by keeping his cameras dynamic, sly and occupied.

Monroe sparkles, the camera loving her as she captures all eyes whenever she is in the frame. She gets to sing one song, and in a mostly dramatic role with only hints of humour, she provides Cherie with a tentative backbone. Monroe succeeds in giving life to a vulnerable and complex character at a cross-roads, torn between the opportunity to escape her horrid life, the fear of losing her Hollywood dream, the enticement of finding a husband and the horror that he may be a Neanderthal when it comes to treating women.

The supporting cast is more interesting than celebrated. Don Murray is game as the energetic Bo, oblivious to the world of societal decorum, but Murray was not able to translate the high profile role into a meaningful big screen career, eventually defaulting to a standard presence in mostly forgettable TV movies. O'Connell, Bray and Field have the cozy feel of characters happy in the shadows while Monroe monopolizes the spotlight.

Bus Stop both entertains and heralds a changing dynamic in the relationship between men and women, and adds the bonus of a captivating performance from one of Hollywood's most glamorous tragic heroines.






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