Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: BUS STOP (1956)

I didn’t watch BUS STOP with the intention of doing much more than just watching it.  I was curious to see a movie that had been named by several people as an example of Marilyn Monroe’s acting talents, but I wasn’t planning on doing a blog post about it.  But here it is, days after seeing it, and I can’t stop thinking about this film.  Reasons why will become apparent, but obviously a blog post needed to be written.

Beauregard “Bo” Decker (Don Murray) is training for the rodeo.  His skills and times being good enough, he makes plans to leave his ranch for only the second time in his entire life.  His friend and father figure, Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) is accompanying him to the rodeo in Phoenix having been with him for the past twenty-one years.  The two board the bus to Phoenix and settle down in the back seat, where Virgil offers Bo some friendly advice about the women they are certain to meet.  Virgil knows that Bo is inexperienced when it comes to the fairer sex, but at the same time he feels that it is time that Virgil find someone to settle down with.  Bo is determined to find his angel while Virgil counsels finding a “plain, old girl” instead.  The bus stops at Grace’s Diner where, while bus driver Carl (Robert Bray) flirts with the sassy Grace (Betty Field), the other passengers have lunch.  Bo gulps down a meal of three raw burgers and a quart of milk while Virgil extolls the virtues of one of the new female passengers named Elma (Hope Lange), who works at the diner with Grace.  Bo is uninterested in Elma however, and the bus continues on its journey.

Once in the city, Bo is overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and the women.  Across from their hotel room, Virgil spots an attractive blonde dancing at a club and goes over to investigate.  The blonde is named Cherie (Marilyn Monroe) is she is currently being berated by her boss.  He calls her an ignorant hillbilly and leaves her in her dressing room.  Cherie’s friend, Vera (Eileen Heckart) comforts her and listens to the story of how Cherie came to be in Phoenix.  Cherie has dreams of Hollywood and of being a great “chantoosie”, instead of just a small town girl from the Ozarks.  Virgil soon enters the club and at the insistence of her boss, Cherie approaches him in order to cajole him into buying drinks.  Virgil is happy to oblige at first but after several shots whiskey and finding out that not only has Cherie been drinking tea this whole time, but that each shot is costing him sixty cents he becomes irate.  Cherie makes her exit in order to get ready to perform on stage and it is while she singing a slightly tuneless rendition of “That Old Black Magic” that Bo enters the club.  Immediately smitten with her Bo is offended when the crowd does not give Cherie’s performance the proper respect and silences the noisy rabble, so that Cherie can continue.  After the show is concluded Bo follows Cherie backstage and cajoles her into coming out back with him.  They talk briefly and Bo attempts to woo Cherie with acrobatics before passionately kissing her.  While Cherie appreciated Bo’s assistance with the crowd inside and is physically attracted to him as well, she has no feelings of love for him at all so imagine her surprise when Bo pulls her inside and tells Virgil that they are getting married.

Early the next morning Cherie is sleeping in her boarding house room when the door bursts open and in walks Bo.  He nudges and needles and even (in an attempt to impress her with his mind) recites the Gettysburg Address, all in an attempt to convince her to attend the rodeo parade with him.  Finally he resorts to dragging a sleepy Cherie out the door and off to the parade, and then to the rodeo.  At the arena Bo takes Cherie’s scarf and wraps it around his neck for luck.  Off he goes to compete, while Cherie talks with Vera about what has happened.  Cherie shows Vera an engagement ring that Bo has bought, and tells her that Bo has even gotten a marriage license and is planning on having the ceremony after the rodeo.  Just then, Vera spots a preacher in the stands and Cherie flees in a panic.  Back at the club, Vera and Cherie try to come up with a plan when Virgil comes in.  He offers to help Cherie escape from the overbearing Bo and the three devise a plan.  When Bo comes back from the rodeo, Cherie will excuse herself to her dressing room and escape out the open window to the bus station.  From there she will take the bus to Los Angeles while Virgil will take Bo home to Montana on another.  But when the time comes Cherie is unable to lie to Bo and tells him goodbye forever, sending him into a frenzy which culminates with him chasing her down at the bus station and lassoing her, before pulling her onto the Montana-bound bus with him. Imagine the surprise of the driver and other passengers when Cherie asks them for help as she is being “abducted…you know, kidnapped”.

When I first starting watching BUS STOP I had the same thoughts that Robert Osborne said he had.  First, I thought “Dude, chill out” which I thought several more times in succession.  Then I thought how terribly annoying the character of Bo was, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it through the whole movie with the performance that Don Murray was giving.  On THE ESSENTIALS, Drew Barrymore called it a “broad performance” which I think is a generous word for it.  Let’s call it what it is, which is painful.  Bo is a loud mouth, a bully, and just way too much.  He doesn’t listen to anyone but himself, and is very childlike in that he wants what he wants when he wants it no matter what.  I do agree that by the end of the film his character has come around, but he is still annoying and it is a long journey before he makes it there.  That being said, there are some great supporting characters and some very fine performances by the so-called “character actors”.  Grace and Carl have a lot of fun scenes together, and Vera is a great support to Cherie.  But for me, the true standout of this film is Marilyn Monroe.

The performance that Marilyn Monroe gives in this film needs to be seen, not just by fans but by anyone who thinks that Marilyn Monroe is nothing more than a woman in a white halter dress standing on a subway grate.  At the time of this film, Marilyn was enrolled in the Actor’s Studio and was focused on using the method acting technique in her performance.  It shows because truly this is as honest and heartfelt as an actor can be in a role, and she manages to do something that is seemingly impossible.  She ceases to be.  By this I mean, she is no longer Marilyn Monroe playing a character rather she IS that character.  She is Cherie.  It is a role that could so easily go into cartoon or caricature, just the southern accent could send it into pantomime, but it never does.  It is remarkable because someone like Marilyn Monroe shouldn’t be able to do that, or so we have been lead to think.

Marilyn Monroe really pushed to get this film made and to play this role.  In fact, it was her own production company that took on the project.  At the time no studio would seriously consider giving a B-movie pin-up girl dramatic roles, and so Marilyn took matters into her own hands.  In the same way that Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis bucked the studio system in order to get better roles, so to did Marilyn.  She was serious about her career as an actress and if her 1955 New Year’s resolutions are any indication, serious about developing her craft.  She was also painfully insecure and had no self-esteem, and it is this that makes her performance in BUS STOP so arresting and so bittersweet.

This is the performance that hints at the great actress that could have been.  What might have happened if her talents had been nurtured?  If her ego had been boosted?  If her ambitions had been supported?  The small amount of research that I have done on Marilyn Monroe has led me to believe that she was far smarter than most people realized, and far more than she gave herself credit for.  She created Marilyn Monroe, from the hair, to the voice, to the walk.  She knew what people wanted and what would get her ahead and she did it.  And then once she was in she wanted to improve and become more, so she started taking acting classes, reading books, attending lectures, and trying to get better roles for herself.  She wanted to become an actress, not just a pin-up, and I don’t think enough people respected her for that.  Even today, too many people just think of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up or dancing with diamonds.  But this movie gives us a chance to see just how talented she really was.  And for me it is sad to think that she never knew that.  That she never had a moment where she felt that she was becoming the respected actress that she deserved to be.

There was some discussion about why this movie was part of The Essentials, especially when it has something like Don Murray’s character in it.  I can see why this was a question, but I don’t think that a movie needs to be a perfect movie in order to be an essential film.  In order for a film to be essential, I think it just needs to have a piece that is essential.  Maybe it is the script, the directing, the sets, the story, the music, or the acting.  For me, BUS STOP is essential thanks to Marilyn Monroe.  Her performance is essential because it is not only a fine example of method acting, but because it is an example of a tremendous talent that never had the chance to be fully realized or recognized until now.


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