'Bus Stop' marked a turning point in the career of Marilyn Monroe, at last allowing the iconic blonde the chance to spread her wings and test the waters as a bona fide actress. Her enthusiasm and dedication to her craft are evident in every frame of director Joshua Logan's liberal adaptation of the hit William Inge play, which - through no fault of Monroe's - never quite lives up to expectations. Sweet and tender one moment and grating and tedious the next, the film tells its flimsy tale in a pedestrian fashion, wisely favoring character over plot. A host of memorable moments, most of them subtle yet wonderfully affecting, are contained within, but can't lift the movie to the level to which it ultimately aspires.
As Monroe's popularity skyrocketed during the early 1950s, the sexy star grew tired of the vapid roles she was arbitrarily assigned in comedies and musicals, and repeatedly petitioned 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck for more challenging and colorful parts...without success. Following 'The Seven Year Itch,' Marilyn refused to play another ditzy dame in the idiotic 'How To Be Very, Very Popular,' and happily went on suspension, trading the Hollywood hurly-burly for a quieter existence in New York City and much-publicized stint at the famed Actor's Studio, home to such acclaimed Method actors as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. She returned to Fox after months of diligent study (and with a new, lucrative contract in hand) to make 'Bus Stop,' the first film mounted in part by her own production company.
The vehicle is a good fit, as it taps into elements of Monroe's own personality, allowing her to draw from her own experience, even if the far-fetched story never really rings true. The trite tale follows naïve cowhand Beauregard "Bo" Decker (Don Murray in his film debut) and his relentless pursuit of Cherie (Monroe), a third-rate bar singer with starry-eyed dreams of Hollywood success. While in Phoenix for a national rodeo competition, the 21-year-old Bo is bewitched by the sexy chanteuse's ragged rendition of 'That Old Black Magic' - as well as her beautiful face and curvaceous figure - and calls the flattered Cherie his "angel." But what seems to Cherie like a sweet puppy-dog crush soon evolves into a full-blown obsession, as the hyperactive, delusional, often obnoxious Bo stalks, then literally lassos his lady love, hoping to browbeat her into marrying him. "You have a terrible habit of overdoin' everything!" Bo's devoted pal and father figure Virgil (Arthur O'Connell) screams at him, but Bo won't listen, and when his brutish tactics backfire, he and Cherie lock horns at a remote bus stop diner halfway between Arizona and Bo's Montana ranch. Whether Cherie escapes Bo's clutches or succumbs to his charms forms the basis of the simple plot.
Adapted by George Axelrod, who wrote 'The Seven Year Itch,' 'Bus Stop' nicely juxtaposes the raging hormones and impulsive, immature attitude of a wild young buck against the jaded disillusionment and vulnerability of his sensitive doe. As the movie's trailer touts, Bo knows absolutely nothing about women, while Cherie knows far too much about men. Finding common ground is difficult, and as Cherie thoughtfully confides to her traveling companion, Elma (Hope Lange, also making her film debut), "I've just gotta feel that whoever I marry has some real regard for me...aside from all that lovin' stuff." It's a line that surely mirrored Monroe's attitude about her own life, just as Cherie mirrors Marilyn herself in many respects - a woman whom men treat as an object; whose body is valued far more than her mind; and who doggedly seeks respect and validation from the establishment. (Cherie believes she'll "get treated with a little respect" in Hollywood, a fact Marilyn by this time knew all too well not to be true.) Such similarities add extra poignancy and bitter irony to Monroe's performance, lofting it high above many of her other portrayals.
Monroe's growth as an actress between 'The Seven Year Itch' and 'Bus Stop' is astounding. At times, she's disarmingly real; she cleverly augments her natural line readings (delivered with a pitch-perfect Ozark twang) with subtle facial expressions and offhand glances that transmit palpable emotion and a heartbreaking fragility, prompting us to fall in love with Cherie, too. Despite Marilyn's overly pale, almost pasty complexion (a creative choice by director Logan to highlight the character's nocturnal lifestyle and entrapment in seedy dives), she's consistently a luminous presence, making it impossible to concentrate on anyone else while she's on screen. Many were surprised when Monroe didn't receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role, and considering the year's competition - Carroll Baker in 'Baby Doll,' Ingrid Bergman (the eventual victor) in 'Anastasia,' Katharine Hepburn in 'The Rainmaker,' Nancy Kelly in 'The Bad Seed,' and Deborah Kerr in 'The King and I' - it's a shame she wasn't. Though she surely wouldn't have won, her work in 'Bus Stop' compares favorably to that of the actresses honored, and the nod would have done wonders for her confidence and self-esteem.
And while her sensitivity and vulnerability grab the spotlight, Monroe is too smart to completely subdue her overt sexuality. In the scene where Bo barges into her bedroom, she's obviously naked under the covers (just as she was in 'Niagara' three years earlier), and her rendition of 'That Old Black Magic' brims with flirty abandon. In fact, a sultry air permeates the entire movie, which treats the subject of sex with a refreshing frankness, especially for the mid-1950s. Shots of Bo frolicking in the bathtub and admiring his shirtless physique in the mirror, as well as the subplot involving the diner owner, Grace (Betty Field), and her casual physical relationship with the transient bus driver (Robert Bray) further spice up the film and nicely balance Marilyn's allure.
Logan also employs extreme close-ups to great effect late in the picture, heightening dramatic impact and the intensity of emotion between Cherie and Bo. Yet hard as the movie tries, the romance between these two attractive characters strains credulity. I've never seen or read the stage version of 'Bus Stop,' but I can't help but think it possesses more substance than the screen adaptation, which, like a lengthy bus trip, chugs along in fits and starts, without any rhythm or flow. Though the performances are all stellar - Logan was known as an actor's director, but his films remain largely undistinguished, despite their notoriety and success - they can't completely eclipse the loud, crass, tiresome story.
Marilyn once sang "diamonds are a girl's best friend," and without question, her work in 'Bus Stop' is a diamond in the rough. It's just too bad the rest of the film can't match her memorable and touching portrayal.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Bus Stop' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 surround. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Fox has been doing a fine job with its Marilyn Monroe Blu-ray transfers, and 'Bus Stop' continues the tradition. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering is a nice step up from the previous standard-def DVD, sporting increased clarity, a cleaner image, more balanced color timing, and a greater sense of depth. Though evident grain still remains, which preserves the film-like feel, the picture now flaunts a smoother look, and a reduction in brightness adds a welcome warmth that augments the drama's intimate nature. The source material still exhibits occasional errant marks, but not nearly as many as the DVD, and you really have to keep your eyes peeled to catch them.
The single-strip color exudes a surprising level of saturation and vibrancy, yet still maintains an appropriate natural tone. Though the blue sky might appear artificially enhanced, reds are bold and sassy (check out the tinted light that bathes Monroe during 'That Old Black Magic'), and browns project a potent earthiness. Fleshtones, from Marilyn's heightened alabaster complexion to Murray's outdoorsy tan, remain stable throughout, and deep black levels add appropriate weight. Close-ups, especially the extreme ones that dominate the film's climactic scene, can be breathtaking, showcasing both Monroe's beauty and vulnerability, while background details, such as the busy wallpaper pattern in the hotel room and the crowd scenes at the parade and rodeo, are clear and precise. Fabrics are accurately represented, the checkered pattern of the diner uniforms resists shimmering, and no banding, noise, or digital tinkering could be detected.
This is by far the best 'Bus Stop' has ever looked on home video, and Marilyn fans owe it to themselves to upgrade. The DVD restoration was excellent for its time, but this transfer resides on a higher plane.
The sound on this Blu-ray has been upgraded to DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0, and though the surrounds remain pretty quiet throughout the film, the full-bodied track possesses fine presence and pleasing tonal depth. Some nice stereo separation across the front channels is immediately evident and succeeds in widening the soundscape, and the robust, country-tinged music score fills the room well. Ambient effects, such as the noise from the rodeo crowd and rowdy bar patrons slightly bleeds toward the rears, and some decent bass frequencies come through, especially when the cowboys are riding bucking broncos.
A wide dynamic scale keeps distortion at bay, and dialogue is well prioritized and always easy to understand. Best of all, no hiss, pops, crackles, or any other age-related imperfections rear their ugly heads. Though not a flashy track, the 'Bus Stop' audio nicely complements the film, and you can't ask for much more than that.
Though we're certainly lucky to get a Blu-ray release of 'Bus Stop,' it would have been nice of Fox to tack some noteworthy supplemental material onto this catalogue title - or at least import the paltry extras from the previous DVD release. A retrospective featurette might be too much to hope for, but a vintage newsreel or two must have been lying around the Fox vaults, someone easily could have assembled a photo gallery, and an audio commentary surely would have provided more insight into Marilyn's character at this critical juncture in her career and examined the differences between the play and its adaptation. All we get instead are a bunch of trailers, which are entertaining, but don't directly relate to 'Bus Stop.'
Marilyn Monroe's stellar performance as the bruised, badgered, and ultimately ebullient Cherie is the major reason to see 'Bus Stop,' Joshua Logan's loose, somewhat bumpy adaptation of the hit William Inge play. Finally breaking out of the dumb blonde mold, Marilyn crafts a sensitive, natural portrayal of a wayward chanteuse laced with humor, heart, and luminosity. The rest of the movie remains frustratingly run-of-the-mill, but lively characterizations by a strong cast keep us engaged. Fox's Blu-ray presentation matches the studio's previous Monroe efforts, with top-flight video and solid audio enhancing the viewing experience. The dearth of supplemental material is a downer, but it shouldn't prevent Marilyn's legion of fans from taking the upgrade plunge. Recommended.