Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965)
Starring Ann-Margret, Michael Parks, Kim Darby, Janet Margolin, Brad Dexter, Jocelyn Brando, Mimsy Farmer, Brett Somers, David Carradine and James Doohan. Directed by Harvey Hart. From Universal.
Bus Riley is back in town. After a three-year hitch in the Navy, Bus (Parks) returns in the middle of the night to his home that he shares with his mother (Brando) and his two sisters, Paula (Farmer) and the teenaged baby who idolizes him, Gussie (Darby). The return of Bus promises some drama; he left abruptly years ago as a result of some trouble with his then-teenaged girlfriend, Laurel (Ann-Margret). It comes as a shock to Bus to learn that Laurel has married a wealthy, older man.
Bus is determined to make something of himself. Though he is an expert mechanic, he wants more. He hopes to take up a friend’s offer to be trained as a mortician and work in his funeral home. Bus is disappointed when he realizes his male friend also wants Bus as a live-in boyfriend. Laurel still has feelings for Bus and she seeks him out. Bus is reluctant, but Laurel is persistent. The two begin an affair.
As Bus becomes more disillusioned and directionless, he draws closer to a friend of Gussie’s, Judy (Margolin). Though only 17, Judy has had to mature quickly as her parents have divorced and she has to take care of her drunken mother. Bus and Laurel’s relationship becomes unsustainable. When Judy’s mother dies, Bus and Judy connect, much to the delight of Gussie. Gradually, Bus begins to feel the weight of his lack of progress. Laurel fears she can no longer hold him and this reveals to her things about herself. Bus is determined to forge a path through life and gain some self-respect. It likely cannot be with Laurel. Perhaps with Judy. He’s beginning to think, though, that he will have to figure himself out first.
By 1965, Ann-Margret was a star, a star quickly being labelled a “sex kitten”. After a demure debut in Pocketful of Miracles (1961), she appeared somewhat more seductive – Pat Boone never stood a chance – in State Fair (1962) and then made a splash as effervescent teenager Kim in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Then her obvious physical appeal was promoted, first opposite our boy, Presley, in Viva Las Vegas (1964) and then in two more from that same year; the provocatively titled Kitten With a Whip and the suggestively titled The Pleasure Seekers. Her character in Bus Riley had one purpose; to be sexy, to be seductive and to lure Bus into her web.
I detailed the career of Michael Parks in a recent profile on the late actor. Parks had completed filming Wild Seed and his work in that film had been noted by Universal who hired him to play Bus. Parks at the time was what the studio presented him as; a fresh, new face and an actor that displayed a unique aura and a quiet strength. It didn’t quite pan out as planned, though, for Parks. After some middling film work, he starred on TV in Then Came Bronson, a short-lived but iconic and enduring show about a man traveling the country on a motorcycle. After years in the wilderness, Parks was returned to notability by a handful of cutting edge directors in the late 1990’s. Get the full story on this unsung hero here.
Pretty Janet Margolin is well-cast as the quiet but mature young girl, Judy. Janet had debuted in 1962’s David and Lisa and after our film she could be seen opposite Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith (1966) and in the charming farce Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968). A prolific TV actress, she never reached the heights and passed away from ovarian cancer in 1993 at 50. Big, strapping Brad Dexter made Bus Riley near the end of his film career. Brad – once married to Peggy Lee – had appeared notably in Fourteen Hours (1951) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). A friend of Sinatra, Dexter plays his character here bang on but the problem is that the character is unnecessary and the whole vacuum cleaner salesmen tangent seems just that; a digression from the action that counts. I’ll admit it’s comical, though, when Brad snaps his fingers and says “Sold!”. Later, Dexter went in to film production. An early project of his became the television program Petrocelli, starring Barry Newman of Vanishing Point (1971) and his later films included Lady Sings the Blues (1972).
With her kid brother, Marlon, Jocelyn Brando was one of the first students of the famed Actors Studio. Though once blacklisted, she forged a fifty-year career in film and on the stage. Her notable film credits include The Big Heat (1953) and The Chase (1966). Kim Darby and I have had a complicated relationship. I was introduced to her as the irritating Mattie Ross in True Grit and her mother’s siblings were the super-irritating Wiere Brothers, the “comedy” trio that helped make Presley’s Double Trouble the terrible film it is. Then I saw her in Generation and an episode of Star Trek and I began to see her in a different light. She had appeared uncredited in Bye Bye Birdie (with Annie) but Bus Riley is her first proper film. She was married to James Stacy for months in 1968-69. As of this writing, she is still alive. Canadian Brett Somers was born in Miramichi, New Brunswick. She was married to Jack Klugman from 1953 until 1977. She is best known as a regular on the zany 1970’s game show, Match Game. Bus Riley was the first of only three feature films she appeared in. Mimsy Farmer debuted on the big screen playing “Girl in lobby” in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and our film was her third. She would go on to appear in exploitation films from American-International Pictures before making movies in Europe. Since 1992, she has been a sculptor and she has worked on the special effects teams for films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Bus Riley is also the second film in the long career of David Carradine. And for five years at the start of James Doohan’s career, he appeared as Bus’s prospective boss at the garage in our film, then kept the USS Enterprise going for three years on Star Trek – despite not being a miracle-worker – and then joined Michael Parks again for an episode of Then Came Bronson. Canada’s own, Doohan was born in Vancouver.
Bus Riley’s Back in Town started life as a one-act play by William Inge, the man who had already given the world Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop and Picnic; and, incidentally, in Bus Riley, part of Mrs. Riley’s household is a border, Carlotta (Somers) and her character is reminiscent of Rosalind Russell’s character in Picnic. Carlotta cannot abide Bus when he returns home and seeing him in his underpants and having him walk in on her in the bathroom drives her from the home. But getting back to William Inge, the playwright was so disappointed with the direction that the film took that he asked for his name to be taken off of it. Subsequently, the screenplay is credited to “Walter Gage”. Inge had written the play as a more stark story and particularly the film’s depiction of the character of Laurel was something of a breaking point for Inge. Annie herself has said that the film and her character were much altered. Inge wrote Laurel as a broken, depraved person but the studio wasn’t about to have their star depicted as such. Reviewers of the time complained about Ann-Margret’s overly-sexualized depiction in the film. The Laurel of the film is something of a sympathetic character. She is introduced as a trophy wife who is often left alone for days at a stretch. Watch her face when she hears that Bus is home. Relief. She asks a friend to take her out on a friendly date, telling him that she cannot bear another night at home with the television. Perhaps Laurel has made her own bed, but now she has to sleep in it. Alone. William Inge would later publish two novels but success – and seemingly happiness – eluded him. Inge committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1973. He was 60.
Our film’s Canadian director, Harvey Hart, was born in Toronto and got his start directing for television; Bus Riley was his first feature. A career TV director, Hart only helmed eleven feature films, one of which was the excellent The Sweet Ride, that I’ve profiled in these pages. Most of his other 9 directorial efforts are either Canadian films or feature Canadian talent. But, I’ll tell you, the films directed by Harvey Hart are fascinating. Watch this space.
Again, I’ve already talked a bit about Bus Riley’s Back in Town in a recent feature on Michael Parks. At the risk of repeating myself, the appeal of this film for me lies in the main character. Parks as Riley should be included in a large group of roles that young men marvel at. Young men at the pivot point of their lives would get much from this film. And I’ve had to grapple with my perception of the things that happen to Bus, my opinion of the choices he makes. This aspect of the film has made me grow up, really, and accept a more mature way of thinking. While I was married with kids when I first saw this film, my own past was fresh in my mind; as it still is and always will be. I concern myself constantly with Vintage Leisure, the things of the past. But this also includes my own past, my own youth and young adult years. You see, my imagination is at work constantly and often I will see a film depicting the adventures of a young man and it will remind me of my own past. Maybe the adventures aren’t the same but my thoughts will often go to what I would’ve done in this guy’s case. Something similar happened to me, I may say, and if there had been that girl or that chance or that job, dang, I would’ve done this, that or the other thing. You know what I mean. I hope.
Bus can write his own ticket at the local garage. This puts me in mind of Presley’s character, Walter Gulick, in Kid Galahad (1962). Crack mechanic Walter gets in good with the owner of the local garage who is about to retire and is willing to sell the garage to Walter. Boom. Ready-made income. Bus could seemingly have this, too. If I was offered an opportunity to make money at something I had no trouble doing, I might jump at it. Instead, Bus is ready to study to be a mortician?
Riley’s ex-girlfriend is super sexy. She obviously is ravenous for Bus. Thinking back to my youth, if this would have happened to me, I’d have been all over that. But Bus harbours some resentment towards Laurel and – let’s face it – she’s married. Just because her marriage is the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” come to life, doesn’t mean she can do whatever she wants with whomever she wants. I suppose. On the surface, this set up for Bus with Laurel seems desirable. It even comes with a gold watch, the thinnest Bus has ever seen. But when Laurel offers it to Bus, saying her husband will never miss it, our boy is repelled. I’m just remembering being a broke, aimless 21-year-old. I sure could’ve used the breaks Laurel was offering Bus. Would I have accepted them? Sure! Would that’ve been right? Not sure. Additionally, consider that Bus Riley is having an affair with an attractive married woman but hates himself for it. All we ever do is make love in this room, he says. This is identical to the scenario Benjamin Braddock finds himself in in The Graduate.
In Wild Seed and in Bus Riley, Parks plays a character who becomes involved with a 17-year-old girl. Come to think of it, not only is Judy 17 in this film but so was Laurel three years prior to this when Bus and her wanted to get married but Laurel’s father instead wanted to call the cops, precipitating Bus’s joining the Navy. Things being what they are nowadays, guys getting involved with girls so young is frowned upon. Just look at Summer of ’42, recently reviewed here. The appeal of a girl of this age comes I guess from an outdated way of thinking; a man is drawn to the innocence and purity of a young girl. In this case, Laurel has “aged” enough to become immoral and her situation where Bus is concerned suggests debauchery. But Margolin’s Judy still maintains a purity even if she has seen the darker side of life. I suppose Bus’s attraction is understandable but I suppose it is also unacceptable. Of course, having said that and having foolishly applied today’s thinking to the past, I could reference the countless examples in recent history – say, my parents’ day or, say, my parents themselves – where young people entered into serious situations including marriage and having babies while still in their teens. And let’s not even get into the opportunities afforded Bus during his brief time as a door-to-door vacuum salesman. Depraved, sure, but with an undeniable element of allure when seen through a detached, voyeuristic gaze.
It seems then that Bus Riley’s Back in Town is about a young man finding his way, yes. But it’s also about relationships and their depictions that provide ample grist for conversation. The Riley father was a drunk who drank all of Bus’s college fund. The fatherless home may explain at least part of Gussie’s love for Bus. It certainly informs older sister Paula’s relationship with Bus. She bristles when he questions any of her choices until the end when they’ve made peace. Mrs. Riley loves Bus and slyly sides with him when Carlotta complains about his stomping around the house; the same, by the way, is said of William Holden in Picnic, you’ll recall. Laurel and Bus’s relationship cannot be what it was and it cannot be at all going forward. But this bears discussion, too. As I suggested earlier, are you the type who would accept all that Laurel is offering? Or would you be a stand-up guy, declare it wrong and walk away? Bus and Judy? They are so tender towards each other that they are pleasing to watch. I like that it’s not wrapped in a bow at the end of the film. Judy goes off to meet her estranged father, her only remaining parent. Perhaps she will return to Bus but its also fitting if they each simply happened to be near the other when they were needed.
Bus Riley’s Back in Town is a delightful film. Not perfect but something a little different. A quiet film with much to spark your imagination and with much to get you pondering these people and their situations. I have yet to find it for sale on DVD anywhere; even a VHS copy seems rare; thankfully, I own one. If you know where it can be bought, let me now. Meantime, perhaps you can watch it here.