”Go where the hell ever you want. But get that word ‘bus’ outta the title. It’s poison.” That is what Harry Cohn told Frank Capra when the director declared that his next picture would be Night Bus, the comedy we now know as It Happened One Night. I have to agree with Mr. Cohn as to the toxicity of said vocable. After my recent trip to Budapest, “bus” has become a four-letter word in my lexicon, spelling b-u-s-t. The night bus that was supposed to transport us from Wales to England never even turned up. There we stood, in the wind and the rain, wondering how on earth we would get to Luton (about four and a half hours eastward) to catch the early morning flight to the Hungarian capital.
There were about fifty of us, waiting not only for the chartered vehicle but also anticipating the violent storm that was to batter the coastline and move, along with us, to the continent. It was well past 11 PM when we somehow—and, quite miraculously, given our remote location—managed to hire an alternative coach. Little did we know that, when we finally got underway around 0:30 AM, that that heaven-sent conveyance would end up sputtering along at 10 mph—on the highway, no less—and give up the ghost in its machine halfway through the journey. We missed our flight and spent five hours at a truck stop making twelfth-hour arrangements to get all of us to Budapest. Amazingly, we did secure another flight from another airport, to which the bus, now repaired, transported us. We arrived at our destination some ten hours behind schedule—too late to enjoy the boat trip on the Danube planned for the afternoon. Our hotel, we discovered, was a converted psychiatric hospital; the folks in charge of making the building fit for its new purpose needn’t have gone through what didn’t look to have been all that much trouble. I, for one, was ready to be institutionalized.
Riding a bus—or missing and waiting for same—is about as enchanting as the prospect of digging a plastic fork into a fast food dinner. Hollywood caught on quick, romancing the railroad instead. As I took time to explore in an undergraduate essay “Ladies in Loco-motion: The Train Motif in the Romantic Comedies of Claudette Colbert” (previously mentioned here), that romance commenced as early as 1895—merely a quarter of a century after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in America—when the Lumière Brothers, showing their “Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station” at the first public movie theater in Paris, discovered that the tracks and the camera were indeed made for each other. Sure, some spectators left screaming—but most came back for more.
In 1903, motion picture pioneer Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery revolutionized American film, since it led to the discovery that, as Ian Hamilton put it, “movies were not just ‘motion photographs’: they could indeed tell stories, defy the unities, move compellingly from A to B.” Bound and gagged beauties left to expire on the tracks, inexorable engines speedily approaching, and courageous heroes dashing to the rescue are quintessential images and sequences of both silent-screen melodrama and comedy.
As moviemaking and film narrative became more sophisticated, the plot-propelling and symbolic potentialities of the Iron Horse—from the far-off soundings of its prophetic whistle to close-ups of its powerful wheels—were explored and exploited in virtually every emerging genre, in mystery (Strangers on a Train) and musical (The Harvey Girls), in film noir (Double Indemnity) and war actioner (The Train), in Western (Union Pacific) and weeper (Brief Encounter).
To Hollywood’s romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s, train rides, from the daily commute on the el to adventurous journeys on the Twentieth Century, proved vital as well, with trains and stations serving as unstable, mobile communities or pervious social settings in which relationships are as readily forged as foreshortened, as easily enhanced as escaped. At once liberating and restricting in their scheduled, track-shackled predictability, distinctly modern, pragmatic and everyday, yet steeped in pre-automotive nostalgia, episodes in transit seem ideally suited to a comic rendering of the primal and perpetual boy-meets-girl plot, in which the lovers’ temporary separation, emotionally as well as physically, is an essential device. Consequently, Hollywood’s romantic comedy and its wilder, wackier subgenre, the Hays Office dodging screwball, make ample use of departures, arrivals, and escapades en route.
For all its influence on screwball, It Happened One Night did little to get the bus rolling again; perhaps, the crammed coach began to smell too much of a New Deal gone sour. Bus travel wasn’t so much democratic as socialist, the freedom of the road curtailed by the invisible tracks that are the prescribed route. On the train, at least, the classes could be compartmentalized, and there was ample room for glamour as well as hobo nonconformity. According to Emanuel Levy’s And the Winner Is . . ., even the success story of Capra’s Night Bus concludes with a real-life train incident. Claudette Colbert, not having expected to pick up a trophy for her role as Ellie Andrews,
was boarding the Santa Fe train to New York when she was announced winner. The Santa Fe officials held up the train and she was taken by taxi to the ceremonies at the Biltmore Hotel. “I’m happy enough to cry,” she said, ‘but I can’t take the time to do so. A taxi is waiting outside with the engine running.”
The bus driver did not wait for Miss Andrews. And he drove his vehicle into a muddy ditch, too. Is it any wonder the runaway heiress was such an expert hitchhiker? Buses! Imagine the joys of our shaky return trip, during which the coach’s anti-roll bar fell off and dragged noisily on the road like so many cans proclaiming “Just Married.” Hardly a marriage of convenience, it certainly was no romance . . .