“Bus Riley” and William Inge: or When Playwrights Are Wronged
By Joel Shatzky
Bus Riley’s Back in Town is a 1965 Universal production that is vaguely based on a play written by William Inge (1913-1973) in the early1950’s bearing the same title. Because of the rewriting of the script and plot by the studio so that the story could be more of a vehicle for Ann-Margaret, Inge removed his name from the credits and not even the fact that the title was from an Inge play was mentioned. It is one of the few times, I believe, that a prominent playwright had his credits removed from a script that was based on his own play. Even Tennessee Williams, who had every good reason to remove his name from the credits of A Streetcar Named Desire due to the distorted ending, abstained from such a temptation.
Inge had no reason, from past experience, to feel that he would have trouble with a film treatment of one of his works. All four of his major plays were made into successful films: Come Back, Little Sheba(1952), with Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster garnered a best actress Oscar for Booth; Picnic (1955) featured Kim Novak’s screen debut; Bus Stop (1956) starred Marilyn Monroe and featured the film debut of Don Murray; and Dark at the Stop of the Stairs (1960) with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Preston: all were produced apparently in accordance with Inge’s wishes. His own screenplay for Splendor in the Grass (1961), with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, earned Inge an Oscar, and the adoption of A Loss of Roses (1959) was successfully made into The Stripper (1963), with Joanne Woodward. Bus Riley, unfortunately, proved to be quite a different experience for Inge.
Having read the original play script and then seen the movie, I can say that I can well understand why Inge would make such a decision to cut any connection with the film. Actor/playwright Robert Shaw did the same when his stage play, The Man in the Glass Booth, was turned into a film produced by Eli Landau for the American Film Theatre series in the early 1970’s, but it was indeed a rare occurrence for a playwright to have his name removed from a screen version of one of his works. Howard Thomson’s New York Times review, April 8, 1965 in fact, makes Inge’s decision seem all the more puzzling:
Bus Riley’s Back in Town, which opened yesterday at the Palace and other houses, already – has become a minor, backstage cause célèbre. The picture was penned as a screen original by William Inge. The producers are reported to have had the completed Universal film rewritten and re-shot to glorify Ann-Margret, whereupon Mr. Inge had his name yanked from the credits. Yesterday’s credits listed, instead, Walter Gage, who is supposed to be non-existent.ï¿½
Regardless of who did or undid what, the picture is a good one and that’s all that matters. Indeed, this low keyed drama of a young Navy veteran’s search for self-fulfillment is so honest, sensitive and thoughtful on several levels that not even Ann-Margret’s blatant, cooing portrait of a siren can ruin it. Thomson goes on to further praise the movie, comparing some of the scenes to Picnic, but given its original premises developed from a one-act play that takes place in a barroom, I can see what upset Inge. But first: the casting. Ann-Margaret had been developing her career as a screen siren in Kitten with a Whip, and Viva Las Vegas, both released the previous year. Universal saw the role of the long-lost love of the eponymous character as a vehicle to show off her most obvious attributes which did not include much emoting, but a lot of lustful glances and strategic pouting, culminating in the immortal words of many a jilted lover: ï¿½I hate you! I hate you!ï¿½ The cast included several veterans, among whom was Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister, and several new-comers: Kim Darby had her first role as Bus’ younger sister and David Carradine has a few lines in a bar scene. Larry Storch is wasted in a brief stint as a bartender. The lead actor, Michael Parks, who had a James Dean ‘look’ although not quite the skills, was given an opportunity to get a juicy role in only his second film (He would later have a distinguished career as a character actor in films by Quentin Tarentino). The problem was that the clear direction that is pointed to by Inge in the original play is almost completely ignored in the rewrites.
Inge’s play is a modest one-act affair about the reunion of two young lovers who have been apart for six years. It opens with the young woman, Jackie, trying to find out if Bus Riley is going to make an appearance in the local bar of a small Texas town that has seen better days. The kernel of the plot involves several points that were undoubtedly important to Inge but are absent in the screenplay. Bus Riley may have an Irish name, but his mother is Mexican and he lived on the ï¿½wrong side of the tracks.ï¿½ In the play, Jackie has not married- but in the film, she is married to a rich man who remains faceless throughout the movie– and her father was a wealthy figure in town who had Bus jailed after he impregnated Jackie, who was forced to have an abortion. Bus has tried to avoid her since he returned because he doesn’t want any more trouble from her father. At the end of their brief encounter, Bus decides that he cannot remain any longer in town but before he leaves, he persuades Jackie to go off with him to a local motel to have a last fling. Although by no means one of Inge’s best efforts, it has a poignancy that is lacking in the film. More significantly, the most controversial elements that Inge most likely would have wanted to preserve in the movie treatment- racial prejudice, the privileges of class, and abortion- are completely expunged. The only element I can see that was most likely added by the playwright when he wrote the original draft of the screenplay is the implicit homosexuality of the mortician who is planning to hire Bus. The scenario is introduced early in the movie but is never subsequently pursued. Inge’s own homosexuality might have induced him to introduce this plot device in the screenplay.
Without access to his original draft of the script, it’s difficult to judge whether the homosexual angle was initially more prominent. . There are some tender scenes between Parks and Janet Margolin, who had recently enjoyed prominence with her stellar performance in David and Lisa (1962). There are also certain sequences set around the dinner table and between mother and son that evoke elements of Inge’s Picnic and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs but Howard Thomson’s praise of the screenplay, particularly the rather pedestrian plot and dialogue, is completely unmerited. What Hollywood had rendered to Inge’s original version of the script can only be surmised. In a 1962 preface to his volume, Eleven Short Plays, he states briefly, ï¿½Bus Riley’s Back in Town is a play I happen to be working on now in expanded formï¿½ but does not elaborate on any changes to or expansion of the story. What appears to me obvious in comparing the original with the treatment is that any controversial issues that could have been developed by the dramatist were expunged or neglected in the rewrites. Sadly, perhaps because of that experience, Inge wrote only one other play and after 1965, turned to non-dramatic prose, writing two novels and a memoir. Less than a decade after Inge had removed his name from the credits of Bus Riley, he committed suicide at the age of sixty in his home in Hollywood.
The plot of Bus Riley has an interesting resemblance to Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youthwhich was undoubtedly written later. Williams and Inge knew each other from the days when Inge had been the theater critic for the St. Louis Star-Times and saw Williams’ early plays. It is very probable that he and Williams exchanged ideas about playwriting, especially that it was at Williams’ urging that Inge wrote his first play. Both Bus and Bird have the following plot similarities: they take place in a bar–although Bird moves elsewhere, they are both about a past relationship between two young lovers where the boy is from the wrong side of the tracks and the girl is the daughter of a powerful figure in the town. In both cases the girl becomes pregnant and has an abortion, the boy is exiled by the powerful father–in the case of Bus jailed for statutory rape–and the play begins when the young man, now somewhat shop-worn, comes back to town, though only in the Inge story do they meet for more than a brief moment before going off together for one last fling. An added resemblance, but this time to The Rose Tattoo, is that the young man is a sailor. Coincidence?
For further details on this issue, see Ralph Voss, “‘Tennessee Williams’s ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ and William Inge’s ‘Bus Riley’s Back in Town’:Coincidences of a Friendship,” American Drama, Winter, 2006.
[Posted by Cinema Retro in Film Reviews & Essays on Sunday, February 25. 2007]