Motion pictures had been taking their cues from stage plays since the earliest days of narrative filmmaking, but something specific shifted in the 1950s. Part of that shift happened in theater itself: the evolution of the musical play in the years following Oklahoma! in 1943 introduced new psychological acuity and narrative complexity to what had previously been the most frivolous dramatic form in American art, while the rise of authors like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller brought a new seriousness and frankness to theater that the movies, laboring under a considerable burden of censorship, couldn't begin to touch. The watershed moment came with the 1947 opening of Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, with its brutally naturalistic acting showcased by Marlon Brando under the guidance of director Elia Kazan; and it was when that play was turned into a movie in 1951 that the developments of the previous years penetrated the world of movies. From that point on, a kind of fad for theatrical realism was a mainstay of Hollywood prestige cinema for years, in which not just the plays but the talent of Real Theater were pillaged by producers looking for some instant gravitas.

Among that talent was playwright William Inge and director Joshua Logan. All of Inge's major plays were turned into movies reasonably quickly; the second film based on his work was 1955's Picnic, at Columbia, which also happens to have been the first solo movie credit for Logan (he'd co-directed I Met My Love Again in 1938; he and the movies parted ways again for 17 years, until he did un-credited work to help complete Mister Roberts earlier in '55). The teaming worked well enough that Logan was tapped for Hollywood's next Inge adaptation, Bus Stop at 20th Century Fox in '56.

Following Picnic and Bus Stop, Logan hung around the world of movies long enough to make seven more features, of which all but one were theatrical adaptations. All nine of these films fall in different genres, were made by different studios, had different budgets and goals, but all are united in one respect: they're goddamn terrible.* Bus Stop - which is where we're dallying for the moment - is neither the most nor least terrible of his films; unlike some of his very worst pictures, there are still active strengths to be appreciated, and the location photography, by Milton Krasner, has some undeniable beauty to it.

Adapted by George Axelrod such that the original play is more implied than actually shown, Bus Stop opens in the mountains of Montana, where wizened old cowboy Virgil Blessing (Arthur O'Connell) and ebullient 21-year-old orphan Beauregard Decker (Don Murray) are preparing to make a trip to Phoenix, where Bo will compete in his first rodeo. This is the first time that Bo has ever been out of Montana, and the first time in years and years that he's even left the ranch, and he's ecstatic beyond words, especially when Virgil suggests that there will be girls in Phoenix, with the leering approval of a dirty old man tutoring a virgin in the ways of the world. And girls there are indeed: the particular girl that Bo latches onto is Chérie (Marilyn Monroe), a cheap performer at a tacky club called the Blue Dragon. With fixed naïveté, Bo decides that the low-rent, no-talent singer is the angel of his dreams, and so he flirts with her, if "flirt" is a sufficiently large word for the sprawling attack on all fronts he mounts; one presumes that the only reason he doesn't rape her right there in the middle of the club is that he doesn't know how intercourse works.

Chérie has the weary awareness of a hot woman who has worked at dives her whole life, and she's able to play off Bo's attentions gingerly; this is a mistake. Reading her polite detachment as a romance for the ages, he decides that they'll be married right there in Phoenix, and when she, and Virgil, and everybody blanches at this, Bo simply kidnaps her, stranding her on the bus back to Montana. Bad winter storms force the bus to stop at Grace's, a diner out in the mountains, where Grace herself (Betty Field) rules over a small subset of humanity. Here, Virgil and the bus driver Carl (Robert Bray) attempt to knock some sanity into Bo, and the film turns from a completely unrecognisable adaptation of the play, to a merely off-base adaptation of the play.

Cultural mores evolve, and it's a bad habit to interpret art through a contemporary lens, but there's so only so far we can take that before it loses its charm as an excuse. For me that point arrives somewhere in the middle of Bus Stop's cheery, dramatic-comedic depiction of kidnapping a woman with the intention of forcing her into marriage as [chuckles quietly] jes' something that crazy Bo would do. Boy won't never larn, will he? [chuckles again]. I frankly doubt this played all that much better in '56 than it does now, but it's pretty terrible at any rate, and if absolutely everything else worked perfectly in the movie, it would still be the kind of thing that makes us put an asterisk next to the Great Movies and admit, wearily, that's very dated, and very problematic, and we should take great care in discussing it. Of course, nothing at all is perfect in Bus Stop, and a great deal of it is acutely bad; if anything, the film veers so horribly into broad comedy that resembles what camp might look like if it had been invented by heterosexual men, the peculiar unacceptability of the main plot is almost redeemed through the sheer alternate-universe weirdness of the live-action cartooning going on.

There are aesthetic problems galore - Logan never did learn where to place his camera, but he'd get better at it than this - but none are as utterly destructive as the film's complete refusal to keep all of its actors on something like the same page. This was Monroe's first big grown-up role, more or less consciously; it was the first one where she applied the lessons she'd learned from Lee Strasberg about Method acting. As such, it's a very focused, very physical, very effortful performance; while later on, she'd grow into this style (she's quite good in The Misfits), in Bus Stop you can see the choices being made in something close to real time, watch the way she deliberately plays a bad actress and a shitty singer, see all the ways she's thinking about her body position relative to Murray. It is, I suppose, terrific stuff if you're the sort of person who likes to watch capital-A Acting and know that you're looking at it, but I am fonder far of Monroe gliding through on the strength of her peek-a-boo innocent sexuality; I like Movie Stars better than Actors, I guess, and Monroe in Bus Stop is a Movie Star trying very, very hard to be an Actor.

Still, it's a fascinating inversion of her star qualities, and even though she's not hiding her work, she still ends up getting to the place the film desperately needs her to be if it's going to be plausible at all. That's enough to make her almost certainly the best single thing in the movie. It also makes her an incredibly poor fit with Murray, playing a horny cowboy kid idiot as something like Yosemite Sam in the title role of Forrest Gump. It's too hilariously bad to be embarrassing, though it's a close call: all the whoopin' and hollerin' and showboating that serve, in the movie, to mark out Bo as an uncultured rube simply leave him as too much of a caricature to believe; a crappy kids' TV show in the '50s might have been able to get away with a performance like that in the center - for Bo is the film's protagonist, despite Monroe's top billing and Murray's mystifying Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actor category (mystifying, that is, for two different reasons) - but no movie in anything resembling an adult idiom at any point could possibly survive it. And with Monroe breaking her back to inject some Method into the proceedings, the gulf between her and Murray isn't like two people of different backgrounds and levels of experience, like Logan probably intended; it's like two people of different time periods, species, and planets somehow managing to meet in the context of a deeply unfortunate Stockholm Syndrome "love" story.

It's enough that the other, more subtly bad performances (like Field, who was apparently given just a single not from her director, "you want to have sex", and never let another motivation enter her field of vision) hardly even register; and even Logan's traditional bad habits come across like mere foibles. For bad habits there are aplenty: garish lighting colors that serve a kind of purpose but mostly just feel like an attempt to attack the realism of the rest of the piece; compositions that leave huge blocks of nothingness in the CinemaScope frame, as though the filmmakers were protecting for TV years long before that became standard practice; a clumsy attempt to make the proceedings "cinematic" by over-relying on badly-done close-ups (he does adore to move in close so you can tell when people are talking) and arbitrary wide-shots.

There's a bit of pleasure to be had in the exterior shots: the busy, almost documentary-like rodeo scenes, the pageant-like parades and pomp of a Western city in full festival dress (Jean-Luc Godard, of all people, was a huge fan of the film on largely those grounds). But that's just not enough. This is nonsense, boorish comedy mingling incompetently with underfed character drama, under the lens of a camera that has no idea what to do with itself. The '50s theater adaptation craze tended, more often than not, to end up in some pretty desultory, unwatchable movies, but even by those standards, Bus Stop is a particularly rotten egg.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1956
-Cecil B. DeMille, originator of the Hollywood feature, retires on the back of the gargantuan The Ten Commandments
-Culture-defining rock star Elvis Presley makes the jump to movies with Love Me Tender
-John Wayne plays Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, because why the fuck not?

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1956
-Jean-Pierre Melville plants the seeds of the French New Wave with the crime picture Bob le flambeur
-Michael Cacoyannis's A Girl in Black is among the earliest Greek films to find an international audience
-Ichikawa Kon's The Burmese Harp is the first major film to show the events of World War II from a Japanese perspective