Jayne Mansfield, 1957
Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

Jayne Mansfield Outsmarts the “Dumb Blonde” Role In Steinbeck Adaptation ‘The Wayward Bus’

Jayne Mansfield’s dramatic performance in the John Steinbeck-adapted drama The Wayward Bus disproves the notion that she was only capable of playing a “dumb blonde”.

The Wayward Bus
Victor Vicas
20th Century Fox
27 May 1957 (US)
The Wayward Bus
John Steinbeck
Penguin Classics (reprint)
March 2006

In an interview featured on last year’s Criterion Collection home media release of Frank Tashlin’s 1956 musical comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, cult filmmaker John Waters opined about the film’s star, Jayne Mansfield: “I liked her better than Marilyn [Monroe]… I still do. In my world, Jayne Mansfield is the ultimate movie star.” I share Waters’ opinion, though it’s an unpopular one. Mansfield is widely regarded as the “Working Man’s Marilyn Monroe”, and it isn’t worth debating who’s more “iconic” (of course it’s Monroe — just look at the profusion of biopics they’ve made about her the past five decades). But that demeaning “nickname” still grossly undervalues the impact Mansfield had — and continues to have — on American film and pop culture.

Nearly every major Hollywood studio in the 1950s signed talent to do box office battle with Monroe. Actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and Jean Seberg — often classified in the press as “gamines” (defined as “young women with mischievous, boyish charms”) — were notable exceptions. But the dominant feminine beauty ideal of the decade was the “blonde bombshell”. Monroe embodied that ideal to the hilt, and Hollywood movie industry big-wigs wasted no time trying to capitalize on her success. Yet almost none of the women they attempted to mold into her competitors ever reached her level of superstardom.

Columbia signed Cleo Moore, Universal Studios molded Mamie Van Doren, and MGM placed their bets on Barbara Lang. While Moore made a splash in a series of Hugo Haas-directed films noir earlier in the decade, substantial roles dried up after 1957, and she retired from acting. Meanwhile, Van Doren never managed to nab a starring role in an A-list project. She instead gained fame headlining tawdry drive-in theater flicks like Howard W. Koch’s crime musical Untamed Youth from 1957 and Albert Zugsmith’s 1960 comedy Sex Kittens Go to College. Lang fared worst of all, with a string of minor television appearances and only two film roles — in the little-seen Jack Palance film-noir House of Numbers from 1957 and Nicholas Ray’s film-noir Party Girl from 1958 — before leaving the industry for good.

Unlike those women, Mansfield was signed by Monroe’s studio (20th Century Fox) to essentially take her place and became a household name. Granted, her career in big-budget films was shorter-lived than Monroe’s despite the fact that she died five years after her. While Monroe remained an A-lister until her death from a barbiturate overdose in 1962, Mansfield stopped getting good parts in studio films after Raoul Walsh‘s 1959 satirical Western The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw. For the next eight years she mostly headlined B- (and C- and Z-) films made on shoestring budgets overseas — some of them not too bad (like 1964’s Panic Button) and some of them real duds (like 1966’s Primitive Love). 

But from about 1955 to 1958, Mansfield not only matched Monroe’s fame — she surpassed it. The Girl Can’t Help It, her first star vehicle while under contract at Fox (and now widely regarded as the “first rock ‘n’ roll movie”) outgrossed Monroe’s star vehicle Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from three years prior. In 1957, Mansfield won a Golden Globe Award for “New Star of the Year” and dominated the US box office with a number of high-profile films. Among them were Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? — the wildly successful big-screen adaptation of George Axelrod’s hit Broadway comedy (in which Mansfield starred in 1955 and became an overnight sensation) — and Kiss Them for Me, a World War II-set rom-com that featured none other than Cary Grant as her leading man.

Her success on film paled in comparison to her success with the press. Between 1956 and 1957, Mansfield appeared in over 120,000 lines of newspaper copy and over 2,000 newspaper photographs. She graced the cover of Life magazine twice in one calendar year and modeled for Playboy countless times. Her calculated nip-slip at an April 1957 party at Romanoff’s thrown in Sophia Loren’s honor — immortalized in photographs that show Loren giving Mansfield “the world’s most famous side-eye” — became the stuff of showbiz legend.

Evangelist Billy Graham would famously quip, “the average teenager knows Jayne Mansfield’s statistics better than he does the First Commandment.” Mansfield — who (unlike Monroe) reveled in and encouraged the ballyhoo that came with movie stardom — was largely responsible for that fact. She was, in the words of Andy Warhol, “the poet of publicity”. 

Her relationship wasn’t always as amiable with the critics. Admittedly her comic turns as Monroe-esque “dumb blondes” in The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (the latter also directed by Frank Tashlin) were unanimously praised. Many critics even regarded Mansfield’s performances as moll Jerri Jordan (in the former) and fictional movie star Rita Marlowe (in the latter) as clever spins on the Monroe archetype. Reviewing Rock Hunter, TIME magazine called her a “comic genius”. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times wrote of her performance as Jerri Jordan: “[she] outdoes Marilyn Monroe in some respects and makes… a successful featured debut… male whistles fill the air at her every appearance, which means she has ‘arrived’.”

Still, the general consensus was that Mansfield was a one-trick pony: a publicity-hungry sex symbol who offered filmgoers little more than an hourglass figure and, in the words of biographer Eve Golden, an “ear-splitting helium squeal”.

That reputation has stuck with Mansfield decades after her death. The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Hunter — her most popular “dumb blonde” comedies — remain her most celebrated and identifiable films. The former was nominated for the American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals list in 2000 and directly inspired John Waters’ 1972 gross-out midnight movie classic Pink Flamingos. (A notable scene in Waters’ film sees star Divine parody a sequence from The Girl Can’t Help It by, like Mansfield, waltzing down a city street to the title song by Little Richard and turning heads in the process). Similarly, Rock Hunter was nominated for the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs compendium in 1999 and entered the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for “cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance” the following year.

This month, a third film cements itself as an integral part of Mansfield’s legacy — and complicates that legacy — thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Channel. Their curatorial powers-that-be have dug up one of Mansfield’s films that was made during the height of her success but, due to its offbeat and dramatic nature, has fallen by the wayside for decades. 

The Wayward Bus, adapted from the 1947 novel of the same name by John Steinbeck, stars Mansfield as Camille Oakes. A reluctant burlesque dancer en route to San Juan for a stag party, she’s one of many passengers who endure a chaotic ride on the “Sweetheart”: a beat-up bus helmed by moody blue-collar driver Johnny Chicoy (played by Rick Jason, future star of ABC’s Combat! in one of his first major film roles).

Johnny is married to Alice (Joan Collins). She runs the diner at Johnny’s ramshackle bus stop in Rebel Corners, California and palliates her marital discontent — fueled by Johnny’s long bouts away from home due to the itinerant nature of his job — with alcohol. Also aboard Johnny’s bus is smarmy but kindhearted traveling salesman Ernest Horton (Dan Dailey) who does everything he can to woo Camille, rebellious young Mildred Pritchard (Dolores Michaels in her film debut) and her straitlaced parents (Larry Keating and Kathryn Givney), Alice’s showbiz-obsessed counter girl Norma (Betty Lou Keim), Johnny’s naïve but well-meaning right-hand man Ed “Pimples” Carson (Dee Pollock) and curmudgeon Van Brunt (Will Wright).

The Wayward Bus by no means bombed when it came out. It premiered to a warm response at the Berlin International Film Festival. There, director Victor Vicas — making his Hollywood debut after working for years in France and Germany — was nominated for the festival’s Golden Bear Award (he lost to Sidney Lumet for 12 Angry Men). While not a box office smash, it still managed to break even during its US theatrical run in May 1957 and was even referenced in a sight gag (as a meta-textual “wink” to Mansfield herself) in Rock Hunter.

But critics weren’t crazy about The Wayward Bus. Fox studio execs hoped the film would do for Mansfield what 1956’s Bus Stop had done for Marilyn Monroe (who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her against-type, dramatic role as a café chanteuse in that film). They wanted to show the public that their latest platinum-haired superstar — initially hired to usurp Monroe’s station as Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol — was more than just another “blonde bombshell” and could deliver a subtle, deglamorized performance in a “serious” film.

Still, critics mostly shrugged off Mansfield’s portrayal and directed their venom at Vicas, screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and the source material’s apparent lack of big-screen adaptability. Writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Harold V. Cohen noted:

As Mansfield performances go, it isn’t too bad. As a matter of fact, there are even moments when the suggestions of an actress comes through, hiding behind the hour-glass figure, those long lashes, and that even longer straw blonde hair. Of course, there isn’t a lot Miss Mansfield or anyone else can do with Mr. Ivan Moffatt’s script, which is as wayward as Mr. Steinbeck’s bus.

Bosley Crowther was more vitriolic in his review for the New York Times:

This somewhat cleaned-up version of Mr. Steinbeck’s checkered report on a bus trip taken in California by a driver and eight passengers wrestling with their souls is an unrelieved conglomeration of pseudo-dramatic fits and starts, quasi-arty direction and acting that is strictly for the road… the script, done by Ivan Moffat, is a snarl of paltry and patchy plots in which the characters switch horses, psychologically, almost as often as they pile on and off the bus. And the direction of Victor Vicas is so loaded with pretensions of ‘style’ — crafty angles and reflections in mirrors, etc. — that it proves disturbing to the eye.

It’s unfortunate (though unsurprising) that American critics took umbrage with Vicas’ directorial style. He suffuses his film’s mise-en-scène with an expressionistic, even experimental undertone that rarely feels forced or garish. (This is the same man who worked as a cinematographer on Berlin-born avant-gardist Hans Richter’s 1947 film Dreams That Money Can Buy).

Over the course of Johnny’s tumultuous bus ride, characters’ anxious visages are displayed in his askew rearview mirror. Likewise, Alice’s inebriated countenance is thrown back at her — warped and tragic — in the reflective glass of her diner’s jukebox machine, and the effect is unsettling.

After the brakes on Johnny’s bus fail, and it crashes into a muddy bog, he must search for a tractor in a nearby barn and is joined by Mildred. Their sexual tension is palpable and well-emphasized by the hayloft’s stark chiaroscuro lighting just as they are about to kiss each other. (The ill timing and general awkwardness of Vicas’ cut away at this moment to another scene indicates that said kiss was likely shot and later excised by folks at the Hays Office, who would have naturally protested Johnny succumbing to extramarital temptation). Vicas also capitalizes on one of the major plot points — that Johnny’s commute will be marred by inclement weather — to invoke a handful of gorgeous rain-soaked shots inside and outside the titular bus.

To characterize The Wayward Bus as “avant-garde” would be a huge stretch (Leigh Harline’s gooey orchestral score alone screams “traditional Hollywood melodrama”). But visuals like these indicate Vicas’ and DP Charles G. Clarke’s valiant attempts to infuse what could have been a drab and straightforward production with subtle yet meaningful filmic abstractions.  

Like the cinematography, the film’s narrative structure is unconventional in its own way. Aside from Mildred seducing Johnny, “Sweetheart” running into a landslide before getting trapped on a collapsing rain-swept bridge and later crashing, and Ernest’s discovery via an article in a pornographic magazine that Camille works as a burlesque dancer, there’s little that actually “happens” in The Wayward Bus.

Vicas’ approach is dialogue-centric, eschewing heavy action and swift plotting. He opts for evocative imagery and talky vignettes (a couple even boast touches of multi-tracked sound recording — with several actors’ voices overlapping — which Robert Altman would make his trademark in the 1970s) that ruminate on his characters’ pasts and innermost neuroses and realities. Charged conversations divulge the clearly sexless and mundane nature of Mildred’s parents’ “sweetest, cleanest” marriage, as well as Mildred’s mother’s xenophobic attitude regarding Johnny’s half-Mexican heritage (“you weren’t even born in this country”) and Camille’s general disillusionment with her line of work (“S-E-X you mean… you’re a salesman, so am I, we both know what the score is”).

With the exception of a rushed happy ending pushed on Vicas and Moffat by producer Charles Brackett (which features Camille and Ernest and Alice and Johnny reconciling following their respective quarrels), The Wayward Bus ultimately avoids the neat and propulsive qualities of many contemporaneous American melodramas. Oscar-winner George Stevens was originally hired to direct the film after the rights to Steinbeck’s book were acquired by producer Charles Feldman in 1952. It’s fascinating to consider how differently the film might have looked and felt had he a pillar of the studio system and the auteur behind glossy Golden Age classics like 1951’s A Place In The Sun, 1953’s Shane, and 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank been in the director’s chair.

The “arty” and meandering qualities Vicas brings to the production admittedly clash with some of the more “Hollywood” performances. Joan Collins (in a role originally slated for either Susan Hayward or Jennifer Jones) is given the thankless task of having to perform a number of her scenes solo, being the one character who hangs back at the bus stop (it’s Alice’s diner after all), while the rest of the crew departs on the “Sweetheart”. Moffat’s script offers her a handful of long-winded monologues after her character has had one too many drinks, and the results are pretty hammy (“Oh, Johnny! You’ve gotta come back! You’ve gotta come back!!”).

On the other hand, Rick Jason (in a role originally intended for either Marlon Brando or Robert Mitchum) is painfully wooden — delivering his lines in a rote and disgruntled timbre from fade in to fade out. The seasoned pro of all four top-billed stars here, Dan Dailey (in a role originally meant for Richard Widmark) offers some charisma as Mansfield’s eventual love interest. But at nearly 20 years her senior, he’s ultimately miscast in the role.

Mansfield gives the strongest performance of all the lead actors and practically walks away with the entire film. As Camille, she exudes a low-key temperament and poignant world-weariness leagues away from the cartoonish constitutions of The Girl Can’t Help It’s Jerri Jordan and Rock Hunter’s Rita Marlowe.

Camille’s not jaded enough to be totally dispassionate or lacking in affection. For most of the bus ride, she takes Norma under her wing and even calls her “honey” or “baby” (theirs is one of the sweetest relationships in the film, a sisterly connection free of unresolved tensions and ulterior motives). But she’s been burned enough to keep her guard up with guys like Ernest and make him work to win her over.

That dynamic makes their first kiss (not until in the third act, behind an oak tree and after the “Sweetheart” has crashed) feel earned. It also makes their subsequent near-falling-out — a result of Ernest’s discovery and knee-jerk (though temporary) disapproval of Camille’s burlesque gig — all the more heartrending.

Mansfield expertly telegraphs Camille’s complex characterization (namely that her toughness masks a deep well of insecurity) from the get-go. Stepping off a connecting greyhound bus at the film’s start, she breezes into Alice’s diner and tartly refuses Ernest’s offer to carry her luggage: “Thanks, can’t afford a tip.” Minutes later, she chats with a prospective client on the diner telephone and keeps her voice hushed to conceal the nature of her job from her fellow patrons.

Her mien exudes shame, then confidence, then shame again as she discreetly works out the fine print of her gig (“If your friends want music and colored lights and that stuff, that’s entirely up to them”). Finally, she dissolves into near-breathless panic (“what magazine?… which number?… that was strictly a frame-up!”) after her client informs her that she’s been featured against her will in a pornographic publication. Within a span of five minutes, we learn everything we need to know about Camille’s backstory and witness it slowly unravel her. Mansfield flies solo (the client on the phone is unseen and unheard the entire scene) and nails it. 

This introduction smartly frames Camille’s arc and establishes the emotional parameters that Mansfield will exist within for this particular role. For the remainder of The Wayward Bus, there’s an underlying sense that Camille is ill at ease, waiting for a ticking time bomb to go off (that being her fellow passengers’ discovery of her actual job). At the same time, she’s resigned herself to the misery of her situation, even as it’s been exacerbated by the pornographic magazine and complicated by a potential romance with Ernest.

Mansfield embodies this quandary with a perfect mix of cool indifference and anticipatory dread. She conveys Camille’s disposition through understated facial expressions and well-modulated line deliveries that, while not necessarily evocative of New Hollywood-style “naturalism”, still manage to avoid Classical Hollywood histrionics and tap into a deeper well of emotion.

It’s not a seamless performance. Giddy glimpses of Jerri Jordan and Rita Marlowe sneak through, especially after Ernest has proposed marriage to Camille in the third act but before he’s learned her true profession. Mansfield’s eyes bulge and her breathless voice leaps into a higher octave, bordering on that trademark “helium squeal” as she tells Norma: “We’ll get a little apartment, Spanish-type. And he’s gonna buy me the latest model self-timing electric stove! All you gotta do is set it and when the steak’s done it plays ‘Tenderly’!”.

Thankfully this overstated moment is redeemed after a disgruntled Alice shows up at the bus’ crash site and Johnny has managed to get “Sweetheart” back on the road. Camille grabs a seat next to Alice and delivers a touching monologue amid what feels like the imminent dissolution of her and Johnny’s marriage:

Mind if I tell you what I did to a guy I was in love with once? Broke a chair over his head after I caught him kissing some dame at a party… I never saw him after that. He’s married. Happily married. And I make a living. Believe me, breaking a chair over a guy’s head can sure work miracles. The kind of miracles that louse up your whole life.

It’s one of the few scenes Mansfield and Collins share and one of the film’s most profound.

Mansfield’s solemn portrayal of Camille is aided by the simple costuming efforts of Charles Le Maire and Mary Wills and the subdued hairstyling and makeup work of Helen Turpin and Ben Nye. Le Maire, Wills, Turpin, and Nye were responsible for her hair, makeup, and wardrobe in The Girl Can’t Help It. But as Jerri Jordan in Frank Tashlin’s supersaturated DeLuxe Color vistas, Mansfield is (in the words of Eve Golden) “presented as a work of art, looking like she is made of spun glass and whipped cream.”

In The Wayward Bus she’s anything but — sporting a plain raincoat, sweater, and skirt, her blonde tresses barely curled, her makeup toned down. Whereas Tashlin aimed to present Mansfield as a lovable life-sized cartoon, Vicas & Co. opt for a more “everyday” appearance. This distinction isn’t a criticism of Mansfield’s work in Tashlin’s comedies. The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? entertain today just as much as (if not more than) they did over 60 years ago, largely due to Mansfield’s hilarious, knowing performances and uber-glamorous appearances.

As Abbey Bender notes in her 2017 Little White Lies love letter to Mansfield’s portrayal of Jerri Jordan:

[She] greets press agent and eventual love interest Tom Miller… [and] holds two milk bottles up to her ample bosom… The ditsy blonde may be one of the best-known tropes of ’50s Hollywood, but there’s no way in which Mansfield is unaware of the gesture’s obvious sexual symbolism… She often giggles while she speaks, clearly enjoying being a blonde bombshell…  [and her] performance is a charming whirlwind of ’50s womanhood so exaggerated and perfect it’s hard to believe it ever truly existed. In the title song, Little Richard sings, ‘She got a lot of what they call the most.’ Watching Mansfield… strut and command the CinemaScope frame, who could ever argue with that?

Perhaps Mansfield enjoyed (and experienced her greatest success) playing glammed-up and over-the-top women like Jerri Jordan and Rita Marlowe because those women were extensions of her glammed-up and over-the-top persona in real life. As journalist Arthur Helliwell noted in 1961:

The real truth is that Jayne, gorgeous, sexy, extravagant and slightly larger than life, was born about three decades too late. Today she is the only girl in Hollywood who lives like an old-time movie star… she represents the carnival candy floss, the icing on the cake, the diamond-bright glitter and the stardust that makes show business exciting.

When good dramatic roles failed to materialize after The Wayward Bus, Mansfield doubled down on that “gorgeous, sexy, extravagant and slightly larger than life” image. But as the demand for “blonde bombshells” decreased following Marilyn Monroe’s death, the gradual demise of the studio system, and a broader shift in American mores and tastes during the 1960s, the press and public turned on her. A prime example — gossip columnist Erskine Johnson called Mansfield “a caricature from a forgotten era… the ‘glamor queen’ with her $10,000 mink and her dyed poodle is as out of date as pie-in-the-face comedy.”

When Mansfield later did attempt to subvert her image and book more serious parts — like in the low-budget British crime thrillers Too Hot to Handle in 1960 and It Takes a Thief in 1961 — the material and direction were scarcely strong enough to support her. (She remains the only reason to check out those pulpy films today). Critics and audiences, in turn, refused to accept her playing against type.

So back to the glitzy, “ditzy” roles she went — and often in controversial fare like 1963’s sex comedy Promises!… Promises!. In that film, she became the first mainstream American actress to appear nude in a major motion picture in the sound era. In all their misogyny and sex-negativity, the critics of the time savaged her. Adding insult to injury, photos of Mansfield unclothed on that film’s set appeared in the pages of Playboy magazine and landed Hugh Hefner in a Chicago court on obscenity charges.

Watching The Wayward Bus, one wonders what direction Mansfield’s career would have gone in had she been offered to play more understated characters like Camille Oakes, and under the direction of filmmakers of Vicas’ caliber. Would she have transitioned from playing a sex symbol and “glamor queen” (both on-screen and off) to joining the era’s burgeoning generation of “serious-minded” proto-New Hollywood thespians like Joanne Woodward, Kim Stanley, and Anne Bancroft? (Like Mansfield, Bancroft was given the “glamor” treatment by Fox in the 1950s. But instead of sticking to that image, she went to New York, studied at the Actors’ Studio, won two Tonys, and revitalized her film career as the Oscar-winning star of such “prestige” fare as 1962’s The Miracle Worker).

Perhaps Mansfield wasn’t interested in breaking out of her original mold. She famously disliked her time in New York (while originating the role of Rita Marlowe in Rock Hunter on the Broadway stage) and much preferred working as a contract player in Tinseltown. Also, it’s doubtful — especially after the mediocre box office traffic and overall critical derision The Wayward Bus received during its initial run — that a major studio like 20th Century Fox would have given her another chance to deviate from the comedic “dumb blonde” formula that brought her (and them) so much success in the first place. 

The Wayward Bus ultimately represents one of the few times in Mansfield’s career that she demonstrated her dramatic acting prowess in a film whose material and overall quality matched that prowess. It’s a shame that it’s never been released on VHS or DVD and has scarcely been broadcast on television. Boutique home media label Twilight Time got their hands on a print in 2012 and put out a limited run of Blu-Rays. But then they went out of business, and The Wayward Bus has remained mostly elusive. Until now. 

Mansfield as Camille Oakes is a performance worth checking out in a film worth checking out — and thanks to the Criterion Channel, you can do just that. More than anything, Mansfield’s role in The Wayward Bus disproves the notion that the so-called “Working Man’s Marilyn Monroe” was only capable of playing a “dumb blonde”.

Works Cited

AFI Catalog of Feature Films: The Wayward Bus (1957).” American Film Institute. 2019.

Bender, Abbey “Why I love Jayne Mansfield’s Performance in The Girl Can’t Help It.” Little White Lies. 17 June 2017.

Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: ‘Wayward Bus’; Steinbeck’s Novel as Movie Is at Victoria.” New York Times. 6 June 1957.

Erickson, Glenn. “DVD Savant Blu-Ray Review: The Wayward Bus.” DVD Talk. 3 June 2012.

Golden, Eve. Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It. University Press of Kentucky. June 2021.

Koper, Richard.. Affectionately, Jayne Mansfield. BearManor Media. November 2017.

Nelson, Andrew. “Jayne Mansfield: The brand called two.” Salon. 6 August 2001.

Russell, Dennis. “Jayne Mansfield.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 1999.

Strait, Raymond. Here They Are Jayne Mansfield. S.P.I. Books. 1992.

Vicas, Victor. “The Wayward Bus.” Internet Movie Database. 2023.