—An Enjoyable Retread—
Your Bogie Film Fix (Out of 5 Bogies):
Director: Ray Enright
A circus promoter (Bogart) replaces his lion tamer (Sig Ruman) with a small town rube (Eddie Albert) in the hopes of boosting ticket sales.
What I Thought
Take just a second to consider this plot. An entertainment promoter replaces his top drawing performer with an untrained yokel. The promoter’s girlfriend then ends up falling for the yokel and believes that he might be falling for her as well. Due to outside circumstances, the yokel has to disappear for a while until some trouble simmers down and ends up staying at the farm where the promoter grew up. While at the farm, he ends up falling in love with the promoter’s sister and it eventually leads to a life or death scenario for several of the characters involved . . .
Sound familiar to you Bogart diehards? It should. As it’s the exact same plot for both 1937’s Kid Galahad as well as 1941’s The Wagons Roll at Night. Replace boxing with the circus, Edward G. Robinson with Bogart, Bette Davis with Sylvia Sydney, and Wayne Morris with Eddie Albert and Wagons is practically identical. (To carry the comparison to completion, you also have to replace Kid Galahad’s Bogart with The Wagons Roll at Night’s man-eating lion. Pretty even swap, if you ask me.)
Still, despite the similarities, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Yes, we lose Robinson and Davis, but Sylvia Sydney does fine, and Eddie Albert might even be an ever-so-slight step up from Wayne Morris’ stiff amateur boxer. The change of locale is really what helps this film distinguish itself from Galahad, as the excitement of the circus life and the action with the lions adds an entirely new element of tension to the story.
While the stakes in Galahad rested in the possibility of eventual death at the hands of mobsters, The Wagon’s Roll at Night is able to present a much more immediate and constant threat for its protagonist from the hazards of the lion taming occupation. Director Ray Enright does a good job working the camera angles and cutting the film in such a way that it’s easy to forget Eddie Albert, Sig Ruman, and Bogart were rarely (if ever in some cases) in the cage with the big cats. It’s these life-or-death situations that lend an extra dose of gravitas to this film while Kid Galahad tended to lean more towards the lighter side of drama.
Is one better than the other? Well, if I had my druthers, I’d always prefer to keep Robinson and Davis in the equation with Bogart, but overall I found The Wagons Roll at Night to be a more re-watchable film. More than likely that’s because Bogart now has top billing and appears in a majority of the scenes – but entertainment wise, I think this one has an edge over its boxing predecessor.
The Bogart Factor
In his first ever top billing, Bogart plays Nick Coster, the owner/operator/promoter of the circus. It’s an interesting role as the script seems to be calling for him to be a somewhat-sympathetic protagonist at one moment, and a less-than-desirable villain the next. Is the script confused? I’m not sure. In Kid Galahad, Robinson played the overeager somewhat good guy lead to Bogart’s dark mobster bad guy. Here though, both roles seem combined into one. It creates a much darker, and possibly more well-rounded character than Robinson’s Nick Donati in Kid Galahad, although I’m sure that Nick Donati and Nick Coster would get along rather well if they ever went out for drinks.
It’s another slick huckster role for Bogart in the same vein as the ones he played in Midnight and Swing Your Lady, and it’s a role that he can do well. We believe that he has a heart and actually cares about the people around him, but at the same time, we’re not surprised when he’s willing to turn on them if it means making some quick money or getting a little bit of revenge.
Probably not a must see for most casual Bogart fans, but the film is entirely watchable and doesn’t overstay its welcome even if the ending is a little more predictable than it should be.
Sylvia Sidney plays Flo Lorraine, the circus’ fortune teller and the main squeeze of Bogart’s circus promoter. Sidney’s very good here even if she is in the shadow of Bette Davis’ performance in Kid Galahad. Sidney has a more convincing look as a gal from the wrong side of the tracks, and her adoration of Eddie Albert’s showbiz naivety seems a little more rooted in reality. What I really enjoyed about her performance here was the relationship with Bogart. They truly seemed like one of those couples that’s been together forever but are just waiting for an excuse to move on. It was fun to see her get an expanded role from Dead End where she plays a somewhat similar character but with less to do.
Eddie Albert plays the grocery store clerk turned lion tamer, Matt Varney. In one of the film’s best moments, we get to see Albert catch a runaway lion in his store and then relay the adventure to an ecstatic group of kids who hang on his every word. It’s a wonderful scene that does a great job of setting up exactly who Varney is, and who he is to become. Albert is solid here, and as most of my exposure to him comes from Green Acres, I’m a little curious to visit his other film roles now.
Joan Leslie plays Bogart’s baby sister, and the main love interest to Albert, Mary Coster. The last time we visited Leslie on this blog, she was playing the young disabled gal in High Sierra that broke Bogart’s heart. She’s a little more sympathetic here, but doesn’t really have a whole lot to work with. Director Enright’s instructions may well have been, “Look cute and fall in love with Albert. That’s all you need to know.”
Sig Ruman plays the drunken lion tame that loses his job to Albert, Hoffman the Great. He does well as the big blowhard who seems to forget when he’s on or off stage. His fight with Albert amongst the lion cages has some of the most convincing punches I’ve seen in a Bogart film as well.
And then there’s ‘Bogie Film Blog’ favorite Charliy Foy as Snapper, the right hand man to Bogart’s circus promoter. After Swingtime in the Movies and King of the Underworld, Foy has really stuck out to me as a talented character actor, and here he gets his best chance to shine alongside of Bogart. In perhaps my favorite scene from the film, Bogart refunds a customer’s ten dollars after being accused of employing pickpockets at the circus. He then immediately instructs Foy and another man to escort the customer off the grounds. Seconds later, Foy returns, hands a ten dollar bill to Bogart, and says, “Here’s your ten back, boss.” This guy’s going into ‘The Usual Suspects’ soon.
Classic Bogie Moment
He’s fought cops, mobsters, cowboys, convicts, street thugs, Nazis, bootleggers, AND giant octopuses. Why wouldn’t he face down a man-eating lion?
Yup, that’s just how Bogart rolls.
The Bottom Line
Don’t force yourself to pick between this one and Kid Galahad. Watch them back to back as a double feature on a Friday night and enjoy the best of both!