The Wagons Roll at Night – 1941

Wagons Roll at Night Poster

My Review

—An Enjoyable Retread—

Your Bogie Film Fix (Out of 5 Bogies):

3 Bogie

 

 

 

Director: Ray Enright

The Lowdown

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.

The Cast

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?

Bogart Wagons Classic

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!

 

 

 

Dead End – 1937

Dead End Poster

My Review

—A Strong Cast Makes This a Classic—

Your Bogie Film Fix:

4 Bogie

.

out of 5 Bogies!

Director: William Wyler

The Lowdown

A down on his luck architect (Joel McCrea) is pulled between two women (Sylvia Sidney and Wendy Barrie), a gangster on the run (Bogart) visits his old stomping grounds, and a group of street kids (The ‘Dead End’ Kids) make the best out of their lives in the slums of New York.

What I Thought

Based on the hit Broadway play of the same name, Dead End is theater brought to the big screen in the best possible ways. An ensemble piece that takes it’s time letting characters interact in more private, high-stake conversations, Director William Wyler keeps the most important essence of any great stage drama alive; the audience gets to watch people struggle through life-altering decisions in real time right before their eyes. Dialogue is king here, giving the top billed stars plenty to chew on as they pinball between one another, sorting out their lives while altering the lives of everyone around them at the same time.

Key to much of what works here is Art Director Richard Day as he does an amazing job creating a studio set that looks like the real New York, but at the same time retains the claustrophobic feeling of a large group of people struggling to be noticed on a theatre stage. The atmosphere brings the caged mood of the slums to life – characters can see the wonder and shine of the world beyond their neighborhood, but they know that they’ll never get there.

It’s the film that earned The ‘Dead End’ Kids their name, having been brought from New York where they originated their roles on stage. Many of the film’s strongest moments come between the boys and Bogart as he takes an interest in them after recognizing his own childhood reflected in their behavior. It would lead to a multi-film collaboration between the kids and the soon-to-be superstar, but make no mistake, this is their strongest film together.

Director Wyler does a great job of letting each character, no matter how small the role, shine in their own moments without stealing the overall focus of the film. (See Claire Trevor below.) Does Bogart outshine the film’s actual leads? Maybe, but it’s not his fault. The role is written so well that I don’t think his charisma could have been bottled up any more than it already was. I’m excited to write up Wyler’s future Bogart collaboration, The Desperate Hours.

A must see gangster role for Bogart, there’s more than enough here to please any classic film fan.

The Bogart Factor

Playing ‘Baby Face’ Martin, this is one of Bogart’s most fleshed-out gangster roles. While on paper it might not look like much – a criminal running from the cops who stops by to see his old flame and his mother one more time – a lot of expectations get turned on their heads when both interactions don’t follow the typical Hollywood formula.

It’s a role where we get to see Bogart thinking out loud, saying just as much with his facial expressions and mannerisms as he does with his dialogue. Perhaps one of his best portrayals of internal turmoil, I’m a little surprised that this part isn’t more talked about when people list his greatest performances. ‘Baby Face’ Martin seems like a younger, ever-so-slightly more hopeful, version of Duke Mantee just as he turns the corner from confidence to fatalism.

For the scenes between Bogart and his mother (Marjorie Main reprising her role from the original play), as well as Bogart and Trevor, this film’s an acting clinic for how to handle disappointment with a character in film. Both scenes are incredibly strong moments that give us a great glimpse of Bogart’s skill at listening and reacting to his costars onscreen.

And how many roles has Bogart played where he’s a gangster who’s gotten plastic surgery to hide? I smell a future post coming up. . .

The Cast

Joel McCrea plays Dave, the unemployed architect who’s taking odd jobs to make ends meet while he courts Kay Barrie and keeps Sylvia Sidney on the line just in case. McCrea if very good here, and it’s no fault of his that the rest of the cast is so strong that we forget his storyline until he shows up now and again. His character arc is one of the best of the film, and his final confrontation with Bogart and Allen Jenkins is just about as taut and suspenseful as a film climax can get.

Sylvia Sidney plays Drina, the lower class gal that’s sweet on McCrea and can’t stand the fact that he’s after a woman of higher means. Again, Sidney is great here, but it’s not one of the roles from the film that you’ll remember as the overall cast is just too good. I’m excited to see her again in The Wagons Roll at Night where she gets a little more of the spotlight on her own.

Wendy Barrie plays Kay, the upper class woman who seems to think that McCrea is a diamond in the rough. Barrie and McCrea have good chemistry together, and you can feel the desperation in each performance as both seem to see each other as more of a ‘rescue’ than a life partner.

Claire Trevor plays Francey, Bogart’s ex who’s turned to prostitution to make ends meet. The scene they share coupled with the scene of Bogart being chastised by his mother are, I believe, two of the most powerful scenes from Bogart’s entire career. Director Wyler had to leave out the overt references to both prostitution and syphilis in the scene she shares with Bogart here, but what’s left unsaid is even more powerful. Their sexual tension is off the charts. When they stand an inch away from one another before Bogart tries to kiss her, it feels like someone’s hold back two magnets from clanging together. Yes, Trevor is only in the film for a few minutes, but it was such a strong showing that she was nominated for an Oscar. That should be all you need to know!

Allen Jenkins plays Bogart’s right hand henchman, Hunk. What can I say? I really love Jenkins, and it pains me a little bit that I can’t put him into The Usual Suspects portion of the blog yet. (I only enter folks after I’ve seen all of their Bogart collaborations, and Racket Busters is indefinitely unavailable!) I might just have to do a partial write up sometime because Jenkins is a go-to character actor for solid performances. While this role leans a little more on the melodrama than the comic relief that Jenkins was so good at, it’s a real testament to his talent that we believe he’s the heavy that he’s supposed to be.

The ‘Dead End’ Kids turn in an incredibly strong performance as they recreate the roles that they played on Broadway. Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, and Bernard Punsly seem to have a natural chemistry, and it’s easy to see why they were able to parlay this film into a career together.

Classic Bogie Moment

Come on, it’s Allen Jenkins and Bogart as two of the best dressed gangsters in New York! How could I not go with a pic from these two?

Bogart Jenkins

The Bottom Line

If my Bogart DVD collection had to be cut in half, I’d probably want this one in the mix.