Monday September 26, 2022

Movie Review: The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)

WARNING: SPOILERS

This is Humphrey Bogart’s last movie before “The Maltese Falcon” made him a star, and this is Sylvia Sidney’s last movie before a four-year hiatus from making movies. Bogart was about to break big at age 42 while Sidney was washed up at 31. So it goes.

This attitude is reflected in the film, too, in an exchange between Sidney’s world-weary Madame (Flo) Lorraine, the fortune teller, and Eddie Albert’s wide-eyed grocer-turned lion-tamer Matt Varney:

Flo: Please don’t call me Miss Loraine. It makes me feel kind of old.
Matt: Aw shucks, I bet you’re not much older than I am.

Not much, no. In real life, Eddie Albert was four years older than Sidney. Maybe that’s why Sidney gives him the doubletake. 

Little sister
“The Wagons Roll at Night” is a bad, boring movie. Nick Coster (Bogie) runs a traveling circus whose big attraction is Hoffman the Great (Sig Ruman), a lion tamer. Unfortunately, Hoffman is a rummy, and one day a lion gets loose. Local boy Matt Varney keeps it at bay so Bogie hires him for the week. Hoffman gets a little jealous, Flo gets a little sweet on the kid, Nick gets a little idea: Hire him full-time as Hoffman’s assistant, then maybe he can take over. Since Hoffman is such a rummy and all. 

As a boss, Nick is cynical but generally OK. Except for this part: Don’t ever talk about his kid sister!

Flo makes that mistake and he tells her to shut up. “She’s not like us,” he says. “We’re a lot of mugs, grifters, and riff-raff.” (“Mugs, Grifters and Riff-Raff” would make a good title for a book on Warner Bros. films. 

The conversation gets a little better when he calms down.

Nick: It’s just this sleazy game we’re in.
Flo: If that’s the way you feel about it why don’t you get out of it?
Nick: Yeah, wind up in a bread line. It’s the game I woke up in, the only one I know. But it ain’t for my sister. She’ll be a lady if I have to break her neck. 

The way he says “woke up in … only one I know” … just has that classic Bogie cadence. You can imagine Rick or Sam saying it.

You know what would be great? If a movie introduced an aberration like Nick’s with his sister and then completely ignored it for the rest of the film. Alas, not here. If you don’t see where this thing is going, I’d recommend a visit to an ophthalmologist.

Matt wins Hoffman’s job, Hoffman shows up again and starts a fight but gets mauled by Caesar, the most dangerous of the lions, who reaches a big paw out of the cage. (I was rooting for the lions.) Since a local yokel (Garry Owen) blames Matt for all this, Matt has to go into hiding. And since Nick isn’t around, Flo drives him up to Nick’s parents farm, where Mary Coster (Joan Leslie, all of 16), is just back from the convent, and as perky as Folgers. Shock of shocks, she and Matt fall for each other.

That sets up the rest of the movie. Nick tries to keep them apart, they can’t be kept apart, so Nick decides to put Caesar in the cage with Matt. That’s right, he decides to kill Matt rather than let the relationship with his sister play out. Except when sis shows up, pleading, Nick joins him in the cage, gets mauled, Nick drags him out. 

Does Bogie die? Of course. He’s still at that stage of his career. He made around 30 movies between “Petrified Forest” and “Maltese Falcon” and he died in probably 95% of them. The only one I know where he didn’t die was “They Drive By Night,” where he just loses an arm.

As his death scenes go, this one is pretty bad. “I was wrong, Mary, about the kid. Guess I was wrong about a lot of things.” And to Flo: “Do me a favor, will ya? See these kids get married … Throw ’em a swell party…”

Caesar endured.

Little Foy
Cast notices: Nick’s mom (and thus Bogie’s mom) is played by Clara Blandick, Auntie Em from “The Wizard of Oz, while Charley Foy, of the Seven Little Foys, is roustabout and comic relief. He has a couple of not-bad line readings.

The director is Ray Enright, who did 72 features between 1927 and 1953, none of them standouts. Only three of his movies have IMDb ratings above 7.0, and they aren’t exactly household names:

  • “Skin Deep” (1929), 7.5
  • “One Way to Love” (1946), 7.2
  • “Dames (1934), 7.1, co-directed with Busby Berkeley.

It’s not like Enright worked in B pictures, either. He got big stars, he just directed them in their least-memorable adventures: Marlene Dietrich in “The Spoilers,” James Cagney in “The St. Louis Kid,” Errol Flynn in “Montana.” Bogart here.

Don’t worry, Humphrey. A better world is just around the corner.

Posted at 08:15 AM on Monday September 26, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s  
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