Humphrey Bogart made four films in a row that were released in 1941. THE WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT was the one he made in between his breakout role in HIGH SIERRA and his star-making roll in THE MALTESE FALCON. It can't hold a candle to either film, yet it is sporadically good fun, especially the first half. A remake of KID GALAHAD, a film featuring one of Bogart's least rewarding gangster roles, THE WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT replaces that film's central focus on boxing with lion-taming in a way that screams of one writer yelling at another "Hot damn, those Warners are really breathing down our neck to come up with a script this week!". Owing to the super-cool image most people have of Bogart today, the idea of Bogart running his own circus is barely comprehensible, yet the film is at least as entertaining as other minor Warner potboilers as TORRID ZONE or THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE. As often happens in Warner films of the '30s and '40, WAGONS keeps changing its mind as to what kind of picture it wants to be, and the first half rolls along with surprising speed and appealing performances by Bogey, Sylvia Sidney and Eddie Arnold, playing the rolls played in the earlier film by Edward G. Robinson, Better Davis and Wayne Morris respectively.
It's only when the film finally decides that yes, it really wants to be KID GALAHAD that WAGONS begins to lose steam. Eddie Albert, a small town boy who just happens to have a knack for lion taming (whatever) falls for Bogey's kid sister (Joan Leslie), leaving poor Sylvia Sidney with a broken heart. When she runs away from grief, leaving Bogey alone, he gets mad enough at the whole situation to turn to murder by lion as a solution to all his problems. It's enough to make the idea of Elvis as a singing boxer in his own version of KID GALAHAD seem like the height of logical plotting. Still, the film is helped by Sylvia Sidney's winning performance as a fortune teller who falls in love with Albert. The part is better written and has a bit more depth than the similar role Bette Davis had in the original KID GALAHAD, and Sidney makes the most of it, helped by the fact that even when she was supposed to look happy, Sidney's face always had a touch of sadness. Albert is fun too as an innocent young man who seems to be happy doing whatever it is he is called on to do, whether it's running a country story, taming lions or feeding chickens. As for Bogart, he just seems pleased to finally be on the road to stardom. The part of circus owner is not one of his greatest roles to be sure, but he throws himself into it with a an easy, relaxed energy, probably sensing that after HIGH SIERRA, he would never be again be called on to play a rabbit-petting zombie (THE RETURN OF DR. X), Irish gardener (DARK VICTORY) or Mexican bandit (VIRGINIA CITY). This is the first film in which the star received top billing, where he would stay the rest of his career.
Welcome to stardom, Bogey. ½ - JB