Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Wagons Roll at Night


I don’t know how they did it, but I wish more moviemakers today could do it. Studios in the old days could take a story that was entirely and utterly predictable and make it fun. Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing. Maybe in 70 years the by-the-numbers romances they’re making today that just look so awkward and predictable will look fresh and fun to the people of that time. Who knows?

Humphrey Bogart runs a small traveling carnival. One of the attractions is a lion tamer (the great Sig Ruman) who is a terrible drunk. One of the lions escapes and a small-town grocer (Eddie Albert) manages to subdue it. Bogey is impressed, and the kid, who has stars in his eyes (and is as gee-whiz pure and clueless and stupid as the part requires) is persuaded to join the carny as an apprentice lion tamer. Because audiences of that time had no idea how lions are tamed and trained, they bought into the idea that it was all horribly dangerous (it’s only moderately dangerous, though I admit I wouldn’t want to do it) and consisted of nothing but sheer willpower and the ability to crack a whip, which it doesn’t. (Lions in shows like that are all pussycats, and have to be trained to roar and look menacing. They’re just waiting for their meal.) Anyway, he turns out to be good at it, and the old sot is fired.

Bogey is obsessive about his little sister, who he is determined will never come into contact with the sleazy world of the carny. You will not be surprised to learn that Eddie falls in love with the sister, nor will it be any surprise that Bogey comes up with a scheme to kill Eddie, and that it involves lions. In fact, no part of this movie is in the least unpredictable. So why did I enjoy it so much? Bogey’s star power, I guess, plus lovely carnival montages like no one does anymore, and good work from all the supporting players, including Sylvia Sidney. It is definitely minor Bogart, and it may not be your cup of tea, but I liked it.