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The Wagons Roll at Night

The Wagons Roll at Night(1941)

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teaser The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)

Proof that Hollywood movie plots never go away, they just get new facades is The Wagons Roll at Night (1941). A remake of 1937's Kid Galahad, this Warner Bros. melodrama transfers the story from the boxing ring to the big top, but keeps the basic character structure and even some of the same actors from the original.

Humphrey Bogart (who'd been the villain in Kid Galahad) stars as the tough, cynical owner of a circus, full of "mugs and grifters and riffraff -- all under one tent," as his character Nick Coster describes. When a lion escapes the carnival, Nick finds the animal -- and potential lion tamer Matt -- in a nearby town. Later, when Nick's sister falls in love with Matt, Nick forces him into the cage with the crazy lion Caesar, the show's most ferocious beast. Nick has a change of heart, however, and helps Matt escape but dies in the effort.

Taming the lions, which were actually on loan from MGM's Tarzan back lot, is Eddie Albert, who would later gain fame with other animals on the television farm comedy Green Acres. Joan Leslie, who played Bogart's love interest in their previous film High Sierra (1941), is on board as the saintly sister, while Sylvia Sidney's fortune-teller has a romance with Bogie's Nick. Character actress Clara Blandick, known to legions today as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz (1939), also makes a brief appearance.

In the same year as filming High Sierra, Bogart got the role in The Wagons Roll at Night after George Raft turned it down. But The Wagons Roll at Night would be one of the last times Bogart was second choice for a role, and the picture marked the first time he received top billing, a status he would keep for every movie forward. Superstardom lurked around the corner, with The Maltese Falcon also released in 1941, and Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have Not (1944) just a few movies away.

Although often overshadowed in Bogart's career because of its place between High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, The Wagons Roll at Night received good reviews when released. Trade paper Variety noted the film was "a fast-moving (melodrama) constructed to hit the fancy of action-minded audiences who crave excitement in their cinematic fare ... a topnotch program attraction."

And further evidence that Hollywood believes in recycling: The plot was retooled as a vehicle for Elvis Presley in 1962 (under the title Kid Galahad), reverting to its original prizefight scenario but adding musical interludes.

Producer: Harlan Thompson, Hal B. Wallis
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: Fred Niblo, Jr., Barry Trivers, Francis Wallace (novel)
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: Mark Richards
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Nick Coster), Sylvia Sidney (Flo Lorraine), Eddie Albert (Matt Varney), Joan Leslie (Mary Coster), Sig Ruman (Hoffman the Great), Cliff Clark (Doc).
BW-85m.

by Amy Cox

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