This might seem to set up “The Wagons Roll At Night” as the rise of a star performer, or an expose of the carnival’s inner-workings. Not quite. Instead the movie turns, abruptly, as Hoffman the Great picks a fight with The Great Varney, which concludes with Hoffman being clawed by a lion and the blame being unfairly placed on Varney. He flees, hiding out at Flo’s behest with Nick’s sister, Mary (Joan Leslie), for whom he promptly, obligatorily falls, which enrages Nick because he wants his sister to mingle with a better class of people than these dreadful carnival workers.
Well it doesn’t take a PhD to see then that Nick hates himself, doing everything he can to keep these two aspiring lovebirds apart, and by everything I mean EVERYTHING. He has no morals – after all, he instructs people’s pockets to be picked, remember, and amidst all these romantic machinations, played by Albert and Leslie like a sock hop fling, something wicked this way comes, and it comes in the form of Bogart.
Varney’s part is written as such a product of the plot, you’re almost disgusted by his naivety, his willingness to keep going right along with Nick’s dastardly schemes against what would be anyone else’s better judgment, which Albert has no choice but to play up because otherwise none of this makes any sense. That might’ve left the movie to founder. But Bogart positively oozes guile with every empty plea he makes and every lie he peddles and every rotten act of supreme selfishness, and in a crucial shot toward the climax, as Bogart lets his nefarious smile melt into emotionless contempt, you believe, really believe, that he’d feed someone to the lions.