Friday, October 21, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Union Depot (1932)

UNION DEPOT would deserve to be seen if only for its amazing opening tracking shot and the train station sequence which follows, but the entire movie is a must for fans of the pre-Code film era, a crackling, gritty 68 minutes of tough Warner Bros. Depression drama.

As the film opens, the clock chimes 6:00 at Union Station. There are only two title cards, with the majority of the credits delayed till the end of the movie. The camera slowly swoops down, crosses a street, and goes through the doors of the station, taking the viewer all the way inside. After looking around the room, finally the shot cuts, but the camera then continues to explore the jostling mass of humanity gathered under a single roof, showing bits and pieces of various people's lives, with train whistles and "All Aboard!" sounding constantly in the background. This sequence can be seen online thanks to Turner Classic Movies.

Eventually we're introduced to Charles "Chick" Miller (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), a scruffy hobo, and his pal (Guy Kibbee). It's the Depression, Chick is hungry, and he thinks nothing of stealing a station employee's uniform or, even better, a suit from a bag belonging to a drunk (Frank McHugh). Chick hopes he can parlay a respectable appearance into a means of eating. Then he finds a wad of cash in the suit pocket...and Chick's very interesting day is only beginning.

Before long Chick is drawn to a down-on-her-luck chorus girl, Ruth (Joan Blondell), who hopes to scrounge up the money for a train ticket to a job in Salt Lake. He also becomes mixed up with a counterfeiter (Alan Hale) and some G-Men (David Landau and Earle Fox). The film's action never stops for a moment, building to a well-staged chase and fight sequence in a train yard.

This is a pre-Code film all the way, starting with the hero being a thief who steals on multiple occasions; when he meets Ruth he happily thinks he's picking up a prostitute, then he slaps her when he realizes she's really a nice girl. Normally a character like this would be the villain of the piece, but he's played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who manages to charm the audience and ultimately prove, past behavior to the contrary, that he's a decent sort of fellow.

There are all sorts of other bits which identify the film as being made before the dawn of the Production Code; those who aren't familiar with the films of the early '30s might find themselves quite surprised at times when watching this film. As Frank Miller writes in a post at TCM, "With its no-holds-barred story-telling...Union Depot remains a fascinating glimpse of how the studios handled the permissiveness of the early sound years."

Blondell is effective in a subdued performance, her big eyes carefully taking in everything going on and seeing through Chick's dubious exterior to the man underneath.

Familiar faces abound in small roles, including Charles Lane, George Chandler, Jason Robards Sr., Charles Coleman, Irving Bacon, Dickie Moore, and Sam McDaniel.

UNION DEPOT was directed by Alfred E. Green. The cinematographer was Sol Polito.

UNION DEPOT is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive. It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

For more on this film, please be sure to visit Cliff's excellent, detailed post at Immortal Ephemera.


Blogger Cliff Aliperti said...

Oh I love your second paragraph describing the opening, amazing work!

I so glad you liked this one, Laura, I was a little worried after we didn't see eye to eye on Employees' Entrance ;)

And thank you so much for the link over to mine!

1:59 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This sounds fun. I thought I had recorded it once to watch later, but I must be thinking of another "Union" or "Depot" movie. Maybe I'll catch up with it next time TCM programs a day of movies with either "Union" or "Depot" in the title.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Kliph Nesteroff said...

Was it filmed within Union Station in Los Angeles?

7:47 AM  
Blogger Paul Bell said...

Looks to me like Sante Fe Depot in San Diego. Does anyone know for certain?

9:02 AM  

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