When you're Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer - 'the Tiffany's of motion picture studios' - you can produce a film like Grand Hotel (1932) by larding it up with stars (Garbo! Beery! Crawford! Barrymores!) and spending 00,000 on an opulent spectacle that ultimately wins you a Best Picture Oscar. When you're Warner Brothers/First National...well, you have to rely more on your contract players (Joan Blondell! Guy Kibbee! Alan Hale! Frank McHugh!) and you probably won't spend nearly as much (though the depot set didn't come cheap). As for Academy Award recognition for Union Depot (1932)...fuhgeddaboudit.
But at a brisk sixty-seven minutes, this snappy pre-Code drama - based on an unpublished play by Joe Laurie, Jr., Gene Fowler, and Douglas Durkin - entertained me much more than the heralded Hotel; with punchy dialogue by Walter de Leon, Kenyon Nicholson and Kubec Glasmon that doesn't skimp on the suggestiveness and titillation. The direction of journeyman Alfred E. Green (Baby Face, The Girl from 10th Avenue) is swift and self-assured; and beautifully captures the hustle and bustle of arrivals and departures at a busy train station.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is at the center of Union Depot - as Charles 'Chick' Miller, a hobo who's finished doing his boardin' with the warden, he lifts a station employee's uniform from the washroom in an effort to perhaps score a free meal for himself and his fellow transient, 'Scrap Iron' Scratch (Kibbee). After an encounter with a drunk (McHugh) in that same washroom, Chick is the beneficiary of the drunk's suitcase (which he leaves behind in his haste to catch his train)...in which he finds a change of clothes and a bankroll that will treat him to a hearty dinner.
While tucking into a steak smothered with onions, Chick makes the acquaintance of Ruth Collins (Blondell), an unemployed chorus girl who needs 4.50 for a train ticket to get to a job that's waiting for her, and time is of the essence. A daring aspect of Depot is that Chick thinks Ruth is one of the many 'working girls' to be found plying their trade at the station, and is more than willing to help her fund her trip in exchange for the pleasure of her company, if you get my meaning. Ruth eventually tells Chick her story: a broken ankle left her stranded and she was forced to wait tables to make ends meet. She also earned a few coins reading for a sinister character named Dr. Bernardi (George Rosener), and the implication is that his choice of literature was a tad on the naughty side. Ruth is worried that Bernardi may be following her (and he is); Chick sympathizes with her plight and agrees to help her out.
(Joan Blondell & Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)
In another part of the depot, a man (Hale) identified as 'The Baron' leaves a violin case with a station clerk (played by Charles Lane!); his Viennese accent and polished manner leaves one to believe he might be a famous musician...but in actuality he's a counterfeiter named Bushy Sloan, and the case contains not a Stradivarius but what is known in the counterfeit game as 'a boodle of queer.' Sloan is waiting on a confederate to arrive by train - and is in turn being watched by a Federal man played by David Landau - but complications arise when he has his wallet lifted by a pickpocket and the claim check for the case winds up in the hands of ol' Scrap Iron...and ultimately Chick. (There is just no honor among thieves.)
The massive train station set built for Union Depot may have been an extravagant expense for Warner's, but it's an impressive one to be sure, and was recycled for later productions cranked out by the studio. Against this backdrop, many mini-dramas in the mold of Grand Hotel play out...and classic film buffs will get a kick of spotting such familiar faces and character favorites as Irving Bacon, George Chandler, Maude Eburne, Ethel Griffies, Dickie Moore and Jason Robards (Sr.). (Look fast for a brief shot of a woman smoking a pipe - it's Lucille La Verne, best known as the voice of the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.) The train depot cleverly conceals a milieu of grifters, lechers, hustlers and doxies on the easy make...colorful archetypes that would soon be muted with the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.
The main character played by Fairbanks is an interesting 'hero': he's a thief and a liar despite momentarily transforming into a 'gentleman for a day' (the UK title for Union Depot) and as his situation with Ruth suggests, he can add potential john to his resume as well. (Ruth doesn't have clean hands in this scenario, either; she tells Chick she's 'been around' and is not put off by obtaining a train ticket by any means necessary.) Having recently watched Doug, Jr. in It's Tough to Be Famous (1932), I really enjoyed his performance in this one despite the fact that it's a role that would have been better suited for James Cagney. Joan Blondell is most appealing as Ruth - though I have to admit a bit of bias here because I'll watch Joanie in anything.
Guy Kibbee is engaging playing a part that's a little out of his bailiwick - in most of the Warner's pictures I've seen him in he's usually the man-of-means with an eye for the ladies that eventually gets talked into backing a show. Alan Hale also plays against type (with a fairly convincing German accent) as well. The only weak link is George Rosener as the deviant Bernardi; with dark glasses and cane he doesn't come off so much as sinister as a customer ready to wreak havoc inside W.C. Fields' grocery store. ('Open the door for Mr. Muckle...') Union Depot is a must-see sleeper, complete with a most bittersweet ending.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr, former associate editor at ClassicFlix.com, blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or under appreciated films from the golden age.