When I see the Warner Brothers/ Vitaphone title card at the beginning of a picture I foresee a delightful excursion into early sound film making, often with delightful evil or good characters. Camera movement will either be minimal or have some new process in miniatures along with a tracking shot through a window. UNION DEPOT (1932) with Doug Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Blondell does not disappoint from beginning to end. I had not seen this title before and decided on it simply because I enjoy Joan Blondell.
The picture was well directed by Alfred Green and written as most of the better material of the day was, from a play by Joe Lawrie Jr. and Gene Fowler. It is a 60 plus minute tour de force in thirties precode film making. If you had someone who had never watched a precode film or even ‘classic’ film (I don’t know why it is called that as some of the pictures are duds), this would be one to see. It has the length, the style, the technique, and the dialogue that make it a superb introduction.
The story? Let me spill the beans for you all. Listen well! The picture opens with a wonderful tour of Union Depot station. The camera flows by passengers and workers just long enough to get little bits of their conversations and life predicaments. You see families with children, working women ready to pick up a meal ticket, con men on a job.
Among the travelers of varied backgrounds that meet and interact on one night at Union Depot, a metropolitan train station, are Chick (Doug Fairbanks Jr) and his friend Scrap Iron, (Guy Kibbee) both newly released from prison after serving time for vagrancy. Chick disguises himself as a station worker after appropriating a uniform from the men’s washroom. He leaves his buddy Scrap Iron in the alley with a promise that he will come back. Chick walks about the station trying to score more when along comes a valise abandoned by a drunken traveler. In it he finds a shaving kit and a suit of clothes with a bankroll. He is transformed from tramp to gent. After buying himself a meal with having an interesting dialogue with a waitress, Chick seeks some female companionship among the many hustlers who walk the station. Among them is Ruth Collins (Joan Blondell)
He propositions Ruth, a stranded, out-of-work showgirl who hurt her ankle and takes her to the station’s hotel. The dialogue is rough and fast as Fairbanks puts on his best James Cagney, right down to the walk and slouch of his hat. Cagney-like, he quickly realizes she’s not a that kind of girl but another hard luck victim .Touched by the Ruth’s sincerity, he vows to help her buy a ticket to Salt Lake City, where a job awaits her. Scrap Iron is lucky too, stumbling across a wallet with a claim check discarded by a pickpocket. There is a subplot as well with the police and railway inspectors waiting for a real criminal counterfeiter to appear at the station in the person of Alan Hale, complete with a German accent.
Precode wise there are many things going on in UNION DEPOT (1932) to make it saucy for the audience. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. steals, lies and even slaps around Ruth in another Cagney moment minus the grapefruit. Subplots involve a man who enjoys having a nice young lady (Joan Blondell) read him smutty stories. In a moment of racism that was part of the world then (and remains today), a woman who happens to be black walks her black husband to the train where he works as a porter and leaves with her other black lover who is disembarking from off the same train.
UNION DEPOT (1932) has been compared to GRAND HOTEL (1932). GRAND HOTEL (1932) had a larger budget and more star power since it came from MGM. UNION DEPOT (1932) holds its own, even at times surpassing the more famous MGM work with its brisk pace, dialogue and sheer preposterous entertainment. When John Barrymore brooded, Doug Fairbanks Jr was slugging it out with criminals in a railyard to prove he was not a counterfeiter.
UNION DEPOT (1932) is a delightful surprise in Warner Brother’s work at that time. Joan Blondell would go on to play variations of the Ruth (name with Biblical significance) character, making her hugely popular and rightly so. She could do it all: sing, dance, tough, loving, and later, herself. Doug Fairbanks Jr. would do the same, taking shots at dramatic roles, the everyday tough guy that helps people like most Warner leading men.
UNION DEPOT (1932) satisfies on every count. Performance, pace, direction, wardrobe, setting and even story hit the mark. Quite an accomplishment for such a small running time.