Whenever I take the train home from Penn Station and I have to wait a bit for the train I like to sit and people watch. If you have never been to Penn Station in New York City it is always busy and crowded. It is fun to imagine where people are going and why and who they are visiting or going home to. The 1932 Pre- Code film Union Depot offers the audience an inside glance at peoples’ comings and goings through a train station.
At the Union Depot train station passengers are running off and running to their next train. Some say goodbye to their loved ones as they are left behind. Business transactions of all kinds happen within the station. Outside in the back of the station is Chick Miller (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and his vagrant friend Scrap Iron. Through bars on a window Chick steals a man conductor’s uniform, puts it on, and walks through the station into the men’s waiting room. Chick’s luck is really good when a drunk man is late for his train and runs out of the room without his bag. He finds a suit in the bag and puts in on. His luck gets better and better when he finds a wad of cash in the back pocket of the suit.
Chick grabs a large dinner from the station diner with the money he has found. Walking out he sees a young girl sitting on a bench by herself. He goes over and talks to her. She is not a prostitute like Chick though but an ex-chorine named Ruth (Joan Blondell) looking to get away from a man she got mixed up with and is down on her luck without a job after she got hurt. He likes her and decides to help her out the best he can.
A while later Chick’s luck really kicks in when Scrap Iron finds a ticket for a holding container in the station. When he goes to claim his ticket he is given a violin case but when he opens it he finds thousands of dollars in cash inside! Unfortunately the bills are fake and Chick’s luck begins to change.
The story as I described it may sound boring but trust me it is not. There are many detailed things going on that make it very interesting and several other stories that come together in the end that involve Chick and Ruth. Warner Bros had the great advantage of not being one of the most polished studios with releasing gritty films Pre- Code films. Union Depot is gritty and more appealing to the common audience. Chick is not the common “hero” of the film. He is a vagrant who has just gotten out of prison and is doing what he can to get by in the hard times. Ruth also has done what she could do to get by after injuring her ankle going so far as to work for a dirty old doctor.
There are so many little instances and occurrences that make this one of the perfect examples of Pre- Code Hollywood. There are prostitutes around the station with one even propositioning Chick. He notices she is a prostitute because she has money in her sticking and he swipes the lipstick off her lips smearing it. A woman waves goodbye to her porter husband as a train leaves telling him to write to her and tell her when he is coming home. As the train nears its end a man jumps off and comes the woman turns around to him and they leave together. The man Ruth is trying to get away with had her read him dirty stories and she became afraid of him after reading the stories a few times and he would look at her lustfully. There is counterfeiting and attempted murder thrown into the mix.
The scene where Chick is in the men’s waiting room and the drunk man was talking was interesting. The drunk man talks about serving in World War I. I do not know why I liked it. I think it is interesting to hear someone talk about in a film of this time period rather than see an entire film about the War set in its time period.
I really enjoyed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Blondell together. I have seen Blondell in a film before but at the time I was not paying attention to the whole film and really did not take notice of her. I liked her she was a good actress. I have a ton of her films recorded I cannot wait to see more of her.
The direction Alfred E. Green was really creative and very different. The opening scene is a sweeping shot of the train station beginning with a bird’s-eye-view down to eye level roaming through the station like a passenger. The cinematography is very good as well.
Union Depot is a very good Pre- Code film. It is not very long but packs a lot of story and action into its run. This film is one of them many film why I love the Pre- Code genre. I find all Pre- Code films to be different from one another and not boring at all. If you like story and like good acting then definitely see Union Depot.