Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, beginning last week with Blonde Crazy (1931). Today…
Union Depot (1932)
An out-of-luck con artist discovers a suitcase full of money at a train station. Starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, and Alan Hale. Based on the play by Laurie, Fowler, and Durkin. Dialogue by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Screenplay b y Kenyon Nicholson and Walter DeLeon. Directed by Alfred E. Green.
“People come and go at Union Depot. Two of them are hobo Chic and his buddy Scrap Iron Scratch. When Chic picks up a suitcase left behind by a traveler, he finds a perfectly fitting suit and a bankroll in the pocket. Not believing his luck, he buys himself a good meal. On the way out, he meets Ruth, a chorus girl who tells him she must be in Salt Lake City by tomorrow, but doesn’t have the money for a ticket. He misunderstands her intentions, but when she tells him she is being chased by a madman, Dr. Bernardi, he decides to help her. Meanwhile, Scratch has found a claim check, which Chic uses to redeem a violin case that turns out to be filled with money. He gives Ruth some money for a new dress and goes off to buy her a drawing room ticket so she can go to Salt Lake City in style. Lurking in the shadows, Dr. Bernardi overhears their plans and sends Ruth a message in Chic’s name, asking her to meet him on the train.
“Ruth pays for the dress, and after she leaves, the shopkeeper realizes that the money Ruth gave her is counterfeit. Chic hears Ruth’s screams from the train and rescues her from the clutches of Dr. Bernardi, who jumps out the train window to his death. Just then the police arrest Chic for passing counterfeit money. The real counterfeiter, Bushy Sloan, overhears the arrest. He follows Chic and the police to the shack where the case is hidden, shoots a federal agent and grabs the case. Naturally, the police believe Chic is guilty, but before they can take him to jail, Scratch explains everything. They arrest Sloan and Chic and Ruth are free. After Chic puts Ruth on the train, they vow never to forget each other, and Chic and Scratch go off together.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
With many different subplots occurring in a limited space, many have considered this a Warner Brothers version (i.e. gritty and inelegant) of MGM’s posh Grand Hotel (1932), which was in production during the time of this release. However, comparing Union Depot to the aforementioned classic does not only a disservice to the film in question, but it also isn’t appropriate. Most of the stories in this film are tiny little unconnected runners, so the structure of the film is very different than Grand Hotel, which utilizes only a few meaty stories, but intermingles the characters with precision. There’s really only one narrative being told here, and it concerns a hobo (okay, shades of John Barrymore’s character in Grand Hotel) in a train station who steals a briefcase and uses the money inside to help a chorine escape a violent nut. Going by the premise alone, you know the kind of film you’ll be getting: a WB special, in which the audience is contented with everyday working people who live middle to lower class existences. And, though there’s plenty of sex and violence, it’s all presented with that easy, breezy wink of depression era fun.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is our leading man and he plays his role with appropriate charm, nevertheless keeping his character from becoming someone with whom the audience totally respects or relates. Rather he’s a shaded figure — one who initially goes after Blondell for sex but sticks around because of some inherent goodness. Although I’ve never found him to be a stellar performer, he does imbue the film with energy, and the fact that he’s not automatically likable is intriguing. Blondell, meanwhile, has to play a sad sack victim, exhibiting little of the traits we come to anticipate from her when on the screen. Her role lacks dimension and it hurts the picture. Therefore, I can’t recommend Union Depot to Blondell fans. I, can, however, recommend the film to Pre-Code fans, for it certainly delivers those convention-flouting characteristics we crave.
Come back next Friday for another Blondell Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical comedy!