Thursday, May 1, 2008

Union Depot (First National, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1932 movie Union Depot, an interesting curio from Warners in “First National” drag and part of a night Turner Classic Movies decided to use to wrap up their month-long festival of films about trains by scheduling a night of movies taking place in train stations: this one, the 1950 Paramount thriller Union Station (with William Holden as a detective trying to find a kidnapped child in the titular station in Chicago), the 1940’s MGM programmer Grand Central Murder (another one in which a detective, this time Van Heflin, has to find a criminal inside a train station) and probably the finest film ever set inside a train station, Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean in 1945 (and for my money a much more interesting movie than his later epics). TCM host David Osborne compared the film to Grand Hotel and suggested Warners was racing to get this similar story property on the screen before MGM’s larger and more prestigious vehicle — though to my mind the films really don’t compare all that much since, for all the characters and plot threads in Union Depot, the film coalesces around a single storyline relatively early and doesn’t go off in as many different directions as Grand Hotel.

Hoboes Chic (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and Scrap Iron Scratch (Guy Kibbee — odd to see him as a bum when we’re used to him being at the other end of the socioeconomic scale, as an unscrupulous upper-class tycoon using his money to buy himself sex from one or more delectable morsels of young Warners womanhood!) hang outside Union Depot after having just been released from jail on vagrancy charges. Their gimmick is to use a long-handled reacher to steal a uniform from the washroom — they stick the tool through a window and grab a suit and hat from someone who’s taken them off to wash up — and Chic ends up with the stolen clothes, trying to pass himself off as an information clerk (the scene in which he listens to a distraught passenger ask him for directions and he puts her off with a meaningless but impressive-sounding answer is a delight), until he in turn takes off the jacket and hat to use the washroom and the real information clerk steals them back.

Chic eventually lucks out when a passenger in a hurry to catch a train makes the train but leaves his carry-on bag behind — and the bag just happens to contain a suit that fits Chic (a continuity gaffe since the actor playing the hapless passenger was about six inches shorter than Fairbanks) as well as a razor, so he can shave and look presentable — and also the suit contains a cash supply which Chic appropriates and uses to treat Ruth Collins (Joan Blondell) to a meal. Ruth is a showgirl who broke her ankle and had to drop out; she moved into a sleazy boarding house and got a job as a waitress to pay her rent, and one of the other residents, Dr. Bernardi (George Roesner), attempted to rape her and forced her to flee to the station, where she’s hoping to score $64 so she can take a train to Salt Lake City and rejoin her show now that her ankle has healed. Chic gets her a private dining room in the hotel adjoining the depot, and there’s a quite graphic (for 1932) clinch scene between them, after which Chic figures Ruth is trying to set him up for blackmail.

Meanwhile, Chic has lifted a wallet containing a claim check for a violin case — he figures he’ll pawn the violin and get more money to pay for Ruth’s train ticket and get her some new clothes — only instead of a violin it contains thousands of dollars in cash. What we later find out is that the cash is actually counterfeit, the violin case’s rightful owner “Bushy” Sloan (Alan Hale, more restrained than usual) is part of the gang that made this money and is attempting to pass it, and Chic has hit on the idea of hiding the money in a coal bin (I was thinking along Ocean’s Eleven lines here and wondering if the money would end up as train fuel), while Scrap Iron has sneaked in and stolen it. Chic kept one bundle — wrapped in a wrapper which Sloan recognizes — and when he starts spending the phony dough around the station, it’s recognized as counterfeit and both he and Ruth are arrested by agents Kendall (David Landau) and Parker (Earle Foxe) of the U.S. Secret Service.

Chic offers to lead agent Parker to the money and does so, only the violin case now contains only coal (Scrap Iron stole the counterfeit bills and filled the case with coal from the bin) and Sloan tracks both men down, shoots Parker, and gets chased by Chic across the train station — both of them narrowly miss being run over by trains (earlier Dr. Bernardi — ya remember Dr. Bernardi? — crashed Union Depot and hid out in the compartment Chic bought for Ruth for another shot at raping her, only she screamed, Chic got the conductor to open the door in time, and Bernardi fled by breaking the compartment window but ultimately was run down on one of the tracks). Eventually Kendall holds Chic, Ruth and Sloan in custody and threatens to book them all until Parker recovers from the shooting, ID’s Sloan as the shooter and back up Chic’s story — and there’s a bittersweet ending.

Union Depot began life as a play by Joe Laurie, Jr. (co-author with Abel Green of the 1950’s book Show Business, a history of U.S. show business as told from the point of view of Variety magazine, which Green edited for decades), Gene Fowler and Douglas Durkin; they wrote it in 1929 but it was never published and may never have been performed on stage. The writing credits list Kenyon Nicholson and Walter De Leon for “scenario” and Kubec Glasmon and John Bright for “dialogue” (in case you’re keeping score, that’s seven writers all told!) and the director is Alfred E. Green, never any great shakes as a filmmaker but a reliable cog in the Warners machine. The opening reels are a bit too frantically paced, but once the script narrows its focus to the principals the story takes on real intensity and pathos, and the film overall is the sort of exciting entertainment the studios routinely churned out in the days of the studio system. Aside from Blondell (who instead of playing the wise-cracking blonde is cast here in the other type for which she was known, the world-weary piece of human flotsam looking for a life in which she can settle down and hopefully — though less importantly — a man she can settle down in it with), none of the actors in this are really great, though they’re at least personable even if the film could have been worlds better with Clark Gable in Fairbanks’ role. (Gable was already under contract to MGM but did do some loanouts to Warners’/First National around this time, including Night Nurse and The Finger Points.)

Still, it’s a fast-moving film and the relationship between the Fairbanks and Blondell characters achieves a beautiful pathos — and the cuts between nervous loves and implacable cops work quite well to underscore how much these two nice young people are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Union Depot is an estimable movie that, at a mere 65 minutes, is just long enough to tell its story and bring richness and depth to it without padding it out or making it boring: a good example of the narrative economy that frequently separates the taut, well-constructed movies of the studio era with the oppressive, boring rambles through hoary old plots and situations we get today!