Monday, October 4, 2010

Union Depot directed by Alfred E. Green (starring Joan Blondell, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Alan Hale, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh)

Union Depot (1932). Screenplay by Kenyon Nicholson and Walter De Leon, and dialogue by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, from an unpublished play by Joe Laurie Jr., Gene Fowler, and Douglas Durkin.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars as Chick, a vagrant just out of jail — and traveling with his partner "Scrap Iron," played by prolific character actor Guy Kibbee (Rain) — who takes advantage of a drunk's forgetfulness to get himself a shave and a change of clothes (and an unexpected pocketful of money) in order to get a hot meal at Union Depot.

His stomach full, he looks to satisfy another need and propositions Ruth (the cherubic Joan Blondell) due to her resemblance to a hooker who had just offered her services to him in the diner — and she takes him up on it (nothing explicit is ever mentioned) because she is desperate for money for a train ticket. Chick soon finds out Ruth is not a pro, however, and after he reprimands her, they hit it off romantically.

Meanwhile, Alan Hale (who had a memorable role in It Happened One Night, and who was the father of Alan Hale Jr., the Skipper on Gilligan's Island) plays a German violinist who turns out to be an American counterfeiter (guess what's in his violin case?). How Chick and Ruth get the case and start inadvertently passing phony money is complex but believable (the police spend the last quarter of the movie trying to figure it all out), as is their burgeoning affair, since they're both such pretty people.

Union Depot is a lot of fun but it also shines a light on the problems of the Depression — namely a lack of opportunity. Everyone in this film is making their own luck (both good and bad), and since this was made in the pre-Code era it's interesting to see how some crimes are "OK" in this context (Ruth's amateur prostitution and Chick's theft of the drunk's clothes) — since the crimes get them something they genuinely need to get along — and some are not (the counterfeiting, since it just involves greed). This take on relative wrongness would change completely with the enforcement of the Production Code by Joseph Breen in July 1934.

The story was reportedly a knockoff of the popular play that would inspire Grand Hotel (which followed Union Depot into theaters 3 months later), but I feel that the similarities are few and only on the surface. Director Alfred E. Green (The Goose and the Gander) does an admirable job of making light of Depression-era troubles without being disrespectful. And, best of all, things end the way they should end, not necessarily the way we want them to.

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