Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick from me and blog friend Karen of Shadows & Satin, when we each choose one gem from this era that’s showing on TCM.
This is a great Warner Bros. picture about a down-on-their-luck couple who meet at a train station, and over the course of the next few hours get involved with each other, and with criminal activity that nearly lands them in jail. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays a hobo fresh out of jail, scoping out the opportunities at a busy train station. He parlays one theft into another until he’s decked out in a fancy suit (stolen from a drunk Frank McHugh–surprisingly it fits perfectly) and enough cash to treat himself to a great meal. He then picks up a desperate-looking woman, Ruth (Joan Blondell), who is willing to anything to get the train fare she needs to escape the dirty old man who’s employed her, and also get to Salt Lake City where a stage role is waiting for her.
Thanks to a random pickpocket and a claim ticket falling into the hands of Chick’s buddy Scrap Iron (Guy Kibbee), Chick happens into a fortune–except they don’t know it’s counterfeit cash meant for an exchange at the station. Chick plays Santa for Ruth, and that gets them into big trouble with the Feds (David Landau) and the crook looking to recover his phony dough, Bushy (Alan Hale, Sr.). Meanwhile Ruth’s perverted stalker has discovered her plans and tricks her into his private train cabin where he plans to rape her.
And that’s not everything, which goes to show that Union Depot has nearly everything: it’s a cross-section of society, with all races and classes rushing to and fro. It includes betrayals, murder and a hair-raising railyard chase complete with graphic, fatal mishaps, plus a little fashion show as Ruth goes shopping with Chick’s cash. After the authorities nab Chick and Ruth, frantic efforts to prove his story about the violin case full of funny money create a ton of frustration and tension. The lawmen are so dense they drop every lead, doubt the honest and believe the liars. It all snowballs into a nightmare straight out of the darkest noir, a mess and a possible murder rap for Chick and Ruth, and one resolved only by lucky timing.
It’s a fast, crowded, unpredictable and enjoyable movie that for all its lightness, romance, comedy and thrills, is also dark, sleazy and frank about hard times, how far and low people with good hearts but no good options must go to get out of rotten situations, and how often they’ll be wrongly judged on their pasts or their clothes, and taken advantage of or left behind. One great naughty gag comes from the woman who sees off her porter husband, makes him promise to behave himself while away, and then greets her boyfriend as he hops off the last car. A deeper zinger comes from the Jewish news seller who’s asked by a customer, “don’t you have a Town & Country?” “I did,” he replies, “but it was taken away from me 3,000 years ago.”
Blondell is sweet and terrified, Fairbanks rascally and jaded, and their good performances really make this movie. Their exchanges in the hotel room are gold, with her nervously pretending to be experienced at selling herself and hating every second of it, then his anger at wasted time that turns into understanding and generosity as she tells a relatable hard luck story. She stares longingly at the honeymooners entering the station across the street; such a blissful safe life has never seemed so far away, but somehow she and Chick get their twist on a happy ending by the time they leave Union Depot.
Watch Union Depot on TCM May 15, and now please click here to see which Pre-Code film Karen has picked for your viewing pleasure.