The clock chimes six o'clock at the Union Depot while the Salvation Army marches by with a drunk stumbling not far behind them. A paper boy plies his trade next to the entrance which swings open revealing a panoramic view of 1932 America in all its glory. The train caller (George MacFarlane) sings out "All aboard" to clusters of all classes and ethnicities across the wide expanse of the Union Depot station.
Union Depot hosts immigrants of all flags from bearded Russians to an Asian family reunited. A poor mother keeps her wild brethren in line leading them across the floor by a chain rope so as not to lose them. Little Dickie Moore is part of the picture perfect family, all seen off by dear old dad, who quickly turns his attention to a fishing brochure that he's sure to take advantage of now that Dickie and the clan are out of the way. Sailors are out for a good time and joust with the painted-up local girls looking for fun on their dime. A woman cries alone; another is gleefully seen off to Reno by her experienced friend; yet one more is off to Hollywood seeking stardom and doesn't hesitate to start pleasing her future public by hiking her skirt from her ankles to above her knees at the cajoling of the frenzied press. When asked if he has Town and Country a Jewish newsstand operator replies, "We did. Only they took it away from us 3,000 years ago."
While the picture painted here by Director Alfred E. Green's Union Depot seems nearly perfect I'd be remiss not to point out one group which still must take a flop for the sake of comedy relief, no surprise, the blacks of Union Depot. While the 1930's screen treatment of African Americans is no secret, largely dismissed by today's classic fans as the fault of the times, I feel uncomfortable completely glossing over it in a movie as strong as Union Depot which nonetheless still deserves to grow its fan base. In doing so it will provide a handful of unpleasant surprises along the way for first time viewers, an especial shame in this case because of the otherwise effective cross-section of peoples Union Depot does provide the modern viewer.
But Green's documentary of New York is otherwise so complete that by the six minute thirty mark, when a stick pokes through a bathroom window to snare a conductor's uniform, you already feel as though you were treated to a mini-feature. But in reality Union Depot is only now just beginning as fishing on the other side of the window is a scruffy Douglas Fairbanks Jr. with an even more disheveled Guy Kibbee alongside him. Kibbee's Scrap Iron is a confirmed hobo, while Fairbanks's Chick Miller may look too young for the part, but he's well on his way to the same title. The pair were released from jail at noon that day after having served 10 days apiece on a vagrancy charge. This is, might I remind you, the Great Depression, and Scrap Iron and Chick are full of references and snappy slang to remind you the rest of the way. As Chick emerges from the station in his conductor's costume, Scrap Iron, excited by the possibilities, says "I'd rather starve than eat those vagrancy beans again."
Perhaps no one in Union Depot reminds us more of those Forgotten Men from World War I than the drunken character played by Frank McHugh, who's absolutely convinced that Fairbanks is wearing a sailor's uniform. Sure of Chick's service (amusing since Fairbanks was 8 when the war ended) McHugh remarks "I can see it in your eyes." McHugh really turns it on when a conductor, not yet in uniform, enters the area and he asks the man, "Were you a slacker?" The older man just smiles as he dresses for work, his outfit not revealed for McHugh until the effect is complete and then Frank begs his forgiveness, throwing his arms around both Chick and the other conductor only to tell them of how tough he had it on the home front, what with sugar 18 cents per pound and no meat for two days at a time. Beyond the always enjoyable McHugh taking over his one scene in Union Depot, he unintentionally does Chick a big favor by leaving his bag behind when he hustles off-screen to make his train. Fairbanks lucks into a shaving kit, cleans himself up some, then pockets a wad of bills inside the bag before McHugh sprints back in to grab the bag off the floor and scrambles off for the final time.
The Fairbanks Jr. of Union Depot is the Fairbanks I wish we could have had in Little Caesar. The talk of the time comes so naturally to Chick while the sensitive Joe Massera of Caesar seemed uncomfortable in his own skin and lacking any distinct color of the period. Witness Fairbanks' Chick so smoothly laying back on a couch spouting his outlook to Joan Blondell's Ruth and punctuating himself by flicking a gum wrapper away as carefree as he takes life in general. I could only picture Cagney with moves so fluid. Before meeting Ruth, Chick charms the waitresses inside the Depot and then tells off one of the young women on the make after spying a wad of bills in her stocking: "Your legs are fat enough without any padding." When he exits the men's room, his new respectable personality all in order, and a bum hits him up for a full buck, Chick is taken aback. He tells the man if he asked for a nickel he would have gotten it, but then this fellow earns his respect by telling him to spare the lecture and Chick pays out because he's impressed.
Blondell's Ruth is typical pre-Code Blondell of the sweet vein. She's says she's been around, but Ruth is very naive, in fact it's her trusting nature which has put her in a spot, sending her to the Depot with hopes of corralling the $64.50 necessary to reach Vegas. Chick, moments after his encounter with the padded legs, takes a cynical approach with Ruth, but he's nonetheless very interested in beautiful young Blondell. Ruthie starts to get Chick down with her moping, but then sensing her fare money flying away she puts on a happy face and does her best to seduce him. When she can't go through with it Chick snaps, angered not because he's being deprived her charms, but because she was willing to put herself in such a position. He smacks her face and calls her a phony before asking what she would have done if he was some other guy who wouldn't have stopped when he did. It's this moment of honesty, despite the momentary outburst of violence, which brings about an understanding between Chick and Ruth. They're infatuated with one another, a casual pre-Code style love/lust summed up by Chick's later telling her, "I think you're a swell little package."
An interesting subplot to Union Depot is Ruthie's motivation for fleeing New York--in Dr. Bernardi (George Rosener), Warner Brothers and First National Pictures bring us a real live screen pervert! Ruth sandwiches a medium build between Dr. Bernardi's most obvious physical traits when describing him to Chick: he walks with a limp and wears dark glasses. Bernardi claimed his glasses were for poor eyesight, and so he had Ruth read to him, but his books were unlike any others she'd ever encountered before and certainly not meant for mixed company. She always found him a bit strange, but he never touched her until one night when Ruth described him as having gone insane and he tried his best to grab hold of her. We hear the tale of Dr. Bernardi not long after seeing the menace himself exiting a cab and limping into the Depot, Ruth's story putting a name to the then unidentified figure.
But this is only how our characters each arrived at Union Depot. Layered on top is a crime story featuring Alan Hale as counterfeiter Bushy Sloan and the Federal Agent Kendall played by the typically deadpan David Landau. Hale, sporting a fake German accent, drops off a violin case at the station counter and quickly has his claim check picked along with the rest of his pocket by a passer by who then drops Bushy's wallet out the bathroom window right into the waiting hands of Guy Kibbee's Scrap Iron. Scrap Iron passes the claim ticket off to Chick once they meet up again and the dapper Fairbanks soon emerges with Bushy's violin case. When Chick takes it across the road hoping to hock it he pauses a moment to peer inside and sees that it's filled with cash! He runs out of the pawn shop, grabs Scrap Iron, and together they stash the loot in a coal yard where Scrap Iron's enlisted to watch it with his life by Chick's orders. Of course Chick pocketed one packet of money and you might recall how I originally referred to Bushy as a counterfeiter so the natural course of events eventually has Chick crossing swords with Landau's Kendall.
At the climax of Union Depot is an excellent action sequence where Chick tries to clear himself by chasing Bushy Sloan all over the rail yard including a race between two moving trains and the pair skipping across the tops of two other trains that speed past one another. While the shots are from a distance, and it's obviously not Fairbanks or Hale doing the stunts, the scene's breakneck pace really puts you on the edge of your seat, rooting for the eventual fisticuffs which were no doubt the culmination of the chase from its start.
Union Depot is filled with tough and fast talk and so many diverse characters that you practically need a scorecard beyond the top billed few. For Depression Era audiences it's another reminder of the Forgotten Man and for us today it's a detailed slice of the Great Depression. While thorough and largely incisive that portrait is definitely smeared in a few spots which will jar viewers today. But when narrowing our focus to Chick, Scrap Iron, and Ruth, plus Kendall and Bushy and even the disgusting Dr. Bernardi, and dismissing the rest purely as scenery, Union Depot winds a Depression Era romance together with a typical crime story of the period and does it with a lot of extra flavor!
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