Alfred E. Green’s Union Depot (1932) starts off by setting up the frantic pace of – what else? – a busy metropolitan train station. Moving around the depot, the film shows a wide range of people saying goodbye to loved ones, boarding trains or playing the waiting game before their trains arrive.
Now that the somewhat chaotic environment of the Union Depot has been established, the film then focuses in on a few particular characters in more detail, allowing the viewer to get to know them better.
Included are Chick (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Scrap Iron (Guy Kibbee), two men fresh out of prison for vagrancy. The two meet a bit of good fortune when Chick comes across a drunken traveler’s bag, using the shaving kit to clean himself up and dressing in one of the man’s suits, which happens to have a roll of cash in the pocket.
After using his new-found riches to buy himself a good meal, Chick is determined to find himself a lady friend. He meets a woman named Ruth (Joan Blondell), who is also in desperate need of money. She’s an out of work showgirl who needs $64 for a train ticket that will take her to a job with a traveling stage show. Chick propositions Ruth but finds that she’s not quite as willing to give into him as he expected her to be. Realizing that she truly is in need of help, Chick promises to help Ruth get a train ticket.
Meanwhile, Scrap Iron finds an apparently discarded claim check, which when redeemed by Chick turns out to be for a violin case full of counterfeit money. The money belongs to Bushy Sloan (Alan Hale), who was pick-pocketed at the station. The thief had discarded Bushy’s wallet after stealing it, leading Scrap Iron to find the claim ticket. Drama ensues over the money while Chick continues to try to help Ruth, who is also being stalked by a super-creep named Dr. Bernardi (George Rosener) who recently tried to force himself on her.
As you may have deduced from this plot description, there’s a whole lot going on in Union Depot. The film is a mix of intriguing crime drama (through the plot of the counterfeit money), romance (as Chick’s caring for Ruth grows), thriller (as Ruth gets lured in by Bernardi) and a bit of comedy. This is a very entertaining mix, which keeps the viewer glued to the screen.
The characters to which all of this action happens are highly varied. They come from very different backgrounds and lifestyles, and all have different motives for being at the station. Most of the characters are a bit sleazy, including the “hero” character of Chick, which gives the film a definite cynical edge.
Some of the characters, however, are more likable. The viewer feels a lot of sympathy for Ruth, for instance (and it isn’t just because I have a Blondell bias!). She seems to get herself into trouble accidentally, getting mixed up with the wrong people even though all she wants is to get that train ticket and start working again. Blondell’s performance also escalates the endearment of her character to the audience.
As is typical of films from the same era, Union Depot treats the topic of sex quite casually. Chick and Ruth talk about it openly when they barely know each other; Ruth admits to having “been around the block” and reading dirty novels to the dirty old man who tracks her down at the train station.
With so much happening for these characters, there are bound to be a few shocking twists, and Union Depot certainly delivers a number of big surprises. Though the film as a whole is quite cynical, it ends with a touch of sweetness. It also features very good performances and is just an interesting watch overall. The score: 3.5/5