Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Snapshot # 3 - Union Depot (1932)

What is it about? : Amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy train station, a smart talking hobo in a stolen suit passes himself off as a gentleman and decides to help a young girl get some money for her train ticket. He soon lands himself in trouble with a gang of forgers, the FBI and the girl’s creepy stalker.

The Call Sheet : Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale, David Landau, George Rosener, Frank McHugh

Behind the Camera : Directed by Alfred E. Green, Cinematography by Sol Polito, Art direction by Jack Okey.

Snapshot Thoughts : Union Depot is a typical Warner Brothers slice of Depression life, and as such exudes the usual streetwise attitude and grimy atmosphere. Pretty much everything that makes pre code films so enjoyable are present in some form, but more importantly the movie treats its audience as adults, being open and frank about the realities of life in the big city in 1932. This results in a film with a typically cynical, world weary viewpoint. Our hero, Chic (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is a vagrant who steals clothes to pass himself off as someone else, continually lies, has no problem using stolen money and has a less than savoury attitude towards women. All this is treated as an acceptable by product of the environment. Along the way we meet a variety of Depression era stock characters in the titular Union Depot, each given a short vignette that hints at their own inner dramas and conflicts. Some of the more interesting are a grubby pan handler who only wants dollars and no less, a prostitute with money tucked into her stockings, a woman on her way to Reno for a divorce, a girl in tears as she presumably leaves to get an abortion, and a degenerate stalker (complete with black glasses and limp) with a penchant for having dirty books read to him. The list just goes on and on. There is so much detail in the film that it requires multiple viewings to take in every little moment. When this is combined with a tightly plotted storyline driven by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s curiously compelling character it all adds up to an evocative and textured movie experience. In many ways the main plot serves only as window dressing to the real story, the everyday struggles of ordinary, sometimes unsavoury people trying to make a living during the height of the Depression, and all passing through the crossroads of the Union Depot. The end result is never less than entertaining.

Star Performances : Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is definitely the star of the picture, and gives a confident, swaggering performance as hobo turned gentleman Chic Miller. He is at times unrecognisable from his matinee idol image; skinny, wiry, unshaven, sans moustache, constantly chewing gum and with an impassive grin, he is both charming yet deeply unlikeable. His years on the road and being in and out of prison have given Chic the rough edge of a survivor . A testament to Fairbanks' skill with the character is his reaction to Ruth (Joan Blondell) not being the good time girl he was expecting. He shockingly slaps her then berates for not putting out and thus making a fool of him. Yet within minutes, upon hearing Ruth’s sob story he agrees to help her, he smiles and all is forgiven. By the end of the movie, with everything resolved and goodbyes being said, Chic reaches the point where we almost like and admire him (Ruth has certainly fallen for him), though still with a lingering uneasiness that he is being less than sincere. That he manages this feat really shows Fairbanks' natural charisma and ease in front of the camera. Although perhaps better known as an actor from his late 30s films onwards, Fairbanks here proves to be an underrated pre code anti hero. The rest of the cast is the usual line up of stellar character actors including an excellent turn from Guy Kibbee as Chic’s eternally grinning best friend, a chilling George Rosener as the depraved stalker, a small but effective cameo from Frank McHugh as a drunk and the usual blink and you’ll miss them walk ons from the likes of Charles Lane, Irving Bacon and Dorothy Christy.

Technical Excellences: If it's the various minor characters given fleeting appearances that really gives the film its flavour, this is bolstered no end by the stunning cinematography of Sol Polito. Polito was Warner Brothers/First National go to cinematographer during this period and as such really outlined the look and mood of the studio in the pre code era. His work on I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang defined the darkness and cynicism of the era and more of his great work can be seen in films such as Three on a Match, Five Star Final, The Mind Reader and Picture Snatcher to name but a few. Union Depot is no different and in fact probably contains some of his finest work. This is seen particularly in the open scene where the camera enters the station, and floats up and down, focusing on the various people in the depot and their lives and dramas. The camera moves in a fluid, dreamlike way, eavesdropping on each scene then leaving just as it gets intriguing. The shot lasts a couple of minutes and must have been extraordinarily complicated for Polito and director Alfred E. Green to set up but the end result is one seamlessly edited, photographed and directed extended shot of pure cinema. Alfred E. Green deserves some credit too, despite being generally regarded as a journeyman studio director he manages to make the complexity of Union Depot’s busy plot and multiple characters flow very smoothly with a brisk pace. Mention also needs to be made of the location and set work. The depot itself really is the real star of the movie, from the impressively large station to the darkened train tracks shrouded in gloom. Apparently all the locations were massive sets constructed on the Warner lot, and in which case my hat is off to the designer as they look astounding. On a final technical note, the decision to do without a musical score for the movie is a stroke of genius. Instead of incidental music the soundtrack is populated by the noises of people in the station combined with the ever present clanging of the train bells and shunting and hissing of the steam engines, giving the film an almost otherworldly feeling. In an era where sound was used predominantly to record endless dialogue, Union Depot puts its Vitaphone capabilities to creative use.

The Sublime: The opening scene just has to be watched, it is a thing of beauty. As I mentioned, the choreography and direction must have been extremely complicated but it flows stunningly well. As the film starts with the Union Depot sign and the sound of a funereal clock chiming the camera starts its journey and we see glimpses of other people's lives: a newspaper seller, a drunk, a man selling wooden duck toys, a brass band, all combined with the rumble of the streets in the background. As we step into the station the camera lifts into the sky and proceeds to swoop down to eavesdrop on a variety of everyday situations played out by the commuters. The snippets of dialogue here are sparkling with earthy wit. A haughty society lady asks at a news stand “Haven’t you a ‘Town and Country’?” to which the man behind the counter replies in a thick accent, “I did, only they took it away from us three thousand years ago”. A sailor propositions a flapper with “C’mon sweetheart, I ain’t like most sailors” to which the girl snaps back, “Then I ain’t interested!”. A starlet on her way to Hollywood clutching a small dog is asked to show some leg by a reporter. She is reluctant but shows an ankle until he says “Think of your public!” and she hoists it up to thigh height! There are so many little moments like this that are beautifully observed that one wonders what Lubitsch or Cukor could’ve done with the material. However, if the movie had their sort of polish, so much of its grimy charm would be lost. As it is, the opening shot of Union Depot deserves to be remembered as one of the cinematic highlights of the pre code era, as it encapsulates everything both socially and cinematically that makes early sound films so evocative and thrilling.

The Ridiculous: Though the movie is generally very entertaining there are a few scenes and details that let it down somewhat. Most perplexing is the scene where Chic mistakes Ruth for a prostitute at the station and offers to "work out a scheme" to pay for her train ticket. Whether Ruth is aware of his intentions is left ambiguous though she does mention that she desperately needs the money and agrees to go to a hotel room with Chic. When they get to the seedy hotel room Chic puts on the mood music but once Ruth realises exactly what sort of arrangement she is part of and starts crying, Chic flies into a rage and slaps her. The scene is well acted in itself but it displays a troubling attitude to women on the part of our hero. He has nothing but contempt for prostitutes, yet seemingly has no problems with using them. Furthermore, when a woman refuses to go along with the ‘scheme’ he loses his temper and complains about how they have made a sucker of him. However, the minute he finds out that Ruth is actually fairly virtuous (though she’s ‘no Pollyanna’), his demeanour changes entirely and he becomes the epitome of charm and ready to help. It’s a worrying attitude, particularly for the behaviour of a supposed hero (or even anti hero), but doubtless one that was (and still is) not uncommon amongst men. This doesn’t exactly qualify as a ‘ridiculous’ moment but it’s one that leaves about as sour a taste as anything I’ve seen in a pre code movie.

Another problem with the movie is its use of Joan Blondell. By 1932 she had graduated to starring roles and had a string of memorable parts behind her, yet here she’s an afterthought. I’m unclear when this was filmed in relation to her other movies of the time but there are moments when her acting is quite stilted and unsure, and lacks the pep of her usual appearances. Even worse, as the movie draws to a close and the mystery is being untangled, she is so incidental to the plot that she spends the last reel either sitting or standing around in silence, with cuts to occasional close ups where she attempts to convey a mix of fear, disappointment or bewilderment with mixed results. In fact for one moment it looks like she has fallen asleep waiting for her next line. So between being slapped about and ignored, Union Depot is not her finest hour. Luckily the movie gives us the gift of Alan Hale to lighten the tone and his truly preposterous German accent, complete with heavy rolling 'r's ("put this young rrrascal behind bars!"). Combined with the fact that it’s difficult to see Alan Hale as anything other than the genial sidekick, he’s the least convincing villain you are likely to find. Sadly, that's not the original intention.

Is it worth watching? Definitely. Aside from the opening shot (have I mentioned that the opening shot is amazing and that you need to see it?), the whole movie just bursts with Warner Brothers' unique brand of pre code ’social realism’. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. does play a troublingly unlikeable character but nonetheless brings rugged charm to the role. Sadly Joan Blondell is completely wasted but at least she is there and though slightly muted, is never less that lovely. However, at the end of the day, the real star is the Union Depot itself, and its ever present soundtrack of bellowing porters and clanging bells. That the film begins and ends with the Union Depot sign emphasises the importance of the location as the only real constant in the movie. Everyone else is just passing through.

Random Quote: "I can't stand a dame who plays me for a sucker. Why only a couple of minutes ago I walked out on a little tramp. The minute I saw you I knew it was a conquest"