It was B. Kite (a sort of psychic hologram created by the intersection of two universes) who first alerted me to the pleasures of UNION DEPOT, a short and almost preternaturally snappy Warner Bros crime flick of the pre-code variety. I expressed doubt as to any film that chooses to trumpet the word “depot” as part of its title. It’s not a spine-tingling word, that, depot.
You can’t even juice it up with more exciting attention-grabbers: VIOLENT DEPOT and NAKED DEPOT still fail to generate convincing thrills. PRINCE OF THE DEPOT, STAR-SPANGLED DEPOT and THE MAGIC DEPOT are titles that just kind of lie there. If you try too hard, BLOODFREAK DEPOT, BLAZING DEPOT and ATOMIC DEPOT are just confusing.
It’s actually a little more effective to go the other way and accompany the D word with other deadening and joyless language: PLASTICS DEPOT, WOUNDED DEPOT, SWARTHY DEPOT, BACON DEPOT and IMITATION LEATHER DEPOT start to sound positively gripping.
B. Kite told me to just watch the damn film. Three years later, I promptly did.
A partial checklist of things in UNION DEPOT may go some way to recovering it from the rather municipal title:
1) A giant crane shot gliding through the station doors and onto the main concourse -
2) A limping, porn-obsessed mad doctor with dark glasses (a syphillitic?) who’s stalking a dancer because he wants her to read to him -
3) Joan Blondell as the dancer (yowza!) -
4) Frank McHugh as a comedy inebriate whose suit is stolen by -
5) Vagrant Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who fits the suit perfectly despite McHugh being shaped like a kidney bean and Fairbanks like a string bean. But Fairbanks is a tough-talking criminal with a streak of honour and actually makes an exciting, unusual hero -
6) A panoply (yes! an actual panoply) of 1930s whores, yeggs, bozos and amusing ethnic types -
Blur of deadly locomotion.
7) Two gobsmacking stunts where a man (Alan hale’s stunt double) is, first, actually HIT by an actual TRAIN, and, second, knocked UNDER a train where the camera observes him patiently waiting for it to pass over his head so he can continue his desperate flight -
8) Guy Kibbee, America’s largest rodent.
These early Warners thrillers are doubly gripping because of the unexpectedness of the social attitudes: a crook or bad girl might get forgiven, or not, a member of a minority group might be treated with humour or pathos or derision. When we see a black porter saying goodbye to his girlfriend on the platform, it seems like a rare moment of ethnic normality in an old Hollywood film. Then her new lover alights from the train as it chugs off. Is the movie saying this is what all black women are like? Possibly it is — but then, everybody else in the film is grafting and cheating too. The world of Warners’ precode movies is cheerfully amoral, impossibly energetic, and simultaneously dark and light.
Best joke is probably the snooty woman asking a Jewish news agent if he has a Town & Country. “I did, but they took it away from me three thousand years ago.” There’s quite a lot to unpack in a joke like that.