Johnny Depot

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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 –

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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 –

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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.

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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.

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21 Responses to “Johnny Depot”

  1. How’s about “Dark Depot.”

  2. That’s got something… maybe an anthology series produced and presented by David Lynch. A sort of lost property office with many stories to tell…

  3. With cows and people in bunny suits wandering through every so often.

  4. Daniel Depot – there’s never been a biopic as far as I can tell, so why not jazz one up with the word that makes everything fizz? (By the way, I immediately started to look for a copy of this rather fine sounding film and there’s not one to be had for love nor money. Darn it all.)

  5. It’s funny you should bring up Daniel Depot, Duane, as my mind went to Danny Depot before reading your comment. Also, Despot Of The Depot, Derelicts Of The Depot, and Last Stop, The Depot could’ve all been worthy contenders in the pre-code era. That name, Guy Kibbee, it’s an odd one. Kibbee (not sure about the spelling) is a Lebanese food, consisting of ground meat mixed with grain. Not bad stuff, though it’s been a while since I’ve last had it.

  6. And Kibble is a cat food.

    I Googled Daniel Depot to see who he is, but I can’t find anything helpful. Is this a cunning play on Daniel Defoe? Defoe worked in Edinburgh as a secret agent, so I bet a biopic, or fictional bit of period James Bondery (entitled Cloak and Dagger?) could be trumped up.

    Paul, I have a fair collection of pre-code cuties now, I’ll happily send you a few.

    Guy, your discs arrived, many thanks! I like your title suggestions. It seems the early 30s could more easily embrace the D-word.

  7. Christopher Says:

    Union Depot=no….Union Station=yes…But if you wanna sound like Home Store warehouse…go ahead!

  8. Congratulations to Ireland on winning the Six Nations rugby Grand Slam. It was a great final.

  9. How ’bout an all-Gershwin musical called “Fascinatin’ Depot,” with 30s Cagney as a grifter in Los Angeles and Joan Blondell as the girlfriend who knows better?

  10. Christopher Says:

    Danger Depot ..a 1940s noir update of High Noon…

  11. DICTATOR DEPOT!
    An unsentimental musical-comedy starring Robert Mugabe and Kim Jun-il as potential love interests. But not forgetting the chart topping technicolor dance number performed by the US Marine Corps: “Dark Caves and Dirty Crevices: In one we chase shadows; from the other, we receive orders”.

  12. Heh. I think my first response to the title was that Union Station was transparently a better choice. Probably what happened is that the script was so cracking that everybody forgot their objections to the lacklustre title and came to associate the words “Union Depot” with excitement and spicy drama. I certainly find I do.

  13. Christopher Says:

    ..I’ll have to track down a dvd-r..Movies like this helped stir my interest in old films…Pre-codes were the staple of those early morning movies in the age before Cable and Video…I saw tons of them staying home from school sick,or days I didn’t have to go..Many of those obscure Titles are being rediscovered and getting another look as people take an intrest in them..

  14. kevin mummery Says:

    How odd that no one has suggested Sex Depot! Admittedly this is probably not the sort of title Warner Bros. would have seriously considered, but it’s still fun to imagine the effect it would have had on the box office, especially if the film actually lived up to it. Even if it didn’t, I bet the first couple of weeks would have set attendance records, before word of mouth got around that the film was sort of…limp.

  15. The pre-coders are such fun, it seems to not matter if they’re not always satisfying in story terms, they get by on energy, gags, character players, star quality (not so much with Fairbanks, maybe) and shock value. An evening with Heat Lightning, Three on a Match or Lady Killer is my idea of heaven (where heaven is kind of sleazy and violent).

  16. Christopher Says:

    The pre-coders,especially the Warners-Frist National, have all these wonderful “quirks”that you just don’t see in post ’34 films.Its like they’re a genre unto themselves that people have ignored or taken for granted all these years and are now being seen for the first time,since technology now allows us to see how many of them there are all at once, as a style to be reckoned with..I grew up with my parents always telling me..”We didn’t DO…or SAY…things like that back in my day,but these films delightfully proved them to be ….Liars! ;o)…..I’d like to see Heat Lightening get more airplay than Petrified Forest for once….I think it was more of an inspiration for the later “When You coming Back Red Rider”

  17. Thanks for the offer of Pre-Code Cuties, David – will definitely take you up on that once I’ve made a dent in my existing pile of unwatched masterpieces….

  18. Mm, never seen Red Ryder but it looks fascinating. Will grab a copy. And I just watched the startling Story of Temple Drake, which can be seen on YouTube, but has great cinematography by Karl Struss so needs to be enjoyed on a big screen.

  19. Karl Struss had an incredible career as a cinematographer, photographing Murnau’s Faust and Mamoulian’s Jekyll & Hyde as well as The Island of Lost Souls. Not long after he worked for both Chaplin (The Great Dictator) and Welles (Journey Into Fear, the ending of which had to have influenced the finale of Blade Runner). For me he’s right up there with Alton and Musuraca.

  20. love that movie! I’ve become a huge Alfred E. Green fan during the course of the past year.

    did no one suggest — THE BIG DEPOT? (actually, I think they should have used that title for the American adaptation of LA BETE HUMAINE)

  21. Lang would have preferred it, he hated the title Human Desire. “Do you know of any other kind?” he sneered. Actually, yes, my cat certainly has feline desires.

    Gotta get some frame grabs from Temple Drake, and gotta see more stuff by its director, and by Alfred E Green.

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