Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., then one of the studio's top male stars, delivered one of his best performances as a homeless man who profits not once, but twice from stumbling upon lost money. No mere thief, however, he gives in to his innate nobility to help showgirl on the run (Joan Blondell) and fellow hobo Guy Kibbee, a plot turn that explains the film's British title, Gentleman for a Day.
Blondell's scenes give the film a sexual edge rarely seen after censorship reared its ugly head in 1934. On the run from a sexual predator who very clearly intends to rape her, she tries to earn train fare to a promised job in Salt Lake City by coming on to Fairbanks. Audiences used to Blondell's later work as a character actress are often surprised by the blatant sexuality of her early performances. In many ways, she was Warners' resident hooker with a heart of gold, even when she stopped short of turning tricks, as in Union Depot. She also was one of the studio's most generously endowed leading ladies. Her more sensual appearances were often cut by film censors and generated memos from production chief Darryl F. Zanuck about keeping her breasts covered so the studio could actually release her movies.
Despite the film's hints of sexual perversion and Blondell's clear attempts to sell herself for $64, the picture got past the admittedly weak Production Code Administration (PCA) with few problems. At the time, the PCA and local censors were more concerned about gangster films like Warners' Little Caesar (1931), also starring Fairbanks, and The Public Enemy (1931), which co-starred Blondell. Censors and law-enforcement officials were convinced that these films were teaching young people how to commit crimes. When a researcher took a young boy to see Union Depot to find out if the film would have a bad effect on him, the only thing of note he reported was the boy's disappointment when Fairbanks opened a lost violin case to discover it was filled with money, a scene that apparently brought gasps from contemporary audiences. The child had hoped the case would contain a machine gun.
Censorship issues aside, Union Depot was, like so many Warner Bros. films of the '30s, a showcase for the studio's roster of contract players. In addition to Fairbanks and Blondell, the picture offered meaty roles to Kibbee as Fairbanks' fellow hobo, Alan Hale as a crooked businessman and Frank McHugh as a local drunk. Other studio stalwarts working on the film included director Alfred E. Green -- whose 109 films would include Mary Pickford's Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Bette Davis' Dangerous (1935) and The Jolson Story (1946) -- cinematographer Sol Polito, a favorite of many of the studio's leading ladies, and writer George Rosener, here taking a turn as an actor to play the sex fiend on Blondell's trail.
Along with its Grand Hotel like plot, Union Depot has two other elements that anticipate later hits. Two decades before High Noon (1952) won praise for taking place in real time -- the film's action unfolding in the same time it takes to view it -- Union Depot did the same thing, tracing the characters' tangled destinies through a trim 67 minutes of their time and the audience's. And Warners, always on the hunt for inexpensive story properties (one reason so many of their films were "torn from the headlines"), got their story here from an unproduced play, a move that would pay off ten years later when they turned Everybody Comes to Ricks, often called the worst play ever written, into the timeless classic Casablanca (1942). It's highly doubtful, of course, that Union Depot was the inspiration for taking a chance on more unproduced plays, but the film did leave one legacy at the studio. The impressive train station set built for this picture would resurface in Warners' films for years to come, helping keep production costs down in the time-honored Warner Bros. fashion.
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Kenyon Nicholson, Walter DeLeon, Kubec Glasmon, John Bright
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editing: Jack Killifier
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Charles Miller), Joan Blondell (Ruth Collins), Guy Kibbee (Scrap Iron Scratch), Alan Hale (The Baron), David Landau (Kendall), George Rosener (Dr. Bernardi).
by Frank Miller