Union Depot (film)

Union Depot is a 1932 American pre-Code film directed by Alfred E. Green for Warner Bros., starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Blondell, and based on an unpublished play by Joe Laurie Jr., Gene Fowler, and Douglas Durkin. The film, an ensemble piece for the studio's contract players, also features performances by Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, David Landau, and George Rosener.[2]

Union Depot
Title Shot
Directed byAlfred E. Green
Produced byDarryl Zanuck
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Screenplay by
Based onUnion Depot
1929 play
by Joe Laurie Jr.
Gene Fowler
Douglas Durkin
Music byLeo F. Forbstein
CinematographySol Polito
Edited byJack Killifer
First National Pictures (Warner Bros.)
Release date
  • January 14, 1932 (1932-01-14)
Running time
65 minutes
Box office$637,000[upper-alpha 1]


Charles "Chick" Miller (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is a hobo released from jail for vagrancy, along with fellow drifter "Scrap Iron" Scratch (Guy Kibbee). The two men then head to the local railroad station "to catch a train out of town". Through a series of chance encounters with travelers in the main terminal of Union Depot, Chick becomes, in his own words, a "Gentleman for a Day" (the name under which the film was released in the United Kingdom).

Entering Union Depot, Chick, steals or "acquires" a station official's uniform. Concerned that he will be caught impersonating staff he retreats into the public washroom, where he finds a suitcase left by a drunk passenger. Inside the suitcase are toiletries and a nice double-breasted man's suit that has a wad of cash in one of its pockets. After getting cleaned up in the washroom and changing into the suit, Chick uses the money to buy himself a much-need meal at the depot's diner. Soon he meets Ruth Collins (Joan Blondell) sitting on a bench in the main terminal. She tells him that she is an out-of-work chorus girl, is broke, and desperate to raise the $64 train fare to Salt Lake City, where a job is waiting for her. Although she is telling him the truth, he thinks she is a prostitute, and he offers to take her to a nearby private "dining room" to treat her to dinner and to have an intimate time together drinking. There he becomes angry when she resists further advances after they kiss. He calls her a "phony" but begins to believe her story after she shows him a telegram with her job offer. Ruth admits to him that she is certainly "no Pollyanna" but not a prostitute. She then confides to Chick that she is worried about being followed by Dr. Bernardi (George Rosener), whom she describes as a "madman" and a fellow resident of the cheap boarding house where she had lived. She adds that the strange, obsessive doctor had "bad eyes" and had previously paid her to read to him in the evenings, namely lewd "European" publications that she found disgusting. Now feeling sorry for Ruth and describing himself as "Santa Claus", Chick tells Ruth he will give her the money she needs "with no strings attached".

Meanwhile, back inside Union Depot, among the crowd is Bushy Sloan (Alan Hale), who presents himself as a German "musician" and carries a violin case. Soon he checks his case at the station's baggage area, depositing it there for temporary storage. The case, however, does not contain a violin; it is full of counterfeit money. A pickpocket later steals Sloan's wallet, which holds his baggage-claim ticket. The thief discards the wallet in an alleyway after removing its cash. While waiting for Chick outside the depot, Scrap Iron finds the wallet. It is not completely empty; the ticket is still inside it. Later he gives the ticket to Chick, who uses it to reclaim the violin case. Initially, Chick plans to pawn the case; however, when he opens it, he is stunned to find it full of money, not realizing it is all counterfeit. He hides the case and most of the bogus cash in a coal bin at a small building near the central depot and instructs Scrap Iron to stand guard while he ponders what to do next. Chick sees Ruth again and gives her some of the violin-case money to buy new clothes at a shop in the station. She too is unaware that it is counterfeit.

While Chick is away, Dr. Bernardi sends Ruth a passenger ticket and a message to meet him in the designated train compartment. Believing the ticket is from Chick, Ruth goes there. When she finds Bernardi instead, she begins screaming. Chick breaks through the locked door, but Bernardi escapes through a window. As he runs across an adjacent railroad track he is struck by a passing train and killed.

A dress shop clerk (Adrienne Dore) who had sold clothes to Ruth becomes suspicious of the cash she had used. The clerk decides to take the counterfeit bills to the station master. Both Ruth and Chick are then taken into custody by government agent Kendall (David Landau). Kendall has been alerted that Bushy, a known criminal, was at the station to pass the phony money to an associate; but he has no description of Bushy. He therefore believes that Ruth might either be Bushy or one of his associates. To clear her, Chick goes to retrieve the hidden violin case and is escorted by another agent, Jim Parker (Earle Foxe). The men are followed by Bushy, who shoots Parker, and flees with the case. Chick chases and catches him. All is eventually cleared up, and Ruth has a bittersweet parting from Chick, as she leaves on the train to Utah. The film ends with Chick and Scrap Iron walking together along the railroad track, away from Union Depot and back to their lives as hobos.



The high cost of constructing the large, elaborate train-station set for Union Depot proved in the long run to be worthwhile for Warner Bros., which had purchased First National Pictures several years prior to the production of Union Depot. In his article about the film, one written for Turner Classic Movies, comic-book artist and crime-film enthusiast Frank Miller notes, "...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."[3][4]

Because Union Depot was produced prior to the rigid enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, the film's storyline contains many topics that would have, by the latter half of 1934, jeopardized the certificate of approval needed for a production's release in the United States. Some of these forbidden topics in Union Depot include the following:

  • Ruth reads what is implied to be very lewd or "off-color" stories to Dr. Bernardi.
  • Though Chick stops short of taking advantage of Ruth's plight, she makes it clear that she has "been around" and is willing to do whatever is necessary for the price of a train ticket. Despite this, she emerges unscathed, which ran counter to one of the Hays Code's requirements that "sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of the crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin".[5]
  • Chick, who demonstrates that he is a thief, liar and someone quite willing to purchase sexual services, is ultimately neither held accountable for his actions nor "punished" in any way by the end of Union Depot; in fact, he emerges as the film's hero.

Critical reception

The picture launched its New York debut at the Winter Garden Theater, on January 14, 1932. The New York Times movie critic, Mordaunt Hall, characterized Union Depot as an "ingenious, rather than artistic" melodrama recalling the (then) play Grand Hotel. He noted that some of the dialogue was at times unnecessarily "raw" and that Mr. Fairbanks appeared to have "taken a leaf from James Cagney's book, judging by his talk and the way he slaps a girl's face". He also questioned the realism of a hobo speaking with Mr. Fairbanks' excellent elocution.[6]

The popular entertainment trade publication Variety complimented the performances of Blondell and Fairbanks in what it described as a "bing-bing, action melodrama".[7] Variety also praised the "capital bit of technique" employed in the series of brief scenes at the beginning of the film to establish the plot's tongue-in-cheek attitude toward human (mis)behavior.[7]


  1. According to Warner Bros records the film earned $488,000 domestically and $149,000 foreign.[1]


  1. Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 13 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  2. "Union Depot (1932)", Internet Movie Database (IMDb), a subsidiary of Amazon, Seattle, Washington. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  3. Miller, Frank. "Union Depot (1932)", article, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Broadcasting System, a subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc., New York, N.Y. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  4. Erikson, Hal. "Union Depot (1932)", synopsis, AllMovie. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  5. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, reasons for Underlying General Principals, Section 1.(2).
  6. Hall, Mordaunt (1932). "All Aboard!", review of Union Depot, The New York Times archives, January 15, 1932. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  7. "Rush." (1932). "Union Depot", film review, Variety (New York, N.Y.), January 19, 1932, pages 25, 29. Internet Archive, San Francisco, California. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
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