Train Stations are always full of activity and the night that drifters Chick Miller (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and his friend Scrap (Guy Kibbee) get out of jail is no exception. Once they’re out, they head over to the train station to try to catch a break. Chick hits the jackpot when he finds an abandoned suitcase that happens to have a nice suit and some money inside. He gets himself cleaned up, gets some dinner, and sets out to look for a woman to spend the night with. The station is full of hookers actively trying to pick him up, but he finds himself drawn to Ruth Collins (Joan Blondell). Ruth needs to catch a train to Salt Lake City ASAP, but desperately needs the money to get there. He takes her to a motel, buys her dinner, and listens to the story of how she wound up in the train station that night. She’s a showgirl who found herself stranded after breaking her ankle and had to wait for it to heal. To support herself, she had been getting paid to read smutty books to a blind old doctor. And to top it all off, now she’s worried that the creepy doctor might be following her. Luckily, her boss is willing to give her her job back if she can make it to Salt Lake City that night. After hearing her story, Chick offers to buy her ticket for her, no strings attached.
Meanwhile, counterfeiter Bushy Sloan (Alan Hale) has come to town with a violin case full of counterfeit money. He checks the case and puts the claim check in his wallet, but then his wallet is stolen. The thief takes the money and ditches the wallet, which is found by Scrap. When Chick and Ruth come back to the station, Scrap sees him and gives him the claim check so that he can bring whatever it is that’s checked to the pawn shop. Chick gets the violin case, but when he sees it’s full of money, he takes some, has Scrap help him hide the case, and goes to buy Ruth a new dress. He leaves Ruth to buy the dress and while she’s in the store, a ticket is delivered to her. Naturally, she assumes it’s from Chick, and hurries over to the train. When she gets there, she realizes her worst fear has come true — that creepy doctor really was following her. But that’s not even the worst of her problems. By now, the store clerk has realized she paid with counterfeit money and both Chick and Ruth are arrested. Fortunately, Chick is able to clear both of their names.
I loved Union Depot! It’s usually described as being kind of like Grand Hotel, but in a train station, which isn’t a bad description of it. It doesn’t have as many different stories going on as Grand Hotel, but isn’t as long as Grand Hotel, either. Union Depot is one of those wonderful movies that wastes absolutely no time at all. It’s only a little over an hour long, but it sure made the most of its time. If you love pre-codes, Union Depot is so up your alley because it is jam-packed with pre-code goodness. Within the first five minutes alone, it’s got hookers looking for some sailors and a person posing for pictures by a train while the photographer asks her to show more leg. And then when you factor in Ruth’s story about being paid to read smutty books to a creepy old doctor, more hints at prostitution, and the fact that the movie’s hero is also a criminal, I think this is one of the most awesomely sordid pre-code movies I’ve ever come across.