One of the more overlooked directors of Hollywood’s “golden age” is Alfred E. Green — probably because his best films (like this one) are not his most famous ones. What is remarkable is that his career dates back to 1916 — a generally pretty stagey era — and yet Green’s greatest films are incredibly fluid, with many of his best scenes involving lengthy and elaborate moving shots. It would be interesting to know how his style developed, but few of his silents appear to exist. (It’s suggestive, however, that he was at Fox during that brief period when William Fox was trying to elevate movies to a new level of art with the aid of directors F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage — so it’s not unreasonable to guess he picked up something.) That fluid style marks a lot of Union Depot, which starts with a very elaborate traveling shot that remains striking to this day. It’s also a great introduction to this character and atmosphere-packed movie, which takes place almost entirely in and around a busy train station. Union Depot is generally thought of as Warner Bros.’ populist take on Grand Hotel (1932) — despite the fact that Union Depot was made in 1931 and released in January of 1932, thereby beating Grand Hotel into theaters by a substantial margin. In any case, Union Depot emerged as an entertaining and sometimes downright odd multi-story film that manages to work in everything from romance to a counterfeiting ring to a murderous sex fiend to sailors, hookers, cheating wives, immigrant families, panhandlers — you name it — in a nearly breakneck 67 minutes. The biggest story involves hobo Chick Miller (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), fresh out of jail for vagrancy, chancing (not quite honestly) on a shave, a new suit, and some money in the depot men’s room. He meets Ruth Collins (Joan Blondell), a down-on-her-luck chorus girl on the lam from the aforementioned sex fiend, and offers to “help her out.” But his offer turns genuine when he realizes she’s really a “good” girl. Complications ensue — all of which happen so fast that there’s no time to question the believability of them all.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Union Depot Tuesday, June 11, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.