A Pleasant Little Surprise

As I have written before, in recent years I have become less interested in identifying yet unnoticed auteurs -- if there any older ones left unnoticed -- and more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts workings of narrative. I have also been increasingly fascinated by the pre-Code era of Hollywood films. Those interests tend to converge frequently at TCM, and this weekend, interspersed with some Ira-eligible films and screeners for the New York Jewish Film Festival, which takes place next month, Margo and I watched several Warners and Fox programmers -- Dwan's Black Sheep, a sprightly shipboard number with Edmund Lowe and a very young Claire Trevor; Curtiz's Private Detective 62, a snappy William Powell vehicle; Del Ruth's 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon; and about 15 minutes of a ghastly tear-jerker by Herbert Brenon, Transgression, with a particularly tedious Kay Francis effort.

Those ran fairly true to form. I've seen the Del Ruth before; it's interesting and, in its rather coarse way, somewhat closer to Hammett's conception of Spade than the vastly better Huston of ten years later. The Dwan has a good reputation and it earns it by virtue of its amusing banter and a slightly convoluted but imaginative plot. The Curtiz is . . . well, it's a '30s Curtiz, so it moves faster than hell, Powell is delightful, there's a lot of chewy dialogue and a happy ending. As for the Brenon -- well I didn't expect much and it merely confirmed for me the notion that Lubitsch must have hypnotized Francis to get that delicious performance in Trouble in Paradise, so atypical and so wonderful.

But the real surprise was a 1932 programmer, Union Depot, directed by Alfred E. Green. Green's career stretched from 1916 to the late '50s when he was doing episodes of The Millionaire and The Lone Wolf. His best-known films are biopics like The Jolson Story, The Eddie Cantor Story and The Jackie Robinson Story. He also directed one of the most notorious pre-Code films, Baby Face, the movie in which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way up the corporate ladder, her conquests including a very callow John Wayne.

Needless to say, nothing prepared us for Union Depot, which is one of those weird little films that the pre-Code studios tossed out from time to time. The film opens with an astonishingly elaborate long-take tracking shot that introduces about a half-dozen minor characters and motifs. Then it really picks up speed. Doug Fairbanks, Jr. is a hobo who accidentally acquires some cash and a new suit from a cameo-ing Frank McHugh, then gets mixed up with out-of-work dancer Joan Blondell, a sexual psychopath, a ring of counterfeiters represented by Alan Hale and the federal agents chasing him. If this sounds crazy, well, it is. It's beautifully shot by Sol Polito and almost never stops moving. The film's forward narrative drive is terrific, and the ending is unexpected and totally satisfying in a way that wouldn't have been possible two or three years later. I think what is most surprising, though, its the fluidity and fluency of Green's camera movements, from that impressive opening crane-and-track through a finale at the site of a departing train.

I don't expect this one to turn up on a DVD package any time soon. Regrettably, it isn't included in the Museum of Modern Art's little tribute to the always wonderful Joan Blondell, although that series includes some wonderful films (Blonde Crazy, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Nightmare Alley are the best offerings in the series, although Wellman's Night Nurse is absolutely wacky and should be seen, if only for Stanwyck facing down Gable). So the odds are against your seeing Union Depot soon. Unless, of course, you write to TCM and beg. Hey, a little groveling is good for the soul.

(Incidentally, the Blondell tribute at MoMA runs through January 1. An excellent way to say goodbye to 2007.)