Mr. DeMille, Union Station is ready for its close-up

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, April 23, 2021

Los Angeles Union Station’s clock tower has been a landmark since the terminal opened in 1939. Classic Trains collection
On Sunday night, ABC will broadcast that annual self-congratulatory feast of art and hokum known as the Oscars. If it’s true to form, it will be a mix of inspiring moments and bad taste. For this movie fanatic, it will be irresistible. 

Oscar shows tend to blend together, but one thing that will set 2021’s apart will be the surroundings. That’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is trading up — way up — on its real estate. In this pandemic season, the Academy and producer Steven Soderbergh have chosen to forego the glitzy Dolby Theater in Hollywood for a place deserving of much more reverence: Los Angeles Union Station.

Only in Hollywood could a railroad station double as a venue for the entertainment industry’s elite. Except that LAUS isn’t just any old train station — it’s arguably the finest railway terminal in the United States (momentary apologies to 30th Street, Philadelphia). Once the evening begins, the stars will find themselves immersed in one of the city’s great architectural treasures, and if that’s not enough, the terminal will be open throughout the broadcast. Amtrak and Metrolink passengers will scurry to their trains just a stone’s throw from the glitterati. 

On entering the building, passengers pass the information counter and into the main waiting room, with its distinctive benches. Classic Trains collection
The station deserves this moment in the spotlight. It opened on May 3, 1939, amid festivities that included a train arrival staged by fabled director Cecil B. DeMille. The terminal replaced stations used separately by Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific, and immediately became an L.A. landmark with its lovely blend of Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne influences. It was designed by the father-and-son team of John and Donald B. Parkinson, the former of whom was a partner in the design of another L.A. icon, 1928’s soaring City Hall, just a few blocks away. 

We can assume Union Station’s environs will be familiar to many of the stars seated beneath the gorgeously restored 62-foot ceiling of the Ticketing Hall. That’s because some of them assuredly have been there before: according to the Internet Movie Data Base, the station has been a location for no fewer than 152 movies.  

“Union Station is one of Los Angeles’ most iconic and versatile movie locations,” said film historian Harry Medved in a 2017 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News. “[Union Station] affords a variety of looks in one single venue: from the gleaming white Spanish exterior to the grand sweeping hallways to its art deco restaurant and intimate outdoor garden patios. When you walk into Union Station, you can’t help but feel as if you have stepped into a film noir scene from the 1940s.” 

A 1964 night view looks north from the arcade leading from the Harvey House toward the information counter, beyond which is the Ticketing Hall, one of the venues for the 2021 Oscars program. William D. Middleton
The station has played a variety of roles over the decades, in movies both memorable and forgettable. It was a rather macabre courtroom in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises as well as the police station for officer Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the 1982 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner. It’s the setting for a Miami bank robbery by Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) in 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. It was spot-on credible as a movie studio in the Coen Brothers’ underappreciated 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar!

Of course, when the script calls for a train, Union Station plays itself. In 2003’s Seabiscuit, racehorse owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) boards a train for New York; never mind that the scene is set in 1938, a year before LAUS opened. The station platforms are a backdrop for Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in the 1973 hit The Way We Were, and for Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale in the 2001 clunker Pearl Harbor.

If there is one movie you should see that really captures the feel of the place, it’s 1950’s aptly named Union Station, an effective bit of film noir in which LAUS poses as Chicago’s station of the same name. The movie stars Nancy Olson as an arriving passenger who becomes entangled in a kidnapping scheme that eventually has her involved with the station’s security chief, William Holden. The pair were coming off their triumph just months earlier in the Billy Wilder masterpiece Sunset Boulevard.

A traveler played by Nancy Olson looks on as the stationmaster (Barry Fitzgerald) makes a phone call in the 1950 movie Union Station, filmed at LAUS. Classic Trains collection
The film is a visual feast for anyone who loves Union Station. Critic John Farr calls it “a tense, compact caper story whose believability is enhanced by skillful on-location shooting.” Indeed, nearly every part of the station complex gets involved at some point. You can see for yourself if you stream Union Station, available on a variety of platforms, including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube. 

This won’t be the last time you see the building at 800 N. Alameda Street on the big screen. The station’s owner, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, estimates its interior is used as a location upwards of 100 times each year, including for movies, TV shows, and commercials. But Sunday night will be special, the perfect setting for the Academy Awards. Union Station is ready for its close-up. 

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