Today kicks off a new feature here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—one that was inspired by several recent acquisitions to the dusty TDOY DVD library. Every now and then, the MOD outfit known as the Warner Archive will get a sale going on…and like the sirens who tempted Kirk Douglas in that Ulysses movie I saw as a kid, I am powerless to resist. Most of the titles I’ve purchased are movies I have seen before (I think maybe one or two are new to me, and I took a flutter on them because of positive word-of-mouth) and I’ll make every attempt not to duplicate a title previously discussed on the blog. (Oh, who am I kidding—I can’t keep that promise.)
The 1933 pre-Code Bureau of Missing Persons is a flick I have seen before—I remember watching long ago on the pre-Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ days of TNT, before they became obsessed with seeing how many times they can rerun Law & Order before folks start throwing their sets out of windows. I also remember being entertained by it at the time (it’s been a long time, as you can probably tell by the first sentence in this paragraph) and have been looking for it on TCM to get a second viewing. Well, I finally got around to it last night…and it’s shown me that doesn’t hold up as well as I hoped.
The film takes place in “a special and little-known department of the police”—which I found a little hard buying into, because it’s standard procedure in movies and TV that when anyone can’t be found the joke is always “Have you tried ‘missing persons’?” Anyway, the titular bureau welcomes a new man to the job: a brash flatfoot named Butch Saunders (Pat O’Brien) who’s been sent there to take some of the wind of his sails—he may have the highest arrest record in the robbery division (where he’s originally from) but a lot of those collars turn out to be wrongful ones. His new boss, Police Captain Webb (Lewis Stone), says Saunders is there to learn to think. (Good luck with that, Cap.)
There are a number of different subplots that are woven in and out of the admittedly thin storyline (written by Robert Presnell, Sr. and adapted from the source material Missing Men, a book written by a former NYC police captain)—cases worked by bureau detectives Joe Musik (Allen Jenkins) and Hank Slade (Hugh Herbert), who are pretty much the comic relief of the piece (and it’s an uphill battle as far as Herbert’s concerned). Around the half-hour mark, the prominent story emerges in the form of a woman named Norma Roberts (Bette Davis—who gets top billing despite her late entrance) who’s looking for a vanished man named Therme Roberts (Alan Dinehart). Butch takes a shine to Norma and agrees to work on her case…but it slowly develops that Norma hasn’t been completely on the up-and-up about the relationship between her and Thermie. She’s actually Norma Williams…Roberts’ secretary, and currently “a person of interest” by the authorities in Chicago on the charge of murdering Roberts. Can Butch trust Norma? I’ll bet you a dollar six bits he tries his best.
The major plus of Bureau of Missing Persons is that the film moves so doggone quickly (it’s about an hour and thirteen minutes) its speed camouflages a lot of its plot holes and just plain what-the-front-yard? moments. The explanation of why Davis behaves so mysteriously will cause permanent eye-roll damage and some of the other story entanglements—Herbert’s detective has been searching high-and-low for a “Gwendolyn Davis”…who turns out to be the bureau’s receptionist (Ruth Donnelly—wacky!)—are so ludicrous you’ll probably want to take the filmmakers to court for that “Many incidents in this picture are taken from actual cases in police records” hogwash in the opening crawl.
O’Brien’s character is a bit hard to take: a macho schmuck who’s constantly beset upon by his parasitic wife (Glenda Farrell)—it’s supposed to be comedic but it isn’t, and Glenda’s comeuppance at the end left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s kind of a shame Pat doesn’t come off well in this picture because there’s one scene, in which he locates the whereabouts of a violin-playing prodigy (Tad Alexander) who’s run away from his crappy parents (Marjorie Gateson, Wallis Clark), where he comes across as a pretty decent guy (he’s got a nice rapport with the kid, who simply wants to be a regular boy with baseball and hanging out with his friends and all). His relationship with Davis—their second teaming after 1932’s Hell’s House—is okay, although I think Bette does most of the heavy work to make it more convincing and O’Brien’s just along for the ride.
Davis’ presence in this film is one of only two reasons why you should give it a look-see; it’s kind of strange, I’ll admit, but I sort of get a kick out of seeing her slumming in these programmers…mainly because every now and then she’ll do a little bit of business that attracts my interest. (There’s a scene in the film where a waterfront diner patron, played by an uncredited Dewey Robinson, asks O’Brien to pass the salt and Pat slides it down the counter…then when one another customer—Edward Pawley, later the star of radio’s Big Town—asks for the sugar, Bette copies O’Brien’s method and upon success, gives Pat a gentle nudge with her elbow as if to say “Get me!”)
I don’t know precisely how Lewis Stone ended up in this picture—my first guess would be that MGM sent him over to teach him a lesson, except that the actor doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d break ranks—but he’s the other reason why you should watch Bureau of Missing Persons at least once. He definitely classes up the jernt, and I thought his rapport with O’Brien was pretty solid (there’s a funny bit where he scolds Pat for throwing a cigarette on the floor). The fun thing about Warner Brothers is that because they wanted to keep their contractees working they’d stick them into any picture regardless of whether they fit or not (this explains why Hugh Herbert is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the way); all in all, most of the casting works with the exception of Glenda Farrell’s; sure, her character doesn’t have any redeeming qualities but what happens to her at the end is a bit misogynistic.
George Chandler—so memorable as W.C. Fields’ idiot son in the classic two-reeler The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)—is on hand here as the deux ex machina Billy Gilbert character, and you might also get a chuckle out of seeing Charles Sellon as the funeral parlor director since he also acted with Fields (as the blind Mr. Muckle in The Great Man’s It’s a Gift). Roy Del Ruth, a journeyman what was a journeyman, attempts to keep things interesting by using some interesting swish-pans. It’s certainly not great cinema, but Bureau of Missing Persons is a pleasant little time-killer…see it if it ever shows up on TCM again or buy the DVD.