This fast-paced pre-code comedy melodrama is both very typical of Warner Bros. in the early sound era and unusual in its structure. Bureau of Missing Persons (1933) takes the standard “ripped from the headlines” approach (it even claims that “some” of the events are based on actual cases) the studio loved, but it wanders around through a series of mostly unconnected vignettes before getting to its central story, in which Bette Davis shows up to report her missing husband. Her story may seem obviously bogus, but she’s too attractive for bureau detective Butch Saunders (Pat O’Brien) not to take a personal interest. Of course, she’s at least partly stringing him along — ladies who turn out to be on the run from murder charges will say and do the damndest things — but is there something mutual in the attraction? And even if there is and she can be proven innocent of murder, what will Saunders do about his mostly estranged, but avaricious wife (Glenda Farrell)?
These and a host of other questions are asked and answered in the tight 72 minutes of Bureau of Missing Persons — a film that ought to be better known than it is. Director Roy Del Ruth — an undervalued, but definitely uneven filmmaker — rarely pauses long enough for you to notice the movie’s more improbable events. Some of the cases encountered in the film may have some truth in them, since the script was drawn from a story by John H. Ayers, who’d headed up the NYPD’s Bureau of Missing Persons from 1918 to 1933. (Warners really did rip things from the headlines.) In any event, the film itself is cynical, funny, satisfying and crammed with Warner Bros. character actors. The ending is certainly not politically correct, but, hey, it’s a pre-code picture.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Bureau of Missing Persons Tuesday, June 4, 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.