Patient, fatherly Captain Webb (Lewis Stone) presides over the Bureau of Missing Persons in New York City. Rough-edged Detective Butch Saunders (Pat O'Brien) is none too happy to be transferred to a department he considers "kindergarten," but he eventually settles down, especially when he becomes attracted to Norma Roberts (Bette Davis), who's reported her husband missing. And then Butch learns Norma is wanted for murder in Chicago...
That's just one story in a movie filled with vignettes of various lengths, with the camera swinging madly from one case to the next. It's quite an entertaining movie, and the large cast is simply terrific; as I commented to a relative, seeing Ruth Donnelly and Allen Jenkins working in a police station makes my heart happy. They're such great '30s faces, and I love dropping into their world for an hour or so.
Hugh Herbert is also on the police force, with his "comedic" mannerisms mercifully restrained. George Chandler, another of those great '30s faces -- and for decades beyond -- is a man looking for his missing wife. Glenda Farrell plays Butch's estranged wife. Jean Muir has a wordless role as a suicidal young woman as the film opens. Alan Dinehart, Hobart Cavanaugh, Henry Kolker, Clay Clement, and Noel Francis are also in the cast.
Some of the scenes can't help but make the modern viewer sputter with delighted laughter. When Captain Webb confronts an errant husband who'd run out on his wife in order to keep company with a pretty blonde, the good Captain advises the remorseful husband to take a train to another town, where he'll arrange to have him picked up by the local police as an "amnesia case" brought on by overwork. He tells the guy his family will be so happy to get him back they won't even ask questions. I loved the upright police captain orchestrating a coverup and even more the idea that someone losing his memory wouldn't lead to any questions!
Then there's the man who's walked out on his younger wife because she still thinks it's their honeymoon. He's older and tired, you see, and apparently he just can't keep up with her. It's one of those mind-bending scenes that certainly announces the movie is pre-Code.
The movie is also quite unpolitically correct by modern standards, including a concluding scene with Pat O'Brien walloping the daylights out of Glenda Farrell.
Bette Davis -- who doesn't appear in the film until half an hour has passed -- keeps the viewer guessing as the mysterious Norma, and while O'Brien is initially obnoxious, once his character settles down he has a certain roguish appeal. O'Brien and Davis have a delightful scene in a waterfront diner.
The following year Davis made another fun crime film, FOG OVER FRISCO (1934), and then she had her big breakthrough role in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934).
Some of the scenes set on the streets of New York were actually filmed in Downtown Los Angeles, detailed by Robby at Dear Old Hollywood last year. And anyone who's watched more than a few Warner Bros. films will instantly recognize the Brownstone Street on the studio lot.
The screenplay by Robert Presnell Jr. was based on the book MISSING MEN by John H. Ayers and Carol Bird; remarkably, it's still in print. The film was directed by Roy Del Ruth.
BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS is available in a very nice print from the Warner Archive. There are some occasional flaws but for the most part the movie looks very good. A preview clip of the print quality is available on the Archive page. The DVD includes the movie's trailer.
This film is also available on VHS.
This movie can also be seen from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer can be viewed at the TCM site.
Recommended as a good time for fans of the pre-Code era at Warner Bros.