Bureau of Missing Persons (1933): Del Ruth’s Pre-Code Crime Drama, Starring Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien

Warner studio director Roy Del Ruth helmed Bureau of Missing Persons, a Pre-Code crime drama, penned by Robert Presnell, based on the book Missing Men by former NYC Police Captain John H. Ayers and Carol Bird.

The film’s working title was Missing Persons, and Warren William was originally slated to star. This was the second on-screen pairing of Davis and O’Brien, both under contract to Warner; they had appeared in Hell’s House the previous year.

Pat O’Brien plays Butch Saunders, a brash detective who’s demoted from the robbery division to the bureau of missing persons. Captain Webb, his new boss, is unsure whether Butch will fit in, and he assigns Joe Musik to show Butch around. Gradually, Butch earns Webb’s respect and trust.

The cases involve a philandering husband, a child prodigy who yearns to live a normal life, an aging bachelor whose housekeeper has disappeared, an old lady whose daughter has run away.

Hank Slade works doggedly on the case of a missing wife, only to discover that she has been working at the bureau the whole time.

When Norma Roberts comes looking for her missing Chicago investment banker husband Therme Roberts, Butch takes the case. He’s attracted to her, though both are married, and she keeps him at arm’s length.

Butch is later shocked when Captain Webb tells him that she is really Norma Phillips and the man she claims is missing is the person she was on trial for murdering, and not her husband at all.

Norma fakes her suicide by drowning, but shows up when Butch stages her funeral with a borrowed corpse. When Butch spots her, she tells him that she discovered he had a mentally defective twin brother, whom he hid from everyone.  Facing embezzlement charges, Therme murdered his brother and disappeared.

Webb tricks a man into admitting he is Therme Roberts, and when Butch learns that his gold-digging wife Belle never divorced her first husband, he and Norma are free to be together.

The tale unfolds as an amusing mystery that is genuinely intriguing, with some slapstick turns. Del Ruth lends the film a screwball pace and a rowdy tone, emphasizing the 0fficers’ obsessive quirks.

In 1936, the picture was reissued with the opening credits reconfigured to give top billing to Davis, who was by then the studio’s leading star.

Cast

Bette Davis as Norma Roberts
Lewis Stone as Captain Webb
Pat O’Brien as Butch Saunders
Glenda Farrell as Belle Saunders
Allen Jenkins as Joe Musik
Ruth Donnelly as Gwendolyn Harris, a runaway wife working at the bureau
Hugh Herbert as Hank Slade
Alan Dinehart as Therme Roberts
Marjorie Gateson as Mrs. Paul
George Chandler as Homer Howard

Note:

I am grateful to TCM for showing this film as part of a tribute to Bette Davis, November 5, 2019.

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