Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bureau of Missing Persons (Warners as "First National," 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I ran the movie Bureau of Missing Persons, a 1933 Warners programmer (in “First National” drag) directed by Roy Del Ruth (who did most of the best work of his career in the Warners salt mines in the early 1930’s, though this was the only film of his from that period actually shown as part of TCM’s recent birthday tribute to him) starring Bette Davis — at least she’s first billed, though she doesn’t actually appear until the 32nd minute of this 73-minute film — along with Lewis Stone and Pat O’Brien, Glenda Farrell (wasted in what amounts to a comedy role as O’Brien’s ditzy estranged wife), Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly and Hugh Herbert from the Warners stock company. At least nominally based on the book Missing Men by Captain John H. Ayers and Carol Bird (though at least half of the missing persons the police trace in this film are women), Bureau of Missing Persons is a good Warners ensemble-cast movie, though they made better ones (like the marvelous Life Begins) around the same time, and features one of the most preposterous orders a police captain ever gives a subordinate in a movie: in order to trace one missing person, the officer is instructed to tie a message to the leg of a homing pigeon and follow it to its destination in an airplane. (Yeah, right.) The main antagonism is between Captain Webb (Lewis Stone), head of the Missing Persons Bureau, and the new detective he’s just been assigned from the robbery unit, Bill Saunders (Pat O’Brien), whose doctrine of beat up the suspect first and ask questions later, if at all, makes Dirty Harry seem like an ACLU charter member by comparison and of course is exactly what officers in the delicate business of tracing people who may or may not want to be found should not be doing. At times, Stone seems so exasperated by O’Brien’s antics he seems about to give him the sort of heart-to-heart talk he later doled out to Mickey Rooney in one Andy Hardy movie after another.

One of the most interesting plotlines involves 12-year-old violin virtuoso Caesar Paul (Tad Alexander), who disappears 10 days before his scheduled recital at Carnegie Hall and turns up living a Dead End Kid-style existence in a rooftop redoubt, doing petty pilfering and playing stickball and other kid-style amusements instead of practicing for his concert, which bores him silly. (Maybe he should follow the example of a similarly disgusted child-prodigy violinist in the later film Non-Stop New York and take up jazz saxophone instead.) Saunders traces him and brings him back to his parents, who judging from the way they treat him in the police station have learned absolutely nothing from his pre-adolescent rebellion. The main intrigue doesn’t turn up until Davis does, nearly halfway through the movie, when she appears in town (it’s pretty obviously supposed to be New York City) using the name Norma Phillips. She’s supposed to be looking for a missing husband, and though they’re both at least technically married she and Saunders start dating — only it turns out her real name is Norma Roberts and she’s wanted back in Chicago, from whence she fled, for murdering Therme Roberts, her banker husband. Saunders traces her to a cheap hotel room and agrees not to tell the other cops where she is if she’ll remain behind and explain things to him, but she bolts and leaves her handbag and some of her clothes on a waterfront dock to make it look like she’s committed suicide.

Saunders stages a fake funeral for her, using an unidentified corpse from the morgue, thinking that will flush her out of hiding. Instead it flushes out Therme Roberts himself (Alan Dinehart, oily as ever), the man she was supposed to have killed, who in order to avoid embezzlement charges killed his own brother, made up the corpse to look like him and framed his wife for his “murder.” Bureau of Missing Persons is a bit slower-paced than the Warners norm, but the cinematography by Barney McGill is dark, atmospheric and surprisingly proto-noir and the multiple plot lines (including one great scene in which an actress and her P.R. person turn out to have faked her disappearance as a publicity stunt to promote her new play provokes a vividly angry reaction from Captain Webb, who chews them out for wasting his department’s time and staff power on B.S.) actually do work even though Bette Davis sometimes seems like a virtual extra in a movie in which she’s supposedly the star!