Roy Del Ruth's comedy-drama is the sort of thing Warner Bros. seemed to crank out with ruthless efficiency in the pre-Code period -- those now-celebrated years before the Breen office crackdown that brought about the era of Code enforcement, or what people often call the classic studio era. Pre-code cinema is marked by a brazen, hard-boiled irreverence and an attitude often bordering on amorality in its celebration of ordinary people surviving the Depression. Bureau of Missing Persons initially looks like its going to be in Warners' other mode, the pathos and outrage of films like Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. It opens with a bum wandering past a park bench, where sits a woman weeping over a newspaper story of a mother turned suicide in despair over the Bureau's failure to find her daughter. But that's as sentimental as the picture gets. The prevailing tone is set when Allen Jenkins works the morgue hoping to match the new arrivals with the missing persons on his list. One corpse is a pretty girl, and we linger on her face. Another jumped in front of a train, but we're spared that sight. Jenkins will later boast of his ability to reassemble a body that had been hacked apart and stuffed in a suitcase, and the writers describe the case with gruesome glee. Presiding over the Bureau is a strange sight in a Warner Bros. movie: Lewis Stone, billed with an additional middle L. but unmistakably the longtime M-G-M character actor and embodiment of stolid stoicism. He's somewhat more casual here but you still want his effortless understated authority for the usual motormouthed Warners character actors like Jenkins and Hugh Herbert to play off of. It's definitely unusual to see the future Judge Hardy assure a man who went missing from his family to go on an adulterous that the Bureau will cover up his moral failing with a bunk amnesia story to spare the family any suffering. But that's part of the film's overall message, which is that there's usually more to these tales of flight (and sometimes fight) than meets the eye or the initial moral judgment.
The person assigned to learn these lessons is Butch Saunders (Pat O'Brien), who's been transferred from the Robbery Division to what he calls the "kindergarten" because of excess brutality. He has five notches on his gun, he brags, and lots more on his fists, but somehow Robbery felt they could do without him. We see his technique when he goes out with Jenkins on his first case. Butch tries to rough up a janitor for not answering questions fast enough; when Jenkins restrains him he complains, "What are you running, a school for pansies?" Finally he breaks a door down to get at the adulterer. That guy's gone, so he drags the lady of the apartment to headquarters, where the adulterer has already told his sob story to Stone. Ordered to apologize to the lady, Butch tries to hit on her. This is too light a film for Butch to be a rogue cop, but I doubt any major studio would accept this characterization of a policeman just two years later. O'Brien's gendarme is a boorish bully, and he's also trying to dodge his estranged wife (Glenda Farrell) who constantly pressures "Butchy Wutchy" for her "allowance." Fortunately, Butch proves to have a gentler touch with kids, as we see when he's assigned to track down a violin prodigy who's run away from home rather than perform another concert. Butch may as well be a big, dumb kid at heart, and at this point he becomes a more sympathetic character and the brutality angle is forgotten almost until the end of the picture.
Bureau is a pretty episodic affair riddled with subplots and running gags until about halfway through, when Bette Davis shows up as Norma Roberts, who wants Butch to stake out the docks for an absconding husband. Davis's top billing in the opening credits indicates that we're seeing the 1936 re-release version of Bureau -- apparently little edited despite Code enforcement -- since O'Brien or Stone should really get the top spot. In any event, Norma presents Butch with another romantic opportunity; they bond in an amusing diner scene where their dialogue is constantly interrupted by people asking them to pass condiments up and down the counter. Finally they ask for return service and are practically bombarded with everything from ketchup to donuts. Alas, Butch's idyll can't last, and word comes from Chicago that the missing husband Norma's after was actually her boss, murdered in Chicago days ago, and that Norma is a fugitive after escaping arrest for the murder. After she persuades him to shoo off a bunch of his colleagues, she tells him an incredible tale about the boss's secret idiot twin who was killed in his place so the man could dodge an embezzlement charge. It's so incredible that Butch has to ask, "Do you smoke hop?" But just as Butch stages a fake funeral for Norma on the assumption that she's faked her death, so she assumes that the guilty man will come to the parlor to verify her demise -- and she seems to be right -- or is she?...
At an erratic 73 minutes, Bureau plays more like an episode of some ensemble TV series set in a police station or a hospital than a feature film. It might have made a good pilot for some cynical radio series --"Butch Saunders, Finder of Lost Persons"-- except maybe for the bad taste it'll certainly leave in some modern minds. After the Norma storyline wraps up, Butch's marriage angle resolves itself when he learns that his predatory wife is a bigamist and a missing person. When she shows up for the latest installment of her allowance, Butch assures her that she'll get what's coming to her. Del Ruth discreetly cuts to the other side of the office door as we hear blows and screams and finally see a chair fly through the doorpane. The very last shot of the film is Glenda Farrell sprawled across a chair moaning, "butchy wutchy...." You were supposed to laugh, but even if the wife has been proven a fink, few people watching today will think she deserved what she got, and we're right back to square one with Butch as a brutal cop and a batterer of women. I suppose Bureau wouldn't really qualify as a pre-Code specimen if it didn't have at least one moment of blatantly bad taste, and I also suppose that the original audience was more hard-boiled or merely blase about Farrell's comeuppance. But this finale reminds us that while we sometimes think of pre-Code cinema as ahead of its time and closer in sentiment to our own than the stuff that came immediately afterward, it remains far behind us in many crucial ways. If it isn't a deal-breaker for you, then Bureau should prove a briskly amusing though not too bright hard-boiled item. Did its original audience find it transgressive fun or just another brainless risque comedy? Only the dead can say.
Here's a trailer uploaded to YouTube by captainbijou.