Thursday, January 05, 2012

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Bureau of Missing Persons' (1933)

Although she gets top billing in Bureau of Missing Persons (a relative rarity for the cheap programmers she churned out for Warner Bros. in the '30s), Bette Davis doesn't show up until about half an hour into the 73-minute movie, and Pat O'Brien is the real star, playing a ridiculously hard-boiled, macho detective at the title agency. He's transferred over from the robbery division and is none too happy about it, but soon he takes a shine to tracking down missing people and getting them to return home, and the episodic movie follows a handful of cases, most of them totally ludicrous. One philandering man, tracked down in his mistress' apartment, is given the chance to be picked up in a neighboring town and branded an amnesiac, all so his family won't know about his affair.

Davis shows up as a woman ostensibly searching for her missing husband, but she's got a dark secret that gets progressively more far-fetched as more is revealed about it. O'Brien's Det. Butch Saunders takes on her case, and immediately sets to seducing her instead of putting in much of an effort to find her supposed missing husband. He's a walking sexual-harassment claim, but everything works out when it's discovered that Davis' Norma never had a husband at all. Plus, Butch's handling of Norma is nothing compared to the way he takes on his gold-digging ex-wife (played amusingly by Glenda Farrell, who was also amusing in the last lame Davis movie I saw, The Big Shakedown); his physical assault on her at the end of the movie is played for goofy comic relief.

The movie is so slapdash overall that the sexism isn't really any worse than the haphazard plotting and indifferent acting. Davis is fairly subdued as Norma, especially in contrast to Farrell's ditziness and O'Brien's hyper-masculinity, but her performance isn't anything special. She gives about as much effort to the part as the movie deserves, which is to say very little at all.

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