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MGM star Myrna Loy remarked more than once that the popular Thin Man movies rescued her from a career cul-de-sac playing sultry femme fatales. In the early talkie The Squall she's a seductively evil gypsy intent on destroying a good family. In the Karloff horror picture The Mask of Fu Manchu she's a depraved, torture-obsessed Chinese princess. Yet another questionable 'yellow peril' character would come before Ms. Loy graduated to permanent leading player status.
MGM loaned Myrna Loy to RKO for Thirteen Women, an unusually morbid murder thriller also featuring Irene Dunne. Loy's character is described as a "half breed type", a vixenish villain enacting a fantastic vengeance. Astrology is involved, as well as an undefined "evil hypnotic power" that pulp fiction of the time frequently associated with Third World treachery. An extreme example of casual racism in the cultural mainstream, Thirteen Women is tailor-made for viewers interested in weird Pre-Code fare packed with outdated, outrageous attitudes.
A number of years after graduation, a group of sorority sisters from the exclusive St. Albans Seminary has become involved in an astrological "Horoscope Round Robin" conducted by the Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon of Gabriel Over the White House). Graduate June Raskob (Mary Duncan), now a successful circus aerialist with her sister May (Harriett Hagman), is unnerved by the Swami's dire prediction, with tragic results. June's friends do not take the news well. The horoscope drafted for impressionable Hazel Cousins (Peg Entwistle) insists that she'll soon commit a murder. It turns out that the Swami's secretary Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy) is substituting his benign horoscopes with predictions of terrible fates, and letting "the power of suggestion" do the rest. Acting on her own, Ursula stalks Helen Frye (Kay Johnson of Madam Satan) on the train. Ursula knows that Helen is still despondent over losing her only child to sickness.
Waiting in California are three more potential victims. The pessimistic Grace Coombs (Florence Eldridge) says that she welcomes the early death predicted by the Swami. Jo Turner (Jill Esmond) has a better attitude, but admits to her own problems -- her marriage has failed and her present rich boyfriend doesn't want babies. The level-headed Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) is also an unfulfilled divorceé. When the Swami's horoscope appears to threaten harm to Laura's precious son, she wisely turns for help to police sergeant Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortez). Sergeant Clive discovers the motivation behind the bizarre string of suicides and killings: back in school, the St. Albans sorority sisters rejected Ursula Georgi's membership application and outed her as a "half breed" passing for white. Ursula was forced to leave the seminary in disgrace, her hopes for a respectable future dashed.
Myrna Loy receives only fourth billing, although her remorseless killer is the central character of Thirteen Women. Like a pulp fiction vamp, Ursula Georgi seduces and discards foolish men in her quest for revenge. She stares coldly through her stylized Oriental eye makeup, ignoring pleas to spare Laura Stanhope's little son. The grim effectiveness of her faked horoscopes reminds us of the poison-pen letters in H.G. Clouzot's misanthropic horror classic Le Corbeau. When psychological methods fail, Ursula resorts to poison and explosives. The fantastic element of this anti-Asian calumny is Ursula's supernatural, hypnotic ability to influence the actions of her demoralized victims. All she need do is stare malevolently, and her 'evil eyes' do the rest. The "Yellow Peril" is alive and well.
Thirteen Women conveys the historical truth of racism better than any academic study. In the diversity-challenged social Stone Age of 1932, relationships were held to a strict standard of so-called "racial purity". Not being certifiably Anglo was more often than not a ticket to the social margins, and often carried a social stigma impossible to overcome. Detective Barry Clive distastefully describes Ursula Georgi as a Javanese-Indian hybrid. Ursula's real crime is her attempt to cross the race barrier. She hoped she could pass for white and enter the exclusive ranks of St. Albans graduates -- women 'qualified' to marry well and live comfortable, upscale lives.
The film concentrates on Ursula's murderous schemes, yet doesn't acknowledge that the upscale happiness she covets may only be an illusion. Most of the women that rejected her have money and security, yet some feel like failures in their domestic lives. None has a successful marriage. Only one has a child, and another mourns a child that has died. Grace Coombs' extreme fatalism reminds us of the despairing, passive characters in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim. Ursula's insidious Power of Suggestion works only because most of her victims are so emotionally vulnerable.
Irene Dunne easily fulfills the demands of her role. Only Laura is strong enough to face Ursula and ask, "Why do you hate me?" The monstrous Ursula sneeringly labels Laura "the exclusive Mrs. Stanhope" before hypnotizing her into helpless unconsciousness. Given the film's theme, Ricardo Cortez is an amusing casting choice --- born Jacob Krantz in New York, he made his acting career by following in Rudolf Valentino's footsteps and 'passing' for Spanish. Producer David O. Selznick sought both quality and connections in his other actresses -- Jill Esmond was the spouse of Laurence Olivier, and Florence Eldridge was married to Fredric March. In her only movie role, Peg Entwistle is on screen for just a few seconds. She had been a Broadway hit in serious dramas, where her performances reportedly provided a major inspiration for Bette Davis. In a rather creepy parallel event, Entwistle's own notorious suicide occurred just a month before Thirteen Women was released in theaters.
The structural device of complacent graduates stalked by a victim of a forgotten cruelty makes Thirteen Women resemble the gory slasher horrors of the late 1970s, such as Friday the 13th. Director George Archainbaud keeps most of the film's violence discreetly off screen, and employs interesting star-shaped flashes to obscure one or two killings. Yet the story is mainly a string of mysterious, morbid deaths. If Thirteen Women were in gaudy color and dwelt upon its subject in gruesome detail it might look exactly like a 1960s Italian "giallo", such as Mario Bava's annihilating horror show Blood and Black Lace.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Thirteen Women is a good remastered transfer of this highly eccentric, vintage RKO thriller. Some reels have light scratches and scattered dust but the show overall is satisfyingly intact. The audio track is also very clean.
Unfortunately, any possible longer versions of Thirteen Women are lost. It was cut from 73 to 59 minutes before its 1932 release, and not for the 1935 reissue, and the trims were apparently discarded. 1 Lost are the performances of actresses Phyllis Cerf and Betty Furness, who may or may not have played additional graduates. Although promotional materials suggest that Irene Dunne's Laura is the only survivor, two additional sorority sisters simply exit the storyline alive and intact, after a scene that carefully sets them up as likely targets for the treacherous Ursula. The film's title seems inaccurate in that only seven sorority sisters appear, not counting Ursula. If there are other missing women in the storyline, nobody mentions their names.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thirteen Women rates:
Hi Glenn, Hope all is well with you.
I regret to inform you that you are incorrect about the facts surrounding the change in running time of Thirteen Women. You are not alone in believing this long-thought theory, but we were able to prove it to be inaccurate.
It was indeed completed at the long length you specify and in the RKO production files we found the documentation to back that up... but we also found that the footage was cut PRIOR to original theatrical release, and we posted the original RKO documents on one of our sites to back that up, so as to not perpetuate the well-thought belief otherwise.
We restored this from the original camera negative, so it was very much something we went the extra mile for. Here are links to the info:
Many thanks, and best regards... George
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