The Psychotronic Zone
By David Skolnick and Ed Garea
Thirteen Women (RKO, 1932) – Director: George Archainbaud. Writers: Tiffany Thayer (story). Bartlett Cormack & Samuel Ornitz (s/p). Stars: Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez, Jill Esmond, Myrna Loy, Mary Duncan, Kay Johnson, Florence Eldridge, C. Henry Gordon, Peg Entwistle, Harriet Hagman, Edward Pawley, Blanche Friderici, & Wally Albright. B&W, 59 minutes.
Before we begin we have a confession to make. Both of us are huge fans of Myrna Loy. Like millions of other film fans, we can’t help but be taken with her superb combination of beauty, poise, intelligence and impeccable acting chops. One thing about Loy we’ve noticed over the years is that while she may have been in a few stinkers, the quality of the film never affected the quality of her acting. She approached every part with total professionalism.
That commitment to doing her best came in handy with Thirteen Women. As with many of her early pictures, were it not for her the film would be a lot worse than it already is. However, Thirteen Women holds a special place in our hearts. As we were planing the review we learned that it was the first Myrna Loy film either of us saw. Ed was about 11 or 12 when he first saw it. He was alerted to it by TV Guide, which described it as a horror film, and like most young boys he was enchanted by horror movies. As for David, it came later in life and quite by accident. He was in his late teens, turned on a local station and watched it. As the film is less than an hour with another 15 minutes worth of commercials, it was a quick and enjoyable way to kill some time.
Loy was on loan to RKO from MGM to play Ursula Georgi in this film. The star originally penciled in for the part was Zita Johann, but Johann strongly objected to what she believed was some of the more tawdry aspects of the script. She asked for and received a release from her RKO contract.
Thirteen Women has the look of a film that has been heavily edited, and there is good reason for that: 14 minutes were cut from the original running time of 73 minutes for theatrical release. Speculation for the cuts runs from poor previews to bad reviews when the film opened. Supposedly it was pulled from circulation with the cuts being made before it was rereleased to the theaters.
Several roles were telescoped in the editing process when the film was shortened. For instance, Peg Entwistle’s screen time was cut from 16 minutes to only 4. In fact, we only meet seven of the women and we see two die, including one as the result of negligence in a trapeze act by her sister. Two of the characters cut from the film were played by Betty Furness and Phyliss Fraser (who later married publisher Bennett Cerf). Also cut was Leon Ames.
There is much to love and much to laugh at in this film, with the laughter coming not so much from the plot as from the editing, which made the plot look more ridiculous than it already is.
Constructed as a suspense thriller, though we know almost from the first who the killer is, we first meet trapeze artist June Raskob (Duncan) receiving a letter from Swami Yogadachi (Gordon). Enclosed with the letter is a horoscope. The letter predicts the death of “someone close to her.” She immediately thinks of her sister May (Hagman), who works the trapeze act with her. She’s visited in her dressing room by her old sorority sister Hazel Clay Cousins (Entwistle). June wants to tell her about the letter, but she gets the call to go on.
As the sisters are performing their trapeze act, June is consumed with the thought of May’s death. They are about to perform their famous double-flip, done without the presence of a safety net. As May goes into her double-flip, June fails to catch her and May falls to her death. We are told that June had a complete mental breakdown after the accident.
Swami Yogadachi is befuddled by all this. All his horoscopes predicted great happiness for the recipients. With him is Ursula Georgi (Loy). The Swami tells her he can’t understand why his predictions are not coming true. For Ursula, however, he predicts a horrible death in an accident, most likely while on a train. But after Ursula sends the Swami to sleep, she tears up his horoscope, substituting her own, along with a letter of doom to which he forges his signature. This latest letter is addressed to Hazel Cousins. Hazel is shown shooting her husband with a newspaper headline superimposed in which she's quoted as saying, "I must have lost my mind."
Ursula takes out a book. In the book are photos of 13 women. She crosses out two of the photos. We cut to another character, Helen Frye (Johnson). She picks up the phone. It’s her old school friend Laura Stanhope (Dunne). They discuss the deaths of both May and Hazel’s husband. Laura invites Helen out to Southern California, telling her that she’s inviting the others so as get to the bottom of all this.
Another old school chum, Grace Coombs (Eldridge) has received a letter. Only this one is from the Swami himself, predicting his own death on July 5. As Laura and Grace discuss matters, we learn (or rather figure out due to the editing) that they are two of 13 sorority sisters who, after graduation from St. Alban’s Seminary in Northern California, began sending “round robin” letters to keep in touch with each other. After one mentions her experience with the famous astrologer, Swami Yogadachi, they all start writing to him for their horoscopes. What they don’t know, however, is that the Swami is under the influence of Ursula, who rewrites each of the Swami’s horoscopes and letters in order to exact her revenge on the sisters. And the Swami is true to his word; we see him on a subway platform with Ursula. As the train comes in, she stares at him, he goes under her spell and subsequently falls in front of the train to his death.
We now cut to Helen, who is on a train heading for Los Angeles. She, too, has gotten a letter from the Swami predicting death, along with a horoscope documenting that fact. As she orders a drink in the club car, who should she run into but Ursula Georgi in the flesh. It is Ursula who makes the first move. At first Helen doesn’t even remember her, but it comes to her in further conversation. We learn that Ursula was a classmate of the sorority sisters and was forced to leave school. Helen discusses the death of her daughter, who was only three years old when she died. Helen then shows Ursula the letter predicting her suicide. For some reason, Helen is carrying a gun in her luggage. After Ursula leaves to retire for the night, Helen returns to her room and blows her brains out with the gun.
Cut back to Laura’s and she is busy entertaining another classmate, Jo Turner (Esmond). As they chat, Laura’s chauffeur, Burns (Pawley), interrupts to say he waited for Helen but she never arrived.
At the station, Sgt. Barry Clive (Cortez) is investigating Helen’s death. Questioning other passengers, he runs into Ursula, who gives her name as Miss Clemons. She acknowledges speaking to Helen, but says that she only knows her from the train and that they didn’t speak long.
Grace Coombs arrives at Laura’s for dinner, followed by Sgt. Clive, who drops in to inform the ladies of Helen’s suicide. Grace believes the Swami’s letters, but Laura and Jo remain skeptical. After Grace leaves, Laura confides to Jo that she has also received a horoscope and letter predicting that her young son, Bobby (Albright) will meet with a terrible accident on his upcoming birthday. With prompting from Jo, Laura declares that she will tell Sgt. Clive everything the next time they meet.
Later, we see Burns arriving home, and who should be there waiting for him? Ursula, of course. It seems Burns met Ursula while working for the Swami and that he is very much in love with her, becoming her co-conspirator. Burns informs her that Laura might be too tough to break. Ursula seems to have anticipated this, for the next day young Bobby receives a tin of chocolates in the mail. Before he can get the chance to eat one, Laura takes it away. She brings it to Sgt. Clive, who has it analyzed. The lab chemist says the chocolates have been tampered with and anyone unlucky enough to eat one would die within 30 seconds. Sgt. Clive notes that the candies were mailed right after the Swami died and advises Laura to keep a close watch on Bobby. Noticing a pin on Laura’s lapel, he asks her about it. She tells him it’s a sorority pin from St. Alban’s. Clive tells her he found one on Helen.
Clive’s next stop is St. Alban’s, where he has a discussion with Miss Kirsten (Friderici), the dean of the school. During the course of their discussion, she tells Clive that while in New York to see Helen she also saw Ursula Georgi, a former classmate of the women. When Clive asks her for a photo, she tells him that Ursula didn’t stay long enough to get photographed, but remembers her as a “sweet and mystical” young lady.
Ursula gives Burns a package containing an exploding ball to deliver to Bobby for his birthday. Burns doesn’t want to go along with it, but one look from Ursula changes his mind. He gives Laura the ball as a birthday gift from him. Laura makes the mistake of telling the little brat that the package contains Burns’ birthday gift as she places it on the top shelf of his bedroom closet. After she leaves, he tries to get at the ball in a little bit of suspense, but only succeeds in knocking down the packages in front of it as he retreats to his bed to feign sleep before his mother comes in.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Clive has sent to New York for information and a photo of Ursula. When the photo arrives, he recognizes her as the Miss Clemons he spoke to at the station. He also learns that Ursula is half-Hindu, half-Javanese and has worked for the Swami, as has Laura’s chauffeur, Burns. The capper comes when he discovers that Ursula has purchased dynamite. The person who sold it to her tells Clive that Ursula just looked at him and he was convinced.
Clive manages to catch up with Laura’s car, pulls up and tells her to throw the gift out of the car. She complies and the package explodes. Burns also exits the speeding car, leaving Laura in the back seat until Clive can jump over from his car and bring it to a halt. He advises Laura to take Bobby and get out of town until Ursula is caught.
As Laura’s train pulls away, she retires to her stateroom only to discover Ursula waiting for her. Before she is about to kill Laura, Ursula explains why she killed the others or had them kill. It seems that being a “half-breed,” she tried hard to pass for white. And she would have made it if Laura and her group hadn’t blackballed her from their sorority. She worked hard to get into St. Alban’s and Laura and her friends made it all for naught. Ursula manages to hypnotize Laura but is spotted by Clive, who has set a trap. Ursula runs through the train and leaps from the back car to the tracks – and to her death – fulfilling the Swami’s prediction.
What does Thirteen Women in is the haphazard editing despite a strong cast that includes Dunne, Loy, Cortez, Esmond (who was married to Laurence Olivier at the time), Eldridge (married to Frederic March) and the rather unusual astrological plot. Dunne has recently emerged as a top star off her starring role in the immensely profitable Back Street. The studio delayed the opening of Thirteen Women to take advantage of Dunne’s popularity in the belief that her presence would propel it at the box office.
It didn’t. Among those that panned it was Variety, whose reviewer described it as follows: "Between covers it was fast light reading, thanks to the writing, but on celluloid it deteriorates into an unreasonably far-fetched wholesale butcher shop drama which no amount of good acting could save."
Mordunt Hall at The New York Times describes it as “horror without laughter, horror that is too awful to be modish and too stark to save itself from a headlong plunge into hokum. Myrna Loy creeps among her old sorority sisters like a young woman suffering from insomnia and a desire to become an actress. Mr. Thayer's novel reputedly told its evil tale with something like caprice and a mischievous twinkle.”
If we were to assign blame for its failure we would give it to the screenplay which reportedly went through three or four revisions. We wonder if Ursula Georgi’s character evolved during the rewrites into the half-Hindu, half-Javanese it finally became. The name “Ursula Georgi” is more fitting for someone from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, or Georgia than India or Java. We also suspect that the “Hindu” was added to explain her psychic powers and Javanese to give her the aura of the “yellow peril.”
The writing and editing combine to leave several important questions unanswered. For instance, we have no idea where Ursula developed her power to control people to kill and do other horrible deeds, but we are led to believe her half-breed mystique is largely responsible for it. And even though the ending suggests that Laura is the last one standing, it’s sort of hard not to notice that two of the others, Jo Turner and Grace Coombs, simply vanish from the secret with no explanation.
But, as we mentioned before, it is Myrna Loy who makes this film compelling viewing. Though only receiving fourth billing, Loy is never more mysterious than in this film as Ursula Georgi, the beautiful half-breed temptress with the power to make her victims kill or commit suicide. It's definitely one of her more exotic roles and she's so sexy it's not a stretch that men would kill for her considering the spell she casts. It was not a role she particularly wanted (unlike Zita Johann, Loy was a professional) as she describes it in her autobiography, Being and Becoming: “They dropped me right back into the vamp mold, loaning me to RKO for Thirteen Women. As a Javanese-Indian half-caste, I methodically murder all the white schoolmates who've patronized me. I recall little about that racist concoction, but it came up recently when the National Board of Review honored me with its first Career Achievement Award. Betty Furness, a charming mistress of ceremonies, who had started at RKO doubling for my hands in closeups when I was busy elsewhere, said that she'd been dropped from Thirteen Women. (Despite the title, there were only ten in the final print.) 'You were lucky,' I told her, 'because I just would have killed you, too. The only one who escaped me in that picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted.'”
Though Loy’s character is supposed to be the heartless villain of the piece, as the film progresses, we realize she holds a legitimate and justifiable grudge against 13 cruel 12-year-old girls – who are now adults, though they continue to wear their boarding school sorority pins and most remain very close with each other. That doesn't mean she has the right to kill, but it's awfully difficult to feel sorry for them. These were truly mean girls who wronged Ursula when she tried to fit in with the white girls at boarding school — only to have them treat her cruelly and make her leave. We don't know what Ursula looked like at 12, but as a woman, she looks white with a nice tan.
It’s during her final confrontation with Laura Stanhope that our sympathy goes out for Ursula. Laura asks her, “What have I done, what has anyone done, to make you so inhuman?” And Ursula gives her an answer that we’re sure Laura didn’t like, but one that moves our hearts: “When I was twelve-years-old, white sailors...” she says as her voice trails off, suggesting sexual victimization, possibly rape. Later she asks Laura if she knows what it means to be a half-breed, a half-caste, in a world ruled by whites? “If you’re male, you’re a coolie; if you’re female, you’re...well...The white half of me cried out for the courtesy and protection women like you get.”
This is positively radical and this merging of race and gender has the effect of draining every last bit of sympathy from Laura and her friends. And that each of the women are not only shallow enough to write to a swami, under Ursula's power, seeking their fortunes – all of which tell of their death or the death of a loved one, some by their own hands – and that most of them believe, it only shows how incredibly vapid they all are.
Ursula cried out to be accepted, to enjoy the advantages her tormentors enjoyed. However, they don’t seem to have made out so well. Two of them were working in the circus as a trapeze act. That the parents of two girls spent money on boarding school and the pair end up as trapeze artists in a traveling circus would lead one to believe whatever tuition was paid was money not well spent. None has a successful marriage. Only one has a child, and another mourns a child that has died.
Irene Dunne is positively awful at times, completely overacting even though there aren't that many scenes with dialogue. But in her defense she isn’t given much to do other than to be the center around which the plot revolves. As the leader of the 13 women, she doesn't believe the doomed fortunes each of them have until her spoiled brat of a son – who stares at the camera way too much for our taste – nearly dies from wanting to stuff his face with chocolate and then selfishly tries to swipe a wrapped birthday present before his special day. It would be a hell of a birthday for the kid as the present is an explosive inside a rubber bouncing ball. Gordon is exceptional as the Swami, while Cortez and Esmond also acquit themselves well, although Esmond simply disappears without any explanation.
The death scenes are pretty hokey with a phony flash of light occurring either just before or while they are happening. The ending in which Ursula jumps off the back of a moving train to her death is flat; it looks like it would have probably resulted in a nasty sprained ankle, but certainly not her demise. Director Archainbaud keeps the movie moving along at an exceptionally brisk pace without much character development, but that seems to work in favor of the film as we're treated to one action scene after another. He handles the Grand Guignol elements well, building the suspense: the trapeze act, which he films in slow motion, prolonging our agony, the Swami's fall from the subway platform with Ursula right next to him, and Ursula’s attempts to murder Laura’s son. It’s some pretty strong stuff for 1932.
However, it was a year for some pretty strong stuff: witness Murder in the Rue Morgue, Doctor X, Freaks, Island of Lost Souls, and Kongo, all released in 1932. In the early ‘40s, Archainbaud moved to B-Westerns, including Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry movies as well as the TV shows that followed those series. He also directed episodes of such Westerns as The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Champion, Annie Oakley, among others and, up until his death in 1959, Lassie. Our final verdict is that while the movie is ridiculous in several spots, it's also a ton of fun as Loy gets to vamp for the screen even though she is somewhat stiff at times and has few lines to recite – but she looks damn good doing so.
Faces in the Crowd: Peg Entwistle
Besides Myrna Loy, one reason why many film buffs find Thirteen Women interesting is because it marks the only film appearance of the tragic Peg Entwistle, whose fame sadly comes from the fact that she jumped to her death from the top of the “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign.
Born Lillian Millicent Entwistle, on July 1, 1908, in Port Talbot, Wales, United Kingdom, she grew up interested in the stage and when she became older, she worked there on stage. But most of all, Peg wanted a shot at Hollywood.
In 1924, Peg was enrolled into Henry Jewett's Repertory School in Boston. Peg was taught to act by famed director and actress, Blanche Yurka. Peg performed in every play by Henrik Ibsen while under Yurka. Her performance as Hedvig in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was said to have inspired a young girl who was in the audience with her mother, Ruthie. When this girl (who was the same age as Peg) saw Peg's performance, she became determined to become an actress, telling her mother that, "I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle!" For many years afterward, this young girl would mention in interviews and her biography that both the play and Peg Entwistle’s performance in it were the driving forces in her desire to become an actress. Two years later, while Peg was headed for stardom on Broadway, Blanche Yurka hired the young girl to play Hedvig. Her name: Bette Davis.
In 1925, actor Walter Hamden gave Peg her very first Broadway role. Though an uncredited walk-on, she attracted the attention of scouts from the prestigious New York Theatre Guild, which led to her becoming the youngest actress ever to be recruited. Peg received rave reviews in every play she ever performed, even plays the critics did not like. In 1932, Peg was brought out to Los Angeles to co-star opposite Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart in a tryout production of Romney Brent’s The Mad Hopes. The show was a smash, with Peg was receiving tremendous notices. She was finally in Hollywood and she became enthralled with the lifestyle, wanting to make her mark on the silver screen. Hoping to land a part, she partied with some of the Hollywood elite, but nothing seemed to come of it. And although she could always return to the stage, she didn't want it, believing that movies were her ticket to fame. A mere three days after The Mad Hopes ended, she was packing to return to New York, when RKO called and asked if she’d like to do a screen test. Afterward, she was signed for the role of Hazel Clay Cousins in Thirteen Women. The film was a flop and Peg's contract was dropped. With the Depression in progress, money was tight. Peg was broke with no way to return to New York and there were no stage roles available in Los Angeles.
On September 18, 1932, after a night of drinking and in the throes of a deep depression, she took an electrician’s ladder and climbed to the top of the 50-foot sign. She dove head first onto the ground, killing herself immediately, leaving a note that read: "I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” A hiker found her coat, one of her shoes and purse containing the suicide note. The cause of death was given as internal bleeding cause by "multiple fractures of the pelvis." The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, now defunct, gave her the nickname, “The Hollywoodland Sign Girl.” And in a cruel twist of ironic fate, a letter to Peg arrived the day after her death from the Beverly Hills Playhouse offering her the lead role in a play about a woman driven to suicide.
Over the years, her death has taken on mythic proportions, with reports that her ghost haunts the area around the sign to this day. Depending on which account you believe, she either jumped off the first letter ‘H’ or the 13th letter ‘D.' The notoriety she brought caused the real estate developers to shorten the sign to simply read HOLLYWOOD, which gives credence to the story that she jumped off the last letter.
Film historian William K. Everson noted that composer Max Steiner previewed a bit of his 1933 musical score for King Kong in the film, specifically the scene on the train, which contains the same “unique, tense combination of notes that it's identical with the theme he used just prior to Kong’s attack on the New York elevated train.”