13 Reasons Why You Should Watch Thirteen Women Tonight
No one would take a film seriously that centers on a so-called “half-caste” who uses the mystical power of suggestion and superstition to extract revenge years later upon former classmates for denying her from their sorority – and, by extension, white society. Add to that plot future perfect wife Myrna Loy as the tyrant, Ursula, and a pre-Code permissiveness, shake vigorously, and out comes: Thirteen Women (1932).
Yes, it’s that nuts. Evidence is provided below for your convenience:
On the surface this publicity still seems to cover all seven schoolmates who appear in the movie, but… never mind. Two ladies present don’t appear as sorority sisters in the film – at least to my knowledge: the woman on the far right looks like Hazel’s travel companion, and I don’t recognize the lady on the far left.
1. Let’s get one thing (sort of) straight: There aren’t really 13 women in Thirteen Women
Ursula mentions 12 classmates, but we only meet seven – I think: sisters May and June (Harriet Hagman and Mary Duncan), Hazel (Peg Entwistle), Helen (Kay Johnson), Laura (Irene Dunne), Grace (Florence Eldridge), and Jo (Jill Esmond). IMDb credits a Twelfth Woman (Phyllis Fraser), Thirteenth Woman (Betty Furness), and Mary (Julie Haydon), though their scenes were deleted before release, as the review runtime matches the length I saw in 2017. Curiously, 10 was the tally at least two critics landed upon; however, those counts could have included small and/or uncredited roles such as the school teacher, travel companion, and nurse. Indeed, the names of the three eliminated actresses and the three ladies playing the minor roles mentioned above appear alongside the eight main women in a Lux Toilet Soap ad that appeared in Variety on October 4th, 1932 – minus one co-star, presumably due to her tragic death. (More on that below.)
2. Ursula’s hypnotic stare in Thirteen Women is everything
Including lethal. After all, those enthralling eyes (and who knows what else) won Ursula a job with the Swami (C. Henry Gordon), enabling her to manipulate the fortunes he writes that her fellow school chums subscribe to, leading them to ruin – or death.
3. Currently, Thirteen Women clocks in at a swift 59 minutes
But according to AFI and IMDb, the original picture ran 73-74 minutes. How many more lives did Ursula destroy in those 15 excised minutes? Since she’s partially to blame for 4 deaths and 2 cases of insanity over the course of an hour, an extra quarter of that time would have afforded her approximately 1.5 more victims. I wouldn’t put that 0.5 past Ursula.
Maybe you should sit this one out, June. That’s not a look anyone about to embark on a high flying stunt would like to see.
4. Serious question: How many cinematic trapeze routines end well?
My guess is around 4%. The perilous one that opens Thirteen Women, setting the bar high for the calamities to come, lands in that other estimated 96%. Because, obviously.
5. There’s tragedy aplenty in the picture – and outside as well
Thirteen Women goes down in history as the only film credit of Peg Entwistle, the infamous Hollywood Sign Girl who dove to her death from Hollywoodland’s “H” on September 18th, 1932, a mere two days after the movie’s release. In hindsight, it’s a bit perverse witnessing the misfortune Entwistle’s Hazel encounters in her estimated three minutes of screen-time. What an inauspicious first and last picture… or maybe this movie’s got me thinking too much in terms of prophecies.
6. Speaking of Entwistle’s role…
Apparently, Tiffany Thayer’s source novel strongly suggested that Hazel and her travel companion are lesbians. According to the film’s Production Code Administration (PCA) file, it appears that this insinuation made it into an early script but not the final picture, to the office’s relief.
7. “Old fashioned villainy will not die as long as Myrna Loy’s in Hollywood.” – Variety
Wrong, but since Loy’s assignments around 1932 consisted of a steady stream of vamps and vixens, I could see how Variety would assume as much. That was one of the more amusing statements about the picture; most were rather bleak and unenthusiastic. While the plot and acting received mixed reviews, critiques concurred on two points: the movie’s morose tone and implausible situations. Film Weekly found Thirteen Women “too morbid to be entertaining,” while Variety deemed the details of Loy’s motive “on a scale of exaggeration beyond all reason” and her revenge “little more than bait for facetious audience snickers.”
8. The suspicious deaths of two friends following ominous forecasts – obviously just a coincidence
According to Laura, who tries her hardest to laugh the previsions off, remain strong, and pacify the group… until she receives a prophecy about her son. Uh oh. Time to start worrying – and fight back.
9. Tip: If your horoscope predicts death by your own hand, don’t bring a gun on a train trip
Even if you’re trying to prove it all wrong, Helen. Spoiler alert: this doesn’t end well.
This is the Cortez-iest Ricardo gets in Thirteen Women. (By the way, he’s inspecting an ill-placed sorority pin.)
10. For once, Ricardo Cortez doesn’t play a sleazy lowlife
In his book Complicated Women, Mick LaSalle details six instances of the “oily character actor” being shot or mortally wounded – and that’s in pre-Codes alone. Here, in a picture filled with devilry, Cortez actually operates on the other side of the law as Police Sergeant Barry. But to be fair to Cortez and his usual shady reputation, the ladies – Ursula in particular – basically retain a monopoly on evil in Thirteen Women. Cortez is the one man Ursula doesn’t entrap, as the other males fall firmly and swiftly under her otherworldly spell, from the Swami to her accomplice Burns (Edward Pawley), who masquerades as Laura’s chauffeur. Even the guy who sold her dynamite without a permit crumbled under her power; as he told the cops, she gave him the “willies.” Who could blame him?
11. No big deal, but Ursula attempts to murder a child
Not once, but twice. By the time Ursula’s building a bomb for a 6-year-old, Bobby (Wally Albright), we know she’ll obviously get what’s coming to her in the end.
Can you imagine Ursula with an iPhone and internet access? That would turn Thirteen Women into a full-fledged horror flick.
12. “When I was 12 years old, white sailors…”
We don’t need Ursula to finish that sentence, and thankfully Laura cuts her off. But the picture definitely goes there, especially during this outburst, with Ursula blasting Laura and co. for tormenting her and derailing her attempts to pass as white, thus ruining her life in her mind. Obviously, she’s been through some harrowing episodes before, during, and after her school days, but her method of retribution is 100% pure evil.
13. Thirteen Women: timely even 85 years later
Bullying is a major concern today and, well, if you want a glimpse at the consequences of oppression and harassment, look no further than Thirteen Women. None of the women, not even Laura as the pack’s resolute leader, can be excused from the parts they played in the construction of this vicious fiend, a woman hell-bent on retaliation who uses a few pages from their own book – diabolically amplified, of course.
Moral of the story: just say no to chain letters, round robins, and bullying. Though I think we all know that by now, right?
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.