“Thirteen Women” (1932)

[http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023582/]

Capsule Description: Thirteen women are marked for death, the revenge of one woman they denied entrance into their sorority and drove from the school. Armed with the mystic powers of her Asian ancestry, she uses the esoteric power of hypnotism and suggestion to drive her enemies to their deaths, stooping to mundane methods of poison and explosives when those methods fail.

Description: Thirteen women, all members of a prestigious sorority in college, combined to spurn another woman, Ursala Georgi, based on her Eurasian heritage. In revenge, once she learns they were consulting a famous Swami and astrologer, she wiles her way into the Swami's confidence and rewrites his predictions to instill fear and terror in their recipients. When the Swami tries to interfere, Ursala hypnotizes him and then later induces him to fall to his death before a subway train. One by one the women fall, until the last one tries to escape across country by train, only to discover Ursala has followed her. She, too, is entranced by Ursala's power, but before she can exact her revenge on the young son, Ursala is forced to flee and falls to her death from the train, just as the Swami predicted.

History: "Thirteen Women" is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Tiffany Thayer. The movie was originally released in 1932 to poor reviews, then re-released (post-Hayes Code) in 1935, trimmed from a running length of 74 minutes to only 59 minutes, to take advantage of the sudden popularity of the lead actress, Irene Dunne, except it could also have been released to take advantage of Myrna Loy's sudden upswing in popularity.

[youtube WqmJH6-NoCw]

Comparison: The novel is a pretty difficult read for modern audiences: is primarily consists of letters and conversations about third-person events interspersed with first-person ruminations on the part of the omniscient narrator, to be finished with enough description to fill out the missing details of Ursala's life that explains her abilities. Hypnosis is never mentioned until near the very end of the novel, although the power of suggestion is, many times, when one of the letters happens to mention that Ursala was a hypnotist.

"Did she ever try to hypnotize you? She did me once. I don't know how we happened to be alone together. I always tried to avoid her — but we were. And she said that her father could do "the rope trick." I said I'd always thought that was mass hypnotism and she said — well, maybe it was. One thing led to another and she showed me a trick of rubbing my arms and talking to me that actually made my arms very stiff. I don't know whether there was anything in it or not, but I couldn't move them."

In the movie, the first time we see Ursala, her hypnotic prowess is emphasized. just as when it was most needed: when the Swami begins to wonder why his predictions have been going wrong, Ursala entrances him to keep him from interfering, using her hypnotic eyes and a few soothing words to entrance him.

The novel differs significantly from the movie in several other ways. The most telling is that all of the events in the novel are primarily told third-person, much of it through letters or descriptions given to other characters; even the Swami is seen only through his letters and telegrams, whereas in the movie, the first-person narration approach does not work. In the novel, Ursala used the Swami's connections and "face" to act as the Swami herself, putting out the astrology charts and warnings under his name, but in the movie, the Swami is a well-known astrologer in his own right. But the biggest difference is that in the novel, Ursala is largely a phantom, manipulating people without being seen until the very end, when she has to act on her own: in the movie, Ursala is very much present and active, as is the Swami (for a a few scenes on screen.)

Commentary: The few actual hypnosis scenes are very stereotypical even for the time period (i,e, a hypnotic gaze) but the power of suggestion callously wielded by Loy's character is almost as effective and just as irresistible.

It is strange to see Myrna Loy, the lovely star of the "Thin Man" movies, playing an Eurasian vamp (left) in this movie, but that was how she got her start in movies, playing stock Eurasian or gypsy characters. (She also played the slinkily sinister Fah Lo Suee to Boris Karloff's Fu Manchu in "The Mask of Fu Manchu".) It took "The Thin Man" (1934) to show that she was a capable actress, able to banter with William Powell as well as do physical comedy with equal aptitude and aplomb.

Despite her relatively low billing, she is truly the star of the movie, (just look at the movie poster: she's the most prevalent and largest character shown) eclipsing the lead, Irene Dunne, the only one of the 13 women to survive. (Loy would later joke "The only one who escaped me in this picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted.") It is Loy's character who drives the plot, not the Dunne's valid character, and it is Loy's character that audiences could better emphasize with, someone who, having been spurned and disgraced by other women, takes out her vengeance against them.

Recommendation: This is a relatively obscure film, one worth seeking out, if only to see the lovely Myrna Loy shine through the makeup and stereotype. Unfortunately it does not appear to be available for purchase, either in the original length or the shortened version, so you have to catch it whenever it appears on TV. 

[amtap book:isbn=1556111010]

Also recommended is her biography. "Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming". While she doesn't mention her work on "Thirteen Women" she does mention discussing Freudian issues with Boris Karloff about her character's scene in "The Mask of Fu Manchu" where she enthusiastically whips the male second lead character.

References:

Trivia:

  • A soundstage in the Sony Picture Studio (formerly MGM) is named for Myrna Loy.
  • Actress Peg Entwhistle was found dead at the base of the "Hollywood" sign two months before the original release of the movie. The police inquest ruled it suicide.

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