“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.

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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