My notes on Thirteen Women (1932)
Some years after leaving an exclusive girls’ school because the members of a sorority were ‘cruel’ to her, ‘Hindu half-caste’ Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy) gets revenge in a roundabout fashion.
Ensnaring seer Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon), Ursula sends the now-grown up women ominous letters purporting to be their fortunes as read in the stars, all prophesying some horrible tragedy (suicide, murder, the death of a close relative, etc) which proceeds to take place. After a few preliminary victims are dispensed with – a circus aerialist (Mary Duncan) drops her sister during her act, a society lady (Peg Entwistle, grimly famous as the Hollywood sign suicide girl) shoots her husband and gets life in prison, a mother (Kay Johnson) grieving for a dead son commits suicide on a train – we get down to business at the sunny California home of Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), a nice young widow who worries when a threat is issued against her moppet son Bobby (Wally Albright) and fights back, with the aid of her flippant, hedonist sidekick Jo (Jill Esmond). Ursula, who has persuaded the Swami to jump under a New York subway train, works her wiles on the Stanhope chauffeur (Edward Pawley), hoping to get poisoned chocolates or an exploding rubber ball handed over to Bobby (who, like many kids in early ‘30s films, is so gruesomely shrill and winsome that you think any mother would be glad to see him killed).
Cop Sergeant Clive (Ricardo Cortez) gets on the case, and takes a mandatory shine to the mature heroine – in most ‘30s films, the flatfeet are clods, but Clive is a confident professional who handles a procedural strand of the plot (involving photos sent by wire, swift research and efficient lab work) that perhaps too early gives the forces of the law the upper hand in dealing with the maniac persecutor. There’s even a decent car chase, with an exploding ball for a punchline, and we get several suspense-and-menace scenes set on fast-moving trains. Even though it’s a pre-code film, there’s a sense that the source material (a novel by Tiffany Thayer) has been toned down in the adaptation (apparently, it was clear that Ursula saved up for school from earnings as an underage prostitute) and post-release pruning of fifteen minutes further reduces the scope of a plot (we barely get half the number of promised victims) that ought to have reached Dr Phibes proportions.
An early bit in which we see Ursula cross out pictures in a yearbook after claiming her first victims ought to be a continuing device, but isn’t reprised. The race angle is the most interesting thing in the film, all the more so for being vague about just how Ursula was treated at school – though some speeches about the colour bar and the status of mixed-race persons are wince-inducing these days. In all probability, general audiences even in 1932 found the slinky, exotic Loy (who shows a sexy shape in tight outfits) more appealing than her starchy, simpering, overprivileged nemeses (only Esmond has any spark, and she’s coded as gay), but the film makes Ursula a simple dragon lady, as if it doesn’t want to deal with her perhaps-justified grudge. In the big confrontation, Laura admits she was thoughtlessly cruel to her, but makes no attempt to apologise – even when told how Ursula’s life was wrecked by the sorority girls. Directed by George Archainbaud.
Fascinating film this one, Kim, you’re right – that queasy double-standard vis-a-vis race, apportioning some sympathy to Ursula but still settling for routine branding of her as ‘other’. Loy is very good indeed (the part was rejected by Zita THE MUMMY Johann) – better, in fact, than in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, made straight afterwards, in which I always found her Fah-Lo-See slightly underwhelming. Maybe that’s just me!
It should be noted that Ursula does not “persuade” the Swami to jump under the train, she uses what is a classic yet stereotypical hypnotic stare to send him into a trance and prepare him for his death. She also uses it on one of her victims later in the film. Very much part of the “Mysteries of the Orient” stereotype.