Thirteen Women (1932): Tempting the Fates

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“They were schoolgirls together and their lives form one chain of destiny, women who believe!”

—Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)

Peg Entwistle came to Hollywood because she wanted to be a star.

She didn’t make it.

It’s an old story and a sad one—a tale that really belongs to all of Tinseltown’s lost souls, although none can equal the cinematic coup-de-théâtre with which Entwistle ended her life.

The Welsh-born beauty acted in just one movie before she hurled herself off the H of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, two days after the film premiered. They say that her ghost still haunts the spot. And Thirteen Women happens to be her first and last movie.

Even without its connection to one of Hollywood’s most famous tragedies, Thirteen Women would stand out as one of the most eldritch concoctions of the trippy pre-Code era. In this horror-melodrama, the power of suggestion drives a group of wealthy young women to madness, suicide, and murder.

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Entwistle gave a nuanced, if brief, performance as Hazel Cousins who watches an acquaintance plummet to her death during a trapeze act. Deranged by the experience and maddened by a horoscope predicting violence and disaster, Hazel stabs her husband to death. We see her clutching a bloody dagger and screaming, under superimposed headlines announcing her crime.

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One has to wonder if the film exerted an insidious real-life influence on Peg Entwistle, perhaps even planting the seed of a dramatic death by falling in her mind. Just as her character seems imprisoned by headlines, Entwistle herself has gone down in history as a shocking episode in movie-land folklore. The fame that eluded her in life was ironically bestowed upon her in death. Did the dark plot of Thirteen Women, in addition to all of her other worries and woes, work some kind of malign spell on her? Did she relate too closely to the film’s theme of self-fulfilling prophecies? In any case, it’s a hell of a coincidence—and only one reason to tune in to this magnificently warped movie.

I consider Thirteen Women one of the most concise, effective nail-biters I have ever encountered. If you’re looking for the antidote to summer blockbuster bloat, look no further than this frightening pre-Code gem.

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Produced by David O. Selznick at RKO and directed by the rather obscure George Archainbault, Thirteen Women admirably truncated a popular novel by Tiffany Thayer. Clocking in at an incredible 59 minutes, the movie manages to sketch a blueprint for every revenge thriller that would follow. The one-by-one elimination of enemies, the grotesquely devised set-piece deaths, the gaggle of mean girls being menaced by their former target, and the ambiguous villain-protagonist will all look remarkably similar to modern audiences.

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As you may know, before transitioning to the tame post-Code era with her “perfect wife” image, Myrna Loy played an awful lot of vamps, tramps, and temptresses, often with an exotic flair. The parts usually fell beneath her talents as an actress. However, Thirteen Women gave Loy the most psychologically rich variation on her Oriental villainess typecasting. Mixed-race anti-heroine Ursula Georgi has survived things that most of us get the chills just thinking about—and ostracism at the hands of her peers put her over the edge. Jaded, manipulative, and captivating, she’s out to exact retribution on the coven of white society snobs who shut her out of their privileged world at boarding school.

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Once a victim of fate, she takes fate into her own hands. Using her seductive charms and wits to destroy her enemies, Ursula is sort of like a shadowy echo of Lily from Baby Face. Whereas Lily, that other pre-Code female mastermind, destroyed others to elevate herself, Ursula sees that destruction as an end in itself. Maybe she was reading Schopenhauer instead of Nietzsche.

Most interestingly, Ursula doesn’t merely set out to destroy these women—she sends phony prophecies about their imminent doom and effectively pushes them to destroy themselves. By using the name of a famous swami in her warning messages, Loy’s character reveals the strength of Eastern mysticism upon the snotty Caucasian women who had once dismissed Ursula and her culture.

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Ursula’s victims play right into her hands. As one of them wonders aloud, “But the moon does control the tides! And nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”

Rather than intervening directly, for most of the film, our femme fatale lets the power of suggestion gnaw away at her victims. The hoity-toity finishing school graduates succumb to their own demons—butchering their husbands, causing calamitous deaths, and shooting themselves.

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Thus, Thirteen Women intimates that your average 1930s society belle was concealing some kind of major anguish, rage, or mental imbalance. Perhaps the most disturbing subtext of the film lies in the thought that it doesn’t really take the powers of the occult to make us do awful things to ourselves and to the ones we love; we might do them all by ourselves.

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(Question of the day: would it be worth it to live in the shadow of an ugly death if you got to wear such beautiful 1930s outfits?)

Myrna Loy’s experience as a dancer serves her well in the part of Ursula. The slinky, serpentine physicality that she injected into her role adds to the ominous ambiance of the film. Her sinuous gait and her ability to stand perfectly dead still (to the point where I thought I’d accidentally paused the movie) reminded me of such uncanny villains as Jaffar in The Thief of Baghdad and Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood. We understand that Ursula’s intense hate had transformed her into a being so implacable, so focused that she practically is supernatural.

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Like the return of the repressed, Ursula shows up to expose the cruelty, hypocrisy, and vulnerability of her enemies. Her wickedness, after all, is really just the maliciousness of others reflected back to them. As much as the audience would like to completely sympathize with Ursula’s primary rival, the strongest of the former mean girls—astutely underplayed by a steely but nurturing Irene Dunne—we still have to recognize that she brought it on herself. Who’s to blame: the monster or the bullies who created her? I’m particularly enamored with this mirror confrontation shot that seems to visually translate all of this conflict and ambiguity.

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Probing the open wounds of female aggression and racial tension, the plot also sustains a briskly paced series of death scenes and suspenseful set pieces. The film opens with a white-knuckler of a sequence during a death-defying circus act, quickly proceeds to a domestic murder, and witnesses someone being pushed in front of a subway train.

You can also expect a car chase, a woman leaping from a moving train, and an off-screen suicide—I’ve scrambled the order, so don’t worry about spoilers. I would also argue that this film contains one of the greatest, and simplest, suspense scenes of the 1930s, as an adorable little boy tries to reach for a toy ball that’s been filled with explosives. Not for the faint of heart, this movie!

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If we can sense that the adaptation lacks probably the depth of the original, the movie compensates with a major sense of style and a bizarre, magical expressionism. Leo Tover’s cinematography shapes a nightmarish pre-noir world, awash with mystery and imminence.

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Glowing astronomical orbs, glistening fabrics, and inky, low-key shadows all contribute to a feeling that the veil of illusion has been pulled back from reality. We can perceive the cosmic dread that hangs over the comings and goings of the characters, as they meet their destinies… or the end results of their own desires, perhaps.

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When each character dies, a gleaming star suddenly bursts onto the screen and transitions to the next scene. So, are we to assume that humans are indeed the puppets, prone to the indifferent vagaries of celestial bodies? Well, not really, since Ursula can knead destiny to serve her own purposes, pushing people down different trajectories than the stars actually foresaw for them.  Besides, Ursula’s victims actually sealed their fates through their nasty actions many years ago, which we can only assume that they committed of their own volition.

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However, if you pay close attention to the opening shot of the film, a seemingly unrelated image of a train speeding along in the night, you’ll notice it may actually represent the ending of the film from a different angle. In other words, Thirteen Women is carefully constructed for repeat viewing. From the first, the movie foreshadows Ursula’s own apparently predestined death and comes full-circle to this beginning at the very end of the film.

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Thirteen Women thus suggests that what we tend to consider a quirk of fate actually points to a more complex design, a tapestry of free will, unconscious longings, and, yes, some uncontrollable accidents of time and chance.

The fault is neither in our stars, nor in ourselves alone—but it doesn’t help that, all too often, we want to blame the stars.

richee

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