Cast & Crew
After trapeze artist June Raskob receives a letter from Swami Yogodachi in which he predicts that her sister May will soon die, she becomes so obsessed with fear that she allows May to fall to her death during their circus act. Later, Hazel Cousins, a friend of the now insane June and a fellow member of the exclusive St. Albans Seminary alumnae group, who also has received a horoscope, murders her husband just as the Swami had foretold. When another sorority member, Helen Frye, receives a letter in New York warning her that she will commit suicide before Christmas, she contacts group leader Laura Stanhope, who suggests that the remaining women reunite at her home in Beverly Hills. On the train there, Helen meets Ursula Georgi, a half-Indian mystic and St. Albans alumna. Ursula, who had worked for the Swami and had used her considerable hypnotic powers to control and then murder him in order to further her revenge against the group, which had ostracized her at school because of her race, subtly influences Helen to shoot herself that night. At the news of Helen's death, the normally calm Laura begins to fret about her own horoscope, which states that her young son Bobby will meet with a terrible accident on his upcoming birthday. Laura's fears become concrete when she discovers in the nick of time that candy that was sent anonymously to Bobby is poisoned, and she seeks the aid of police detective Sergeant Clive. After Clive connects Ursula to the Swami and the prior incidents, he sets a trap for her on a train to New York on which he has planted Laura. On the train, Laura almost falls victim to Ursula's hypnosis but is saved by Clive. Trapped by the police, Ursula throws herself from the caboose, thereby fulfilling the Swami's last prediction about her own death.
C. Henry Gordon
Edward Le Saint
Constructed as a suspense thriller, Thirteen Women opens with trapeze artist June Raskob (Mary Duncan) receiving a prediction from Swami Yogodachi (C. Henry Gordon) that her sister May (Harriet Hagman) will die. June's fears are realized when May falls to her death in their circus act, setting a pattern of unlucky horoscopes for a group of fellow sorority sisters who attended the exclusive St. Albans Seminary. It eventually comes to light that the Swami is in cahoots with Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy), who has masterminded an elaborate revenge against the former sorority sisters who ostracized her in school. One of Ursula's main targets is Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) whose son becomes the recipient of poisoned candy and toys rigged with bombs on his birthday. Luckily disaster is avoided and police detective Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortez), with the help of Laura, set a trap for Ursula that ends her reign of terror.
In her autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, the actress recalls that just prior to Thirteen Women she had appeared in Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight and that the director had generously showcased her in that feature. "Rouben's revelation of my comedic talents didn't faze M-G-M. They dropped me right back into the vamp mold, loaning me to RKO for Thirteen Women. As a Javanese-Indian half-caste, I methodically murder all the white schoolmates who've patronized me. I recall little about that racist concoction, but it came up recently when the National Board of Review honored me with its first Career Achievement Award. Betty Furness, a charming mistress of ceremonies, who had started at RKO doubling for my hands in closeups when I was busy elsewhere, said that she'd been dropped from Thirteen Women. (Despite the title, there were only ten in the final print.) "You were lucky," I told her, "because I just would have killed you, too. The only one who escaped me in that picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted."
Irene Dunne, who was second billed to leading man Ricardo Cortez in Thirteen Women, had just appeared in RKO's unexpected smash hit, Back Street (1932). As a result, the studio decided to delay the release of Thirteen Women to take advantage of Irene Dunne's unprecedented popularity and believed that the actress's presence in their mystery thriller would guarantee a box office hit.
The RKO executives should have consulted with Swami Yogadachi because Thirteen Women was not a success with either critics or audiences. The New York Times reviewer wrote "Some of RKO-Radio's most comely actresses are permitting themselves to be lured into highly improbable situations with guns, knives and a mystic letter signed by Swami Yogadachi. It is horror without laughter, horror that is too awful to be modish and too stark to save itself from a headlong plunge into hokum." Variety mirrored the same sentiment with its verdict: "Between covers it was fast light reading, thanks to the writing, but on celluloid it deteriorates into an unreasonably far-fetched wholesale butcher shop drama which no amount of good acting could save."
None of this, however, should stop you from enjoying Myrna Loy's flamboyantly evil performance, whether she is booby-trapping toys for children, poisoning candy or giving victims the "evil eye," which in this case means hypnotizing them into committing suicide by jumping in front of a train.
According to Margie Schultz in her reference work, Irene Dunne: A Bio-Bibliography, American Movie Classics host Bob Dorian stated in one of his network introductions that "the producer of Thirteen Women hired an astrologer to make up charts for the stars of the film since the plot involved astrology. Irene Dunne, a devout Catholic, did not believe in astrology so she bet the other actresses that none of the predictions would come true. The ladies agreed to meet in five years to find out the results. Unfortunately, Dorian reported, no one seemed to have kept a record of whether or not the actresses met." It would have been interesting to know, for instance, what Peg Entwistle's horoscope revealed. Born in London, the actress made her stage debut in Boston at the age of seventeen. When theatre work became scarce during the Depression, she moved west to try her luck at movies. Unfortunately, Thirteen Women is her only film credit and the studio dropped her option shortly after she made the movie. Depressed, she climbed an electrician's ladder to the top of the 50-foot Hollywoodland sign and jumped off (some accounts say she jumped off the thirteenth letter 'D', while others state it was the letter 'H'). She left a note behind that read: "I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain."
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: George Archainbaud
Screenplay: Bartlett Cormack, Samuel Ornitz, Tiffany Thayer (novel)
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editing: Charles L. Kimball
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Irene Dunne (Laura Stanhope), Ricardo Cortez (Sergeant Barry Clive), Jill Esmond (Jo Turner), Myrna Loy (Ursula Georgi), Mary Duncan (June Raskob), Kay Johnson (Helen Dawson Frye), Peg Entwistle (Hazel Clay Cousins), Florence Eldridge (Grace Coombs), Harriet Hagman (May Raskob), C. Henry Gordon (Swami Yogadachi).
BW-59m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy
Irene Dunne: A Bio-Bibliography by Margie Schultz
The Films of Myrna Loy by Lawrence J. Quirk
The RKO Gals by James Robert Parish
The Hollywood Death Book by James Robert Parish
Thirteen Women on DVD
MGM loaned Myrna Loy to RKO for Thirteen Women, an unusually morbid murder thriller also featuring Irene Dunne. Loy's character is described as a "half breed type", a vixenish villain enacting a fantastic vengeance. Astrology is involved, as well as an undefined "evil hypnotic power" that pulp fiction of the time frequently associated with Third World treachery. An extreme example of casual racism in the cultural mainstream, Thirteen Women is tailor-made for viewers interested in weird Pre-Code fare packed with outdated, outrageous attitudes.
A number of years after graduation, a group of sorority sisters from the exclusive St. Albans Seminary has become involved in an astrological "Horoscope Round Robin" conducted by the Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon of Gabriel Over the White House). Graduate June Raskob (Mary Duncan), now a successful circus aerialist with her sister May (Harriett Hagman), is unnerved by the Swami's dire prediction, with tragic results. June's friends do not take the news well. The horoscope drafted for impressionable Hazel Cousins (Peg Entwistle) insists that she'll soon commit a murder. It turns out that the Swami's secretary Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy) is substituting his benign horoscopes with predictions of terrible fates, and letting "the power of suggestion" do the rest. Acting on her own, Ursula stalks Helen Frye (Kay Johnson of Madam Satan) on the train. Ursula knows that Helen is still despondent over losing her only child to sickness.
Waiting in California are three more potential victims. The pessimistic Grace Coombs (Florence Eldridge) says that she welcomes the early death predicted by the Swami. Jo Turner (Jill Esmond) has a better attitude, but admits to her own problems -- her marriage has failed and her present rich boyfriend doesn't want babies. The level-headed Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) is also an unfulfilled divorceé. When the Swami's horoscope appears to threaten harm to Laura's precious son, she wisely turns for help to police sergeant Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortez). Sergeant Clive discovers the motivation behind the bizarre string of suicides and killings: back in school, the St. Albans sorority sisters rejected Ursula Georgi's membership application and outed her as a "half breed" passing for white. Ursula was forced to leave the seminary in disgrace, her hopes for a respectable future dashed.
Myrna Loy receives only fourth billing, although her remorseless killer is the central character of Thirteen Women. Like a pulp fiction vamp, Ursula Georgi seduces and discards foolish men in her quest for revenge. She stares coldly through her stylized Oriental eye makeup, ignoring pleas to spare Laura Stanhope's little son. The grim effectiveness of her faked horoscopes reminds us of the poison-pen letters in H.G. Clouzot's misanthropic horror classic Le Corbeau. When psychological methods fail, Ursula resorts to poison and explosives. The fantastic element of this anti-Asian calumny is Ursula's supernatural, hypnotic ability to influence the actions of her demoralized victims. All she need do is stare malevolently, and her 'evil eyes' do the rest. The "Yellow Peril" is alive and well.
Thirteen Women conveys the historical truth of racism better than any academic study. In the diversity-challenged social Stone Age of 1932, relationships were held to a strict standard of so-called "racial purity". Not being certifiably Anglo was more often than not a ticket to the social margins, and often carried a social stigma impossible to overcome. Detective Barry Clive distastefully describes Ursula Georgi as a Javanese-Indian hybrid. Ursula's real crime is her attempt to cross the race barrier. She hoped she could pass for white and enter the exclusive ranks of St. Albans graduates -- women 'qualified' to marry well and live comfortable, upscale lives.
The film concentrates on Ursula's murderous schemes, yet doesn't acknowledge that the upscale happiness she covets may only be an illusion. Most of the women that rejected her have money and security, yet some feel like failures in their domestic lives. None has a successful marriage. Only one has a child, and another mourns a child that has died. Grace Coombs' extreme fatalism reminds us of the despairing, passive characters in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim. Ursula's insidious Power of Suggestion works only because most of her victims are so emotionally vulnerable.
Irene Dunne easily fulfills the demands of her role. Only Laura is strong enough to face Ursula and ask, "Why do you hate me?" The monstrous Ursula sneeringly labels Laura "the exclusive Mrs. Stanhope" before hypnotizing her into helpless unconsciousness. Given the film's theme, Ricardo Cortez is an amusing casting choice --- born Jacob Krantz in New York, he made his acting career by following in Rudolf Valentino's footsteps and 'passing' for Spanish. Producer David O. Selznick sought both quality and connections in his other actresses -- Jill Esmond was the spouse of Laurence Olivier, and Florence Eldridge was married to Fredric March. In her only movie role, Peg Entwistle is on screen for just a few seconds. She had been a Broadway hit in serious dramas, where her performances reportedly provided a major inspiration for Bette Davis. In a rather creepy parallel event, Entwistle's own notorious suicide occurred just a month before Thirteen Women was released in theaters.
The structural device of complacent graduates stalked by a victim of a forgotten cruelty makes Thirteen Women resemble the gory slasher horrors of the late 1970s, such as Friday the 13th. Director George Archainbaud keeps most of the film's violence discreetly off screen, and employs interesting star-shaped flashes to obscure one or two killings. Yet the story is mainly a string of mysterious, morbid deaths. If Thirteen Women were in gaudy color and dwelt upon its subject in gruesome detail it might look exactly like a 1960s Italian "giallo", such as Mario Bava's annihilating horror show Blood and Black Lace.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Thirteen Women is a good remastered transfer of this highly eccentric, vintage RKO thriller. Some reels have light scratches and scattered dust but the show overall is satisfyingly intact. The audio track is also very clean.
Unfortunately, the original 1932 version of the movie is lost. It was cut from 73 to 59 minutes for a 1935 reissue, and the trims were apparently discarded. The deleted scenes might have been dropped to excise content nixed by the new Production Code. Or, RKO may simply have wanted an abbreviated running time for a film that did not perform well in its initial release. Lost are the performances of actresses Phyllis Cerf and Betty Furness, who may or may not have played additional graduates. Although promotional materials suggest that Irene Dunne's Laura is the only survivor, two additional sorority sisters simply exit the storyline alive and intact, after a scene that carefully sets them up as likely targets for the treacherous Ursula. The film's title seems inaccurate in that only seven sorority sisters appear, not counting Ursula. If there are other missing women in the storyline, nobody mentions their names.
For more information about Thirteen Women, visit the Warner Archive Collection.To order Thirteen Women, go to TCM Shopping.
By Glenn Erickson
Thirteen Women on DVD
In a foreword, the film quotes a statement from Applied Psychology by "Professors Hollingsworth and Hoffenberger of Columbia University" about the power of suggestion. According to RKO inter-department memos, Myrna Loy replaced Zita Johann during the production. Because of Johann's firing and the fact that the script was being written and rewritten during shooting, the film went over budget. British actress Peg Entwistle, who played the role of "Hazel Cousins," committed suicide on September 18, 1932 by throwing herself off the "Hollywoodland" sign cliff, which is located in the Hollywood Hills. Contemporary reviewers commented on the fact that only ten women, not thirteen, were featured in the story. A comparison between onscreen and trade paper cast lists and modern source cast lists suggests that a few characters were edited out of the final film. Although modern sources include Phyllis Fraser, Betty Furness and Louis Natheaux in the cast, these actors were not seen in the viewed print. Film Daily news items note that "more than a dozen famous circus acts," including Eddie DeComa, Buster Bartell, Clayton Behee, Eddie Viera and Teddy Mangean were signed to appear in the film. Their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Modern sources add that Teddy Mangean was a wire walker, and the rest were trapeze artists. Film Daily also adds James Donlan, Mitchell Harris, Allen Pomeroy and Oscar Smith to the cast, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. According to modern sources, David Selznick delayed the release of the film in order to capitalize on the expected success of Irene Dunne in Universal's 1932 production Back Street. Modern sources add the following cast members: Audrey Scott and Aloha Porter (Equestriennes), Cliff Herbert (Circus act) and Lee Phelps (Conductor).