Sunday Matinee: Thirteen Women

Thirteen WomenThe pre-code days of Hollywood produced some dark and entertaining genre films. Take the 1932 thriller Thirteen Women. It’s a simple tale of revenge, the power of suggestion and racism.

The film begins with a quote.
“Suggestion is a very common occurrence in the life of every normal individual…….waves of certain types of crime, waves of suicides are to be explained by the power of suggestion upon certain types of mind.” …pages 94 and 105 of “Applied Psychology.” By Professor Hollingsworth and Hoffenberger, Columbia University.

A young woman played by Mary Duncan receives a letter from a swami that her and her circle of friends all correspond with. The swami sends the ladies their own personal horoscopes and Duncan has just received hers. The swami regrettably informs her that someone close to her will die within the next day or so. Duncan is a performer in an acrobatic act in the circus along with her sister. Nervous Duncan and her sister hit the ring to begin their act. They are performing high above the crowd below without a safety net. Duncan is nervous and afraid. Suddenly her sister leaps out to her and at the last second Duncan pulls her arms in instead grabbing her sisters hands letting her sister fall to her death. Another horoscope has come true.

Soon another of the circle of friends has received an ominous horoscope and another death has occurred. This time Peg Entwistle received a horoscope that informed her that she would kill her husband. And she does. The news of the tragedies hits the remaining ladies and they decided to meet at Irene Dunne’s house. Dunne doesn’t believe in this nonsense. Unbeknownst to everyone it seems that Myrna Loy is behind it all. She went to a prestigious school with the thirteen women but because she wasn’t white they ostracized her until she left the school. Now she wants revenge. Loy has seduced the swami and unbeknownst to him has changed all of his predictions. To throw everyone off she writes a letter supposedly from the swami informing everyone of his impending death then she has the swami commit suicide by using her awesome hypnotic powers. Her next victim is Kay Johnson who is traveling by train to meet Dunne. Johnson has just lost her only child and is depressed. Loy uses this to convince Johnson to kill herself.

Up until this point Loy hasn’t really physically killed anyone. But Dunne is proving to be a tough cookie to crack. Dunne is a single mother who loves her son dearly. Loy decides that killing the boy will destroy Dunne. Soon poison and bombs become her methods instead of subtlety and the police become involved.

I enjoyed this thriller. You kind of want to root for Myrna Loy but unfortunately she’s the bad guy in the story. The film was cut after it’s initial release and that footage has been lost so only the shorter version is available. The studio wanted to capitalize on Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne’s growing celebrity so a couple of the victims were cut to showcase the two women more. So technically it’s only 11 women that are shown getting killed (actually it feels like there’s even less). Speaking of celebrity this is the only film credit for struggling actress Peg Entwistle. Entwistle became famous because she committed suicide off the Hollywood sign a couple of months before this movie opened.

The film briefly touches on racism but avoids dealing with it out right. It’s the entire driving force for Loy’s revenge but it isn’t mentioned until she confronts Dunne. Dunne’s response is to apologize but reasons that “they were just kids at the time” so it’s OK. Still the film is entertaining, there’s thrills, explosions, hypnosis and two strong female leads battling each other which you won’t find too often even today.

Author: Shane Hnetka

Shane Hnetka has spent most of his life watching movies and reading comic books. He has decided to use this vast knowledge for evil instead of good.