Sunday, February 25, 2024

Thirteen Women (1932)

Thirteen Women is a 1932 RKO pre-code movie which straddles the crime melodrama and horror genres.

It was based on a book by Tiffany Thayer and he’s an interesting figure (and yes despite the name he was a man). He was a founding member of the Fortean Society and edited their newsletter for many years. Thayer therefore had an active interest in the strange, the unexplained, the occult and the paranormal. Those interests come through very strongly in this movie.

Twelve women who were once schoolgirls at the St Alban’s School for Girls in San Francisco receive warnings in the mail. An Indian mystic, Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon), has cast their horoscopes. He has foretold disaster for all of them.

The Swami has foretold disaster for himself as well. But were the letters that were sent to those twelve women sent by the Swami, or by his assistant, the beautiful and glamorous Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)? What motive could Ursula have?

The swami’s predictions begin to come true. Disaster does befall three of the women, in puzzling circumstances.

Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) has by far the strongest personality of the twelve women. She decides that she will have to take charge and persuade the others that the only dangers they face are in their own minds. It is their own fears that threaten them.

Ursula had also been a pupil at the St Alban’s school. She is half-Indian and as a result she was given a very hard time by those other twelve girls. She has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

The combination of threatening letters and three slightly mysterious deaths has attracted the attention of the police. Detective Sergeant Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortez) is assigned to the case. The three deaths were all suicides. There was absolutely no doubt about that. But Sergeant Clive suspects that something sinister was behind those suicides. His job is to find out what is really going on, and to make sure there are no more odd suicides. Laura Stanhope’s main concern is for her little son Bobby.

This movie does confront the issue of racial prejudice and it does so in an intelligent and sensitive way. It is best not to get distracted by the fact that it does not approach the issue the way it would be approached today. Western attitudes in the 1930s towards Asia, Asians, Asian society and culture and Asian belief systems were complex and varied. Ursula is certainly portrayed as a dangerous exotic beauty but she has some nuance. She has comprehensible motives for her actions.

Irene Dunne gets star billing but she also gets the thankless sensible good girl role. She is totally overshadowed by Myrna Loy who gets the juicy sexy bad girl role (and in 1932 no-one could top Myrna Loy in that kind of part). Ursula Georgi is in fact the central character, she entirely dominates the movie and Myrna Loy is the real star. And she’s fabulous.

The most interesting question to be confronted is whether there is actually anything occult or paranormal going on. There are hints that perhaps there might be. This is essentially a murder mystery but those hints are just enough to give the film some affinity with the horror genre.

Sadly Thirteen Women in its original form is a lost film. In 1932 it was hacked to pieces by the studio. The running time was slashed from 73 minutes to 59 minutes. The cut footage was destroyed. Since this happened in 1932 it seems most likely that the studio lost faith in the film’s commercial viability as an A-picture and butchered it for release as the bottom half of a double bill. In its surviving form it’s quite coherent but seems a bit rushed.

Thirteen Women doesn’t have any overt pre-code content but it is rather pre-code in its refusal to fit neatly inside genre boundaries and it does have a lurid vibe. It’s slightly offbeat and thoroughly enjoyable. Myrna Loy’s performance is enough to qualify it for a highly recommended rating.

This film is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Irene Dunne Pre-Code DVD boxed set, in English as well as Spanish. The transfer is not great but it’s acceptable. That’s where my copy came from but it has also been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series.

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