‘Thirteen Women’ – Irene Dunne vs. Myrna Loy on Criterion Channel

Thirteen Women (1932) is a “Ten Little Indians”-style thriller set in a circle of sorority sisters whose planned reunion is marred with premonitions of death, murder, and suicide sent by a swami (C. Henry Gordon) whose astrological readings are all the rage in their society.

Irene Dunne is Laura Stanhope, the good girl center of the sorority society, and Myrna Loy is Ursula Georgi, the exotic villain (her skin darkened to a dusky “other”) masterminding the revenge plot and murdering her way through the circle by suggestion and hypnosis. With her high cheekbones and sultry eyes, Loy was cast as vaguely oriental dragon ladies more than once, and here they make no bones about her identity as a “half-caste” whose foreignness is somehow an explanation for her villainy. Even the police call her a “half-breed type” and “that Hindu dame,” all but dismissing her as a racial stereotype, and somehow that Asian blood gives her the power of hypnosis to add to her arsenal of psychological manipulation, suggestion, and intimidation.

Race and racism, in fact, is at the root of her revenge, but the film only gives lip service to the torment these women put her through. It’s not like we can even suggest this exotic creature was justified in taking revenge on American women of social standing. Which, in its own way, makes her reign terror just a little more satisfying.

Loy plays Ursula as a cruel, cool one, so mad with vengeance that she targets the young son of her nemesis in one scene (“He’ll bounce,” she tells a nervous flunky, “Children always bounce like rubber balls don’t they?”), and stands outside the stateroom of another victim to wait for the suicide gunshot to confirm her plan has succeeded. The smile of satisfaction that spreads across her face is cold. Dunne, meanwhile, is the mother hen of the sorority circle, trying to look after her besieged sisters with an earnestness that has blocked out her own complicity. What’s a little prejudice between girls?

The film, a David O. Selznick production for RKO, is a mix of Selznick elegance and pre-code audacity. You won’t find the saucy sexuality that defines many the pre-code films here, but you do get death by trapeze and train and a bomb in a birthday present. It’s all accomplished in under 60 minutes, a pace that is in fact a little too fleet. The film originally ran about 75 minutes but was cut down after a preview, apparently, and a few characters were excised with it (there’s something like only ten women left). It’s hysterical and bigoted and just plain ruthless, almost unbelievable, and perversely fun for all that. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Directed by George Archainbaud from the novel by Tiffany Thayer. Ricardo Cortez costars as the investigating police sergeant and Jill Esmond, Mary Duncan, Kay Johnson, and Florence Eldridge are among the women targeted for vengeance.

Black and white

Streams for a limited time on Criterion Channel

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Thirteen Women [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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