Throughout most of the 19th century in America, astrology was considered an occult science embraced by a small but growing number of converts. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that an interest in astrological signs and horoscopes crossed over from a cult phenomenon to more popular acceptance on a national scale. This was partially due to the success of The Bowl of Heaven (1924), an autobiography of famous astrologer Evangeline Adams and the influential periodical American Astrology, which began publishing in 1923. It was only a matter of time until Hollywood would capitalize on the movement’s popularity by using it as a plot device in Thirteen Women (1932), one of Myrna Loy’s least known and most peculiar roles.
Throughout the early part of her film career Loy was typecast in a succession of exotic women roles from vamps (Finger Prints, 1927) to gypsies (The Squall, 1929) to Mexican senoritas (Rogue of the Rio Grande, 1930) to Asian femme fatales (The Mask of Fu Manchu, 1932). One of the last of these roles was Thirteen Women (1932) in which she played a vengeful half-caste with the unlikely name of Ursula Georgi.
Made just prior to her emergence in 1934 as a major MGM star featured in such high profile films as The Thin Man and Manhattan Melodrama, this RKO release, directed by George Archainbaud (Penguin Pool Murder) is one of the more preposterous examples of Loy’s ethnic typecasting but is nonetheless a fascinating curio for its astrology-driven plot and a predominantly female cast that includes Irene Dunne, Jill Esmond (Laurence Olivier’s wife at the time), Florence Eldridge (the wife of Fredric March) and Peg Entwistle in her only film; her main claim to fame is for committing suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign.
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.”
Thirteen Women used to pop up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time but in March 2012 the film was finally released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection as a stand alone disc with no extras. You can also stream it on prime.
*This is an expanded and updated version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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