Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
By William D. Carl
This Week’s Feature Presentation:
THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable—then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!
In the pre-Hayes Code days of 1932, you could get away with an awful lot in motion pictures. Hollywood films were rife with prostitutes, glorified gangsters, adultery, murder, child abuse, rape, and nudity. One film of that year, however, proved so salacious that Warner Brothers cut it from 74 minutes down to a meager 59 minutes in length. Rumors of graphic killings, homosexual affairs, and gun-fighting women on trains persist to this day, but sadly, this footage is all lost. What is left of the film, THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932), is a miracle of crazed, trashy, pulp filmmaking, and it still maintains its shock value when seen today. One can only imagine what it would have been like in its entirety. I believe it would be hailed as a classic of its kind, standing alongside the film versions of Fu Manchu and the early dramas of James Cagney.
THIRTEEN WOMEN begins with the Raskob Sisters getting ready for their trapeze act at the E. Marvel Circus. June has just received her horoscope from the mysterious Swami Yogadachi, and it informs her that because of something she will do, someone very close to her will die and she will end up in an insane asylum. In walks Hazel, an old friend from school days long past, played by Peg Entwistle, an actress who actually killed herself two days after the release of THIRTEEN WOMEN by throwing herself off the ‘H’ in the Hollywoodland sign! The two women are frightened by these ominous letters, but Hazel informs June that it must be some kind of prank, and the show must go on. The trapeze artist, tormented by the words in the letter, becomes more and more nervous. She and her sister swing high above the crowd in a pretty terrifying, silent sequence. Each time June grabs for her sister, she nearly misses, until at one point, she jerks her hands back at the wrong time and her sister falls to her doom.
In the office of Swami Yogadachi, we find 1930’s villain character actor C. Henry Gordon (SCARFACE-1932, MATA HARI-1931) speaking with his “secretary” (oh you know what she REALLY is), Ursula Georgi, played by a pre-Nora Charles Myrna Loy (THE THIN MAN – 1934, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES-1946, and MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE – 1948). Myrna’s all made up in a fabulous dress made from copper coins and wearing slanted Asian eye make-up. She slinks over to the Swami, who has just completed a horoscope for another woman. He maintains that it only shows happiness for this woman, Hazel. Ursula stares him down and informs him that twelve women, all related by a round robin letter and their days in school together, must not lose their faith in the occult. She kisses him, explains they were lovers in a previous life, and then asks about what he sees in the stars for her future. He says, “It is death I wrote for you…not pleasantly. Your body, mangled like that. An accident, the stars say. A railroad, perhaps.” She says, “Strange. So are you to die, like that.”
She hypnotizes him into sleep, takes his happy horoscope, and changes it to inform the recipient that she will commit murder and go to prison. It is Hazel, who proceeds to fulfill the prophecy, screaming as she brutally stabs her husband.
We are then introduced to sensible single mother Laura Stanhope, played by Irene Dunne (THE AWFUL TRUTH-1937, A GUY NAMED JOE-1943, I REMEMBER MAMMA-1948, and many others great films). Laura calls Helen, who has recently lost a child and is receiving horoscopes claiming she will soon kill herself. Laura has also received a letter, stating that her son will die before his next birthday. She says it’s all a bunch of hooey, and she is going to prove it. She invites Helen to her house, where all the remaining girls from their sorority will meet, thus proving the Swami a fake. Helen agrees and books a train ticket.
Meanwhile, Grace, another gal from the sorority, tells Laura that they are all doomed, that she believes everything the letters say. The Swami has just sent her a letter stating that he, himself, will die before July 1st. On June 31st, Swami Yogadachi unwisely tramps to Grand Central Station with Ursula, who makes him leap in front of a train in a stunningly edited sequence. She then hops on her own train, the very one transporting the grief-stricken Helen to California.
On the trip, she speaks with Helen, who says she regrets the way Ursula was treated at school, then she shows the Eurasian woman a gun she keeps with her to prove to herself that she won’t kill herself. Not exactly a good plan! Ursula lurks behind her, nudging her closer and closer towards suicide until the sobbing Helen shoots herself through the head while Ursula listens at her door, smirking with satisfaction.
The suicide is investigated by Police Sergeant Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortiz-THE WALKING DEAD-1936, MR. MOTO’S LAST WARNING-1939), and the trail leads to Laura Stanhope and her son, whose birthday is fast approaching. Ursula, now in California, is sleeping with the Stanhope’s chauffer, Burns, played by tough guy Edward Pawley (G-MEN-1935, EACH DAWN I DIE-1939). First, the crazed woman tries to poison the little boy with candy. Then she gives Burns a rubber ball filled with explosives, saying “Give this to Bobby with all your love. And don’t drop it!” When he refuses, she comes on to him, wearing another revealing and fabulous dress, and convinces him to give the boy the lethal present. “He won’t know anything,” she whispers into his ear. “He’ll bounce it. Children always bounce rubber balls, don’t they?”
The next fifteen minutes contain many tense moments as the rubber ball is placed in various precarious positions (the film is alarmingly easy-going about putting a four-year-old child in mortal danger), a wild car chase with an out-of-control limousine, a harrowing sting operation, a chase through a train, and the big confrontation between Ursula and Laura. Ursula was a half Hindu, half Japanese girl who was sent by a missionary to school. She had to “learn to be white”, because if you were Asian and a man, you were a thug. If you were Asian and a woman, you would become a prostitute. The girls of the sorority learned that she was passing for white and made her life so miserable she had to leave the academy. Thus, her lust for revenge was born, a desire to see every one of the women in that sorority to either be killed or tormented by loss. It’s a plea for tolerance, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Ursula, even though she’s just attempted to blow up a little kid. Loy is so adept with her acting, especially her eyes, she brings real sorrow to the plight of this “half-breed.” The attempt at sympathy for other races, however, is muddled completely by the fact that this woman is a monster through and through, so the whole progressive point of the movie becomes moot.
THIRTEEN WOMEN barrels along at a furious pace, all the more so for its missing scenes. Stylishly directed by the prolific George Archainbaud (BLONDE TROUBLE-1937, THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND-1946), the movie has at least five action/horror sequences that are all the more exciting by the lack of music, especially that trapeze plummet opening. A shout-out must go to the costume designer, whoever that may be. There is no credit for the person responsible for the wild outfits worn by Ursula Georgi, sexy and daring and exotic, the perfect gowns for the murderous half-caste. They would almost be acceptable in a FLASH GORDON serial! The movie also includes an early score by the brilliant Max Steiner (GONE WITH THE WIND-1939, KING KONG-1933, NOW VOYAGER-1942, CASABLANCA-1942, and 237 others). Although sparingly used, the music is quite effective and understated.
The film was based on a salacious novel by Tiffany Thayer, the Harold Robbins of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote books filled with murder, sex, and violence, rife with misogyny and racism. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called his books “Slime…in drug store libraries.” Dorothy Parker stated, “He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing. Thayer died while writing a 21 volume (series) about the Mona Lisa, which was never completed. Many have called his works literary potato chips, not good for you, but hard to stop eating once you’ve started. .” Wow! Where can I find a copy of one of his novels?
Even in its truncated 59 minute form, THIRTEEN WOMEN casts a weird, dream-like spell. If only we had the missing fifteen minutes, it could have been a pre-code classic. As it stands, it’s still a wonderfully campy, shocking, and exciting relic with an amazing performance by the lovely Myrna Loy. Warner Archive has put out a nice copy of THIRTEEN WOMEN, and it deserves to be seen by a whole new generation.
I give THIRTEEN WOMEN three explosive rubber balls out of four. Just don’t bounce it!
© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl