Some Notes on THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932)
Myrna Loy - shortly before shedding her snakeskin vamp persona for good by wrapping herself in the ermine confines of Thin Man's Nora Charles - plays a menacing mesmerist opposite Irene Dunne in the pre-Code horror show Thirteen Women. Produced by barely-in-his-thirties David O. Selznick, Thirteen Women was adapted from the era’s runaway bestselling horror novel by Tiffany Thayer. It recounts the gruesome revenge enacted by Ursula, a Hindu “half-caste,” on a group of bigoted sorority girls who prevented her acceptance into “white society.” Years after the racist rebuff, the obsessed Ursula insinuates herself into the position of assistant to a gifted swami. Armed with the swami’s gift of foresight and her own twin powers of seduction and compulsion, Ursula crafts horrific deaths for the 12 women who wronged her, one by one.
Crafted in the less confining pre-code years of early sound cinema, Thirteen Women's charms abound - as does its unique status in the developing art form of narrative cinema. Many ardent students of cinema shockers perceive in Thirteen Women's gruesome goings-on the seeds for what would become today's “slasher” flicks. Ursula's victims are hunted down, one by one, their faces slashed out with an “X” in an old yearbook. And the women's fates are determined by their own fears and desires - that which frightens them the most proves to be their undoing. So, ironic kills are nothing new – sorry Freddy Krueger!
The film also stands out as an early example of the then emergent genre of “Women’s Picture” with outstanding leading ladies (Loy’s costar is the headlining Irene Dunne) heading mostly female casts in picture that focus on the concerns and challenges faced by independent women in a changing society. Indeed, Dunne’s strong single mother character of Laura Stanhope is a harbinger for the more developed (if more noir flavored) women found in Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce.
But make no mistake; Thirteen Women's delights are rather more diabolical and devastating than the more domestic concerns of a traditional “Women's Picture.” From its breathless and terrifying (and arrestingly staged) opening aerial atrocity through its stabbings, suicides and hidden bombs, the film's relentless pace startles and astonishes, ever driven by Loy's portrayal of Ursula's unalloyed and unapologetic evil.
The mysteries of Thirteen Women extend beyond the plot to the film itself - and its “missing” minutes. Careful counters of homicide will note that some of the twelve murders appear to be glossed over or altogether missing - indeed, some wags have opined that the film should perhaps be titled “10 Women.” Further fueling the mystery is the fact that numerous contemporary sources list the film as having a 73 (sometimes 74) minute running time, with claims that cuts were made to the film after its initial release to suit a later post-code screening which would have deleted scenes that were now deemed too shocking. This is one mystery we can lay to rest, thanks to having unearthed the original footage reports. As one can see, the longer 73-minute cut of Thirteen Women was the preview cut, which was shown at the Ritz Theater on August 10, 1932. Following that preview the film underwent a final round of cuts, ending up a reel shorter 16 days later. As was customary at the time, cuts were made to the original negative, and excised footage was not retained. The Warner Archive Collection release is sourced from this original negative and is as pure and final a cut as one made by the deadly Ursula herself. Enjoy!
Available as part of the Warner Archive Collection.