Cinevent May: Thirteen Women (1932)
May is typically capped off by our favorite movie convention, Cinevent. This year’s festivity—co-presented by Columbus Moving Picture Show—is rescheduled for October so we’ve decided to honor the annual rite of Spring by looking at films inspired by the great Cinevent lineups of years past. This week Adam and Samantha discuss Thirteen Women.
SAMANTHA: The first line in Tiffany Thayer’s book Thirteen Men is, “This is the damndest book you ever read.” I can imagine that being a suitable opening for his Thirteen Women as well, upon which this film is based. The story concerns sorority sisters who send away for their horoscopes from a reputable swami. It turns out the swami’s predictions are influenced by a former classmate (Myrna Loy), a woman described as a “half breed type” in the film. She tells them they are doomed in various ways, influencing them negatively until the prophecies come true.
ADAM: In the year 2021, Tiffany Thayer is a writer who most certainly needs an introduction. Nobody reads him these days; nobody admitted they read him in the old days. But he had his moment both as a writer of lurid novels and as a founder of the Fortean Society, the illustrious group that explored phenomena that defied scientific explanation. Anthony Boucher called him “America’s most curious novelist.” F. Scott Fitzgerald described his work as “slime.” A critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle served up a glowing (in the radioactive sense) review of Thayer’s novel Thirteen Women: “…he has combined all the elements of a popular appeal; he works with raw flesh fleshly, introduces the semblance of profound feminine psychology, putters about with sexual aberrations and winds up, exclaiming, ‘What a great boy am I!” The same review sums up where Thayer stood in popular culture: “One is constrained to say that Tiffany Thayer is to hot mamas just what Zane Grey is to frigid women.” Needless to say, Thirteen Women is a lurid and weird movie that was unlucky from the get-go.
S: Unfortunately, life imitated art in the case of Peg Entwistle who famously leapt to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932.
A: This is Entwistle’s only film and it’s a brief appearance. In her 24 years, she moved from London to New York to Los Angeles, so it may come as a surprise that her body was laid to rest in the suburbs of Cincinnati, where she lived briefly as a child. Under a perfect specimen of an oak tree, a most tranquil setting for a restless life, I placed some flowers in tribute last week. Her death came a month before this film’s release, but it wasn’t the last tragedy related to Thirteen Women. In 1937, the book’s publisher Claude Kendall was beaten to death in his Manhattan hotel room. That murder remains unsolved. Even the film itself was mangled. Nearly fifteen minutes were shorn for a 1935 re-release. This 59-minute version is the only one currently available—a shaggy dog story taken to the groomer!
S: I didn’t expect this film to be so exciting. You hear a title like Thirteen Women and imagine it to be a soap opera, but this is far from it. It has a high wire act, suicides, poison, explosions, and a high-speed car chase. Some of it is laughably ridiculous, like the way Loy’s character seems to force the swami to do things against his will simply by staring at him for a long time, but this simply adds to the fun.
A: I don’t think it’s any surprise that director George Archainbaud would eventually helm Western television shows such as The Lone Ranger, Jock Mahoney’s The Range Rider, Hopalong Cassidy, and The Gene Autry Show. That car chase you mentioned is straight out of a cliffhanging, death-defying serial. The movie is a wild mix of horror, melodrama, and action.
S: Wally Albright is adorable. “How is your child Laura? They tell me he’s handsome and bright and very loveable.” Of course most people today know Wally from his brief stint in Our Gang, but he pops up occasionally in films from this era and he is always a delight, natural and magnetic.
Edward Pawley has a crazy profile, the type of rugged chin that caricature artists would have a field day with.
A: I was taken aback when Pawley gets called fat and laughed at his response (“Well, it’s a soft job!”). Florence Eldridge as Grace, the flighty superstitious sister, delivers her lines with an impeccable mid-Atlantic accent. Wide-eyed, she stares off to the distance as she responds to Irene Dunne’s pragmatism, “But the moon does control the tides, and nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”
S: What does it say about me that I admired the clothing worn by the dowager teacher played by Blanche Friderici? It has the cut of the 1930s dress with the lace details of an Edwardian gown. I adore the aesthetic of the early 30s, the clothing, the hairstyles (these by Josette De Lima), the cars, the houses (by Carroll Clark), the music (by Max Steiner). This film doesn’t call attention to those things but they’re top notch.
A: The costume design by Josette De Lima keeps things interesting, especially Myrna Loy’s otherworldly attire. I also took note of Friderici’s clothing. It’s no wonder though, in a 1932 interview De Lima espoused the belief that a smart fashion sense should be applied to every member of the cast: “The costuming of the character actress who is a bit heavy is as carefully thought out for the benefit of the middle-aged audience as are the clothes of the debutante type.” I think audience members of all ages would appreciate the effort, but her point stands.
S: This is the epitome of the kind of film you would see at Cinevent, and indeed those in attendance in 1989 did see it. It is a fast-paced thriller with a recognizable cast in a forgotten title. Three stars.
A: I was not at the 1989 screening, but I still associate this movie with Cinevent for the simple reason that I purchased a “collector’s copy” from the dealer’s room the first year I attended. Admittedly, it was morbid curiosity about Peg Entwistle that brought the movie to my attention, but after watching it all those years ago, I was astounded that something so strange and stilted could have been produced by a Hollywood studio. The movie seems to be made out of time, like it’s a 1980s slasher film with the histrionics of an early silent, fused onto the modernistic stylings of the 1930s. Perhaps the studio’s butchering has something to do with it, but it has the disjointed feel of the experimental films of Dimitri Kirsanoff. While I appreciate the classic film canon as much as the next movie buff, it’s the strange avenues of Hollywood that I find most appealing. Every so often the dream factory churned out some startling nightmares. At Cinevent, you’re more likely to encounter Thirteen Women than Little Women and I appreciate that. I give this movie four stars.