Back in December, TCM had a day of Myrna Loy films and I recorded a bunch of them, including a goofy little pre-code picture called Thirteen Women (1932). I have to say, though Loy is excellent in it, this is an extremely odd picture. She plays a mysterious psychotic named Ursula who was bullied at a posh school by a bunch of mean girls and has set out to get revenge on them. This she does in a peculiar and ludicrous way. Capitalizing on the spiritualism craze of the time and the mighty power of suggestion, Ursula sends each woman a fake astrological chart, accompanied by a letter predicting death, dismemberment, or other calamity. She signs the letters with the name of the fake swami she works for. Each recipient then becomes so obsessed with her letter that the prediction comes true.
I always knew Loy’s beauty was spellbinding, but in this, despite five pounds of spackle, she actually hypnotizes men. Fixed in her gaze, the “swami” passes out. Ditto the chauffeur she employs to do her evil bidding later on. She forces him to send Irene Dunne’s son poison candy, but Mom has the sense to get it tested at the police lab. The chemist says, “This candy is fine but it was tampered with. If anyone had eaten it, they’d have died.” Then it isn’t “fine”!The film is full of odd moments like that: The first classmates/victims are two sisters in a trapeze act..sort of a weird career choice for alumnae of the type of upper-crust school they were all supposed to have attended. And if you actually count, only 10 women are accounted for. I remember reading that 15 minutes were cut from the film somewhere along the way. Single moms who have the nerve to be happy, career women, and sex talk remain, so God only knows what was cut. Maybe it would make more sense with the missing piece. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
The film keeps asking us to identify with the sorority girls, portrayed by Irene Dunne, Kay Johnson, Florence Eldridge, and Peg Entwhistle, among others. But it also keeps showing us the remains of this group’s adolescent clique-y-ness and their complete gullibility, so that, though the maniacally evil Ursula has the most exaggerated eyeliner caught on celluloid until Divine made his debut, she is the most consistently watchable and interesting character. Mostly the film is a soap-y curio from a time when every house had a Ouija board. Don’t try to make too much sense of it, just suspend your disbelief and enjoy this showcase for Loy’s gorgeous looks and make-the-best-of-it dramatic talents.