Thirteen Women (1932)

Mean Girls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Aeons before the likes of Michael, Jason, Freddy or even Norman there was Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy).Thirteen Women is one of the earliest prototypes of the slasher film (made at a time when most horror movies featured supernatural creatures) in which the half-Hindu, half-Javanese Ursula (even though Georgi is a name of European origin) seeks revenge on her former high school peers due to their racist mistreatment through the use of horoscopes which don’t predict a happy or successful future. Whether or not Loy actually enjoyed doing exotic roles such as this during her early career, she remains professional and doesn’t phone it in. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and when she gives you that blank stare you know you’re done for, not to mention she goes through many a memorable costume change throughout the film’s short runtime.

Throughout the picture Ursula has control over her victims, leading them to commit suicide. However, the film does not make it clear if she has supernatural mind control abilities (“I was his brain as I am yours”) or simply can just manipulate her victims though psychological means as the film’s opening prologue appears to imply: 

 “Suggestion is a very common occurrence in the life of every normal individual…

…waves of certain types of crime, waves of suicide are to be explained by the power of suggestion upon certain types of mind.”

Pages 94 and 105 of Applied Psychology by Professors Hollingsworth and Hoffenberger, Columbia University.

The extent of the mistreatment towards Ursula is not made clear. In her final monologue at the film’s climax, Ursula speaks of she tried to become white and it was almost in her hands when the sorority of girls wouldn’t let her “cross the colour line”, subsequently followed by the sorority’s leader Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) acknowledging their cruel treatment. The film’s racial subject matter was frank for the time – this was after all when screen star Merle Oberon was hiding her mixed-race origins from the public.

Thirteen Women is an oddity in the career of Irene Dunne, being her only macabre picture in a filmography of generally light-hearted fare. Laura is the only woman in the sorority who attempts not to act so gullible and take superstitions seriously (not to mention she has one fine Beverly Hills Home). Thirteen Women is an example of a female ensemble film yet oddly all the women in the picture are comprised of divorced and single mums – there are no husbands insight and even the one who is married shoots her hubby at the beginning of the film.

Thirteen Women doesn’t disappoint with those to be expected pre-code shocker moments from the circus acrobat accident in the film’s beginning to Ursula going as far as to send poisonous chocolate and later a bomb disguised as a birthday present to kill Laura’s child. The film’s atmosphere is also aided with an exotic score by Max Steiner (topped with plenty of gongs thrown in there for good measure) at a time when most movies seldomly used scored music. Steiner would go onto compose King Kong the following year at RKO and the rest is history.

Thirteen Women’s biggest claim to fame is the film being the only on-screen appearance of the elusive Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by hanging herself on the Hollywood sign, shortly before the Thirteen Women was released – ironically the only film she appeared in had suicide as a major theme. According to the book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide, Entwistle’s role as Mrs Hazel Cousins was central to the first 22 minutes of the film in which she was involved in a lesbian love affair leading to the murder of her jealous husband. In the 59 minute cut of the film, Entwistle is only on screen for a few minutes in which during that time she locks arms with another woman (her love affair?) and later shoots her husband and then screams at what she has just done. Thirteen Women originally ran at 73 minutes however the likely watered-down 59-minute cut is the only version currently known to exist. Perhaps somewhere out there exists a 73 minute print of Thirteen Women, regardless of what we are left with is still an entertaining hour. Perhaps future cult classic status is still in the waiting for Thirteen Women.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Fifty Shades Of Screwball

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Theodora Goes Wild was released two years into Hollywood’s production code and yet the entire premise of the movie is one huge “how did they get away with that?!”. Only The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and The Moon Is Blue perhaps out do it in terms of most pre-code post-code films. A film with a heroine who writes risqué novels and rebels against her ultraconservative, God-fearing, Helen Lovejoy type aunts who deem it their obligation to keep the fictional town of Lynnfield, Connecticut (yet another screwball comedy set in the state) the one last pure, God-fearing town in America. Moral puritans who try to ruin everyone else’s fun and claim to speak for a larger group- every generation has them. Theodora Goes Wild proceeds with an ending in which the once silent majority Lynnfield show their true colours. – This movie hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance for today’s world.

The scene at the beginning of Theodora Goes Wild in which the local literary group read passages from the latest “scandalous” novel from author Caroline Adams really is jaw-dropping. However, the local newspaper run by Thomas Mitchell starts printing a serialization of the scandalous bestseller in an effort to show the town how people live, love and learn in the real world. Little do they know Caroline Adams is their own Theodora Lynn, a Sunday school teacher who’s been playing the church organ since she was 15. Under the rules of the Production Code, a character must receive a punishment for their so-called “immoral” actions. Not here though! Despite Theodora rebelling against her God-fearing upbringing, she receives no punishment. Whoever said old movies are stuffy and the dreaded “O” word, outdated?

Despite writing highly successful adult novels, Theodora’s conscious still objects to it and thus requires a bit of Melvyn Douglas as Michael Grant to ignite Theodora’s sexual awakening after he seduces her while wearing a vest as his only piece of torso. Despite neither of these two performers being sex symbols, it’s surprising how steamy this scene comes off. Melvyn Douglas plays a potentially creepy stalker but is charming enough and carefree to a comic degree that he gets away with it. The man has adapt comedic timing (I never tire of that whistling of his) and it’s easy to see why Douglas was one of the most reliable male co-stars of the time. However what succeeds in making him a more interesting character is the discovery that Michael is actually just as repressed as Theodora due to being enslaved in a hateful marriage on behalf of his father’s political livelihood. Once Michael liberates Theodora from her small town way of life she returns the favour and liberates him from his New York, bourgeois decorum.