Myrna Loy was mighty busy as a femme fatale in the early 1930s before she rose to comic grace. She was frequently cast in some kind of ethnic role, such as the vengeful Eurasian “half-caste” Ursula Georgi in Thirteen Women. Like Loy’s equally race-conscious and vindictive anti-heroine in the same year’s The Mask Fu Manchu, this is the kind of role that Anna May Wong should have played (and Anna May knew it).
This stylish and ridiculous RKO melodrama has Ursula psyching her old classmates into committing suicide. When one woman fears the astrological readings that have been accurately predicting their deaths, Myrna gets to utter mocking lines like “You straight-thinking, oh so rational Anglo-Saxons don’t believe in such things, do you?” You see, years ago these women shunned her when they were boarding at the hoity-toity St. Alban’s Seminary, so she’s making them pay.
When asked what anyone’s done to make her so inhuman, she says “Do I hear the very human white race asking that question?” Then she strongly implies having been raped at age twelve by sailors, which is strong stuff indeed and the kind of detail that probably wouldn’t have passed the Production Code’s crackdown in 1934. She goes on: “Do you know what it means to be a half-breed, a half-caste, in a world ruled by whites? If you’re a male, you’re a coolie. If you’re a female, you’re—well. The white half of me cried for the courtesy and protection that women like you get. The only way I could free myself was by becoming white. And it was almost in my hands, until you, you and your Kappa society stopped me.” She keeps spitting out the word “white” like a verbal slap.
So that’s it, she was blackballed from the sorority. “We were young. Maybe we were cruel,” admits the strong, square-shouldered heroine (Irene Dunne), “but you can’t use that to justify murder!” Loy simply glares at her and states, “I can.” Nothing in the movie quite lives up to such dialogue, not even the various deaths and near-misses that whiz by during the hour, but it’s certainly eye-opening to hear such a rationale in the middle of a picture that’s aiming for frightening fun. Thus can politically incorrect entertainments play with the social fissures that breed fear.
The film is only an hour long now, but it was reviewed upon its release at 73 minutes. Online research is contradictory as to whether it was shortened before its release or upon a later re-release, but one thing we know is that there aren’t 13 women. One of the briefly glimpsed women is played by Peg Entwhistle, a stage actor who inspired Bette Davis and killed herself by jumping off the HOLLYWOODLAND sign before the film opened. Apparently the notoriety didn’t help at the box office.
According to Wikipedia, her brief role as a woman who kills her husband was changed from Tiffany Thayer’s original novel, where her character was a lesbian spurned by a lover. That reminds me of the anecdote of producer Sam Goldwyn, who supposedly wanted to buy the rights to the novel The Well of Loneliness and, upon being told that he couldn’t because the main character was a lesbian, replied “So what? We’ll make her American.” Entwhistle’s role too was made into an American. The film has more mysteries than we know.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.