Myrna Loy’s best-known roles were as somebody’s wife: Cary Grant’s in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House, Frederic March’s in The Best Years of Our Lives, and of course William Powell’s in the Thin Man movies. But Loy’s early career took full advantage of her smoldering, exotic beauty and pre-code mores, and Thirteen Women offers her as a “half-breed Hindu-Japanese something” with a chip on her shoulder and the means and motive to knock off the titular women.
The Montana-born actress stars as Ursula Georgi, assistant to Swami Yogadachi (C.Henry Gordon), and when the women start falling – literally, as the first death comes by trapeze act – Police Sergeant Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortez) suspects the Swami. But when the Swami succumbs as well, signs point to the smoking “half-breed,” who it turns out was in a sorority with her victims, who all shunned her as an ethnic outcast.
It’s an interesting racial dynamic that resonates today, but the film itself doesn’t live up to the premise. The script by Bartlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz is melodramatic and stagy, and director George Archainbaud doesn’t come up with much to keep it lively despite some a handful of spectacular death scenes and vivid transitions. Loy and co-star Irene Dunne, as one of the last surviving women, are the major attractions, though both would go on to far better things. Historians of the sordid side of the movies will find much of interest here. Thirteen Women is only feature credit for Peg Entwistle, an actress who is ironically better known for her death than her life. In September 1932, a month before the movie premiered, a drunk and depressed Entwistle climbed the H of the iconic Hollywood sign and leapt to her death.
Thirteen Women originally ran 73 minutes, but RKO cut 14 minutes of the film upon its rerelease in 1935, after the Motion Picture Production Code, best known as the Hays Code, enforced a list of do’s and don’ts that sanitized Hollywood pictures until the early 1960s. Warner Archive has released the existing 59-minute cut, which plods along despite its brevity. As with all Warner Archive titles, there are no DVD extras. Fans of Loy or Dunne, and those curious about Entwistle, will be dying to see Thirteen Women, but the film does not rise above that of a curiosity.