Thirteen Women

(George Archainbaud, USA, 1932)

BY ANN OLSSON | November 30, 2023

Behold the power of Myrna Loy! In Thirteen Women, she propels a man to throw himself in front of a moving subway train using only her intense gaze. Before Loy became America’s favorite sleuthing wife in the Thin Man movies, she was often cast as “exotic,” which usually implied Asian or Hispanic. The entire plot of George Archainbaud’s pre-Code adaptation of Tiffany Thayer’s best-selling novel of the same name hinges on the revenge that Loy’s Ursula Georgi, a “half-caste” of Indian/white heritage, seeks on the 12 mean girls who dashed her hopes of fitting in at a fancy finishing school and beyond.

Instead of time-consuming exposition, we get an opening-card proclamation—quoted from a Columbia University paper—that some crimes and suicides can be explained by the power of suggestion upon certain types of minds. Following this theory, Ursula has inserted herself into the world of a swami, but secretly rewrites his horoscopes meant for her 12 adversaries as a means to cause death and destruction in their lives. If you want to know what happens to all the women, you’ll have to read the (by all accounts, supremely trashy) novel, as the (plenty trashy) film simply provides a small appetizer portion in order to move more quickly to the main course. As Ursula successfully unleashes her wrath on her former classmates, there’s one exception: the particularly strong-minded Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), who refuses to believe in the astrological doomsday predictions, causing Ursula to take a train across the country and deal with her nemesis in person.

Then–RKO Head of Production David O. Selznick and Archainbaud, a workhorse director for the studio, offer a solid enough showing here—a prototype for the slasher film—but the official 59-minute version (from an original 73-minute cut) that was released feels hurried and suffers from some abrupt story jumps. Much of what was snipped from the film involved a lesbian plotline, which even the lax pre-Code censors couldn’t stand behind.

Thirteen Women is perhaps best known for containing the only on-screen appearance of Peg Entwistle, a British-born stage actress who left her Broadway career—and an abusive marriage—for a shot at the movies, just to commit suicide by throwing herself off the Hollywood sign (then Hollywoodland) on likely the same day her first film premiered. Ever since, much has been made of the connection between Entwistle’s role of Hazel Cousins, who both witnesses a friend fall to her death and is imprisoned for murdering her husband, and her real-life situation, as well as the link between her failed movie career and her death, even if her suicide note made it clear she had been considering ending her life for some time. Behind-the-scenes drama aside, Thirteen Women at its center is about the issue of race and the consequences of bullying, and while the movie never sides with Ursula, when viewed through a modern lens, her actions can feel almost justified—at least until she attempts to murder an innocent child. 🩸


is film lover/writer living in New York City.

How to see Thirteen Women

The film is also available on DVD from Warner Archive.
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