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Thirteen Women (DVD Review)

19 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy.

There aren’t many who recognize or think of this one as being a David O. Selznick movie — and when, in fact, people think of “Thirteen Women” at all, it is usually in terms of “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town),” an A-bomb fallout  recording that became a minor hit at Decca for Bill Haley & the Comets in 1954 a year before they hit it big. Eight years later, Ann-Margret did a sexual reversal on tune (read: “Thirteen Men”) — and whereas people had gone, “boys will be boys” with the Haley original, the follow-up brought out some Rush Limbaugh double-standard attitudinizing. But I digress.

Thirteen Women the movie probably wouldn’t be worth talking about here if the cast had gone on to become no more famous than say, the third most prominent TV weathergirl in ’60s Duluth. But I cannot tell you the last movie I saw whose acting lineup so made my eyes pop out of my head like someone in a Tex Avery cartoon. Maybe 1958’s Country Music Holiday, which paired Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ferlin Husky.

What we have here in a ridiculous plot propelled by a part-Hindu/part-Japanese/part-Caucasian (at least I think) exotic … played by Myrna Loy just before her career breakout in predominantly domestic roles. It takes a little while (relatively speaking; this is one short movie) to figure out what’s on her mind — but with the temporary help of a cut-rate swami she soon helps to dispatch, Loy hatches a revenge plot against the now older members of a seminary sorority who once made her life miserable (though Loy is clearly the best-looking of the bunch). The women then start meeting their doom in Agatha Christie Ten Little Indians style, though the mortality rate never actually reaches thirteen — possibly because there is something like a 14-minute discrepancy in the movie’s running time (depending on the source you read. After the preview, there was some tinkering and excision of fatalities.

Now for the cast. Playing the onetime classmate whose own child is threatened is Irene Dunne — who, along with Loy, is one of the actresses people are most surprised to learn never won an Oscar (she was nominated five times). Less than a year before Women’s release, Dunne had gotten nomination No. 1 (for the eternally creaky first version of Cimarron), and just about to come out was the first version of Back Street, which became so popular that Universal remade it twice. But it is deeper in the cast of victims that we find the oddities: Jill Esmond, who was Laurence Olivier’s first wife until Vivien Leigh came along; Kay Johnson, wife of director John Cromwell and mother of actor James Cromwell, who’d play straight man to a pig in Babe before scoring as George H.W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W.; plus Florence Eldredge — wife and longtime stage/screen acting partner with Fredric March (think Another Part of the Forest and Inherit the Wind). This is one of the few times I’ve ever seen her where she looked young.

But none of this quite matches up to the fact that Women is the only movie to feature British stage performer Kay Entwistle, whose name is far less famous than what she did two days after the picture opened. Have you ever heard the folkloric story about the discouraged or otherwise depressed actress who leaped to her death from the top of the famous Hollywood sign? Entwistle is the one — and it’s doubly eerie that about the only thing she does in her bit here (after some “force” causes her to commit murder) is to let out one of the better blood-curdling screams I’ve heard in screen history.

The leap by itself would be enough … but when I looked Enwistle up, I was flabbergasted to see that she was married to longtime character actor Robert Keith when she took her life, which also meant that she was also then the stepmother of even more famous actor Brian Keith. From a purely consumer’s point of view, I should add that ridiculous story or not, Warner has come up with a surprisingly clean print of this relic from the RKO library. But it almost seems beside the point, given the insane casting subtext here.

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