Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception until your screens glows infinite

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932) + Peg Entwistle, the Ghost under the Hollywoodland Sign


Imagine if Fu Manchu's insidious sadist daughter Fah Lo Suee (Myrna Loy) in the unbelievably racist but very entertaining MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) went off to a girl's finishing school in America, tried to pass as white, pledged a snooty sorority and was "outed" as half-caste by the evil sisters, and forced to leave school in shame. Naturally she would wait ten years or so for her cold-served revenge, wait until they were all ensconced in their respective jobs and luxuries, then slowly and creatively destroy the lives of everyone in the sorority, one at a time, with the power of hypnotic suggestion via her astrologist boyfriend.

Man, I'd love to see that, wouldn't you? And for an hour, we can. Loy, who at the time she was swathed in roles as Asiatic temptresses, plays Ursula Georgi in THIRTEEN WOMEN (from the same year) does just as Fah Lo Suee would, driving to suicide the very same sorority members who got her kicked out through suggestion and rigged horoscopes.

Knowing her justified vengeance is on its way helps we in the audience endure sleep-inducing scenes of some of the titular number of women, who gather on Irene Dunne's Westchester veranda, with its indulged boy child and continual flow of chauffeurs, butlers, and cops, to discuss the spate of recent deaths in their party. Turns out they all had their horoscopes done by a mysterious swami Yogananda (C. Henry Gordon) who's been sending them letters saying the stars predict their deaths! What the swami doesn't know is that Ursula isn't sending them his predictions, all for health and happiness, but her own, predicting death. Yogananda thinks he must be losing his touch when he reads of their demise. Why didn't the stars predict this?
Answer: because the stars didn't predict Ursula would meddle in their cosmic message giving (this leads to all sorts of cosmic questions, i.e. why didn't the stars predict Ursula's changing their message and thus killing the women through the power of suggestion?) 

Dunne's materialist beeyatch will have none of it. But, in the age of rational thinking, the notion you can avoid fate through strenuous college educated denial begins itself to seem like a kind of obstinate 'scientific fundamentalism.' Yet it's smart just the same since clearly belief in these grim horoscopes sent by evil Ursula may just make the deaths happen. In short, even if you know the stars never lie, their interpreter easily can. (Hence my feelings on it are a typical Piscean dichotomy: I don't believe in astrology, but I know it's real.)

To illustrate that point, Dunne's sunny veranda is contrasted with the shadowy eastern mystic exotica apartment shared in NYC by Ursula and the Swami. Schooled in the arts of hypnotic suggestion as per her exotic birthright (she's "half-breed type, half-Hindu, half... Japanese, I don't know..." labels detective Ricardo Cortez), she spends the days and nights toying with his affection to enhance his anxiety about his "skills" at divination.

It's based on a novel by Fortean Society-founder Tiffany Thayer, so you know the astrology and hypnotism involved in THIRTEEN WOMEN aren't dismissed by him as mere poppycock or treated with disrespect. And Tiffany was a dude, so you know he probably got ostracized in school himself. A man named Tiffany no doubt has vengeance on his mind against any number of schoolyard taunters.

Myrna Loy may have been gliding on a semi auto-pilot through a slew of these kind of 'evil Asian' or 'wild half-caste' femme fatale roles as an MGM contract player at the time, but she's still got Loy star power radiating a cool wicked allure and never phones it in. Unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing it's hard not to admire her drive, and secretly be rooting her plans of bloody vengeance to come off, even (or especially) when they include blowing up that 'adorable' moppet of Dunne's. 

It would have been great if they got a real Asian actress, like Anna May Wong, to play the part. Though she may not look caucasian enough to pass, the racism would have some real bite, then, but one understands if not forgives perhaps these pre-code baby steps, and if you love Loy as I do you have a special spot in the dark of your heart for her early Hindu-Asian vamp roles. What she lacks in the warmth and wit of her later persona she makes up for in slow-measured cobra staring. And as a villain she's quite complex--and as her main opponent, the single mom of rich whiteness that is Irene Dunne seems hardly a saint... When Ursula tells her of being raped at the hands of white sailors while a still a child,  Dunne isn't even sympathetic, but merely snaps "You're crazy!" 

But even then, Ursula's racist. She talks of how her "white half' craved the care and respect due her, i.e. she buys into the idea of white superiority, that white people need and deserve extra care and respect not afforded to the more savage non-white races. Telling of her desperation to pass as white she notes that Dunne and her friends "wouldn't let me cross the color line." Hard to believe that so few films even in the pre-code era were so blunt. Imitation of Life, eat your heart out! This chick actually is doing something about it! She's taking matters into her own hands, and getting revenge. And I respect that. There should be more of that kind of thing going around, but producers are always afraid of riots, and Southern distributor boycotts. 

David O'Selznick produced, which may explain part of why the California veranda scenes are so cloying; he loved that stifling flowers and maids nonsense, the kind of thing that reminds me of being bored as a kid. Dunne's star started to rise as the film was being prepared for release, so it seems like the cool murders were cut to make room for her to stretch out on that veranda. At least the veranda is filmed indoors on a set; something about too many outdoor shots depresses me in a film like this. Real daylight should be banned from supernatural-tinged thrillers, though big crowd scenes at train platforms (LA's La Grande doubling for the Hudson Line out of Grand Central) help make the film feel truly A-list. The big train chase finale is train lover catnip!


Alas, even with the Dunne-upping, THIRTEEN WOMEN didn't do very well critically or commercially and still hasn't earned the cult reputation it deserves (in my opinion). Perhaps the well-scrubbed rubes of '32 hated to be reminded that their callous racism was inevitably heading back around to haunt them via the slow, inexorable spin of karma. And men don't like realizing just how easily their hormonal desires can be used against them, i.e. that falling in love with a pretty exotic girl may mean said girl's manipulated them, not that they're irresistible and just found a disposable mistress they don't have to worry about marrying (due to miscegenation laws), that love might be something easily harnessed and co-opted as a weapon (film noir was still a war away) rather than a wondrous magical blah-blah that goes on between two white people, with other races and half-castes free to serve said white people as domestic servants or prostitutes but not to find love themselves unless they die at the end or are otherwise ostracized.

Naturally the forbidden aspect of all this led to a huge craze for DH Lawrence adaptations and other 'miscegenation fantasies.' In these romances,  it's never in doubt that the non-white woman is inferior to the white man she loves; she's crossed a line, dared to love outside her people, and usually has to die in the end (preferably jumping into a volcano to appease the censor Gods ala Bird of Paradise) so the white guy can marry the long-suffering dull-as-dishwater white girl waiting at home.

What makes 13 Women so unique is there's never a doubt that Ursula is superior, mentally and coolness-wise, to every other character in the film. She has the whole male population snowed, including investigator Ricardo Cortez. Her only mistake is in letting her thirst for vengeance cloud her judgment at the very end. But before that, she's a miracle of diabolical cunning: seducing and beguiling every man in a ten mile radius, driving an array of white ladies to murder and suicide using only the power of suggestion, shamelessly trying to kill an innocent child, effortlessly avoiding the police dragnet out for her by shacking up right under their noses in Dunne's gate house, having seduced and moved in with Dunne's chauffeur --it's all pre-code gold. As I've written before, the censors let sexy Asian characters get away with all sorts of kinky madness no white chick would ever be permitted (as long as the people playing them were really white, in make-up --see my award-spurning Skeeved by an Asian).


And so it is that Loy's Ursula goes down swinging, diving onto the tracks in the wake of an onrushing star, head unbowed, even robbing Cortez of the special joy of nabbing her. And once she does, the film ends with nary a shred of follow-up to the white dogs she's left dead or post-traumatically distraught. The star claims her and that's it.



That in itself might make you want to see it again and again, as I have, especially since parts of it are better than Nyqil, which then makes the weird Loy sequences all the more dreamlike as you gaze on them with one eye open, and the great rushing shooting star dissolves into the camera lens and all the stars and victims and treasures are no more. And it's pretty short. 59 minutes. No word exists on why they edited two of the 13 women out --did Selznick think his rube audience couldn't count that high? Maybe Hollywood just couldn't handle that many women at once --too dangerous to the status quo? I can see it now: "Ten's the limit!" Selznick exclaims, "Any more and the South will riot!"

But what happened to one of those cut girls?


Top: Entwistle as Hazel Couisns in THIRTEEN WOMEN (premiere: Sept. 16, 1932);
bottom: Entwistle as herself in NY TIMES (death: Sept. 20, 1932), a victim to Hollywood and the power of suggestion.
That brings me to one of the women--Peg Entwistle. A scene of Entwistle killing her husband after getting a letter from the swami was almost entirely cut out of the film except for the single shot of her standing in their boudoir with a knife, looking down in horror,  her own dire horoscope at her feet by her dead husband, and an overlap dissolve of screaming headlines (above). Was it perhaps a bad reaction to her theatrical performance in a a pre-release screening that led to the rest of her scene/s being cut from the film? Did this acclaimed stage actress ham it up too fiercely, unacquainted with the subtler forms of big screen acting?

Whatever the reason, she was dropped by RKO before the film was even released, and man she fell mighty hard, straight down to the rocks. In other words, distraught over Hollywood's could shoulder snubbing, she leapt, in real life, to her leap atop the Hollywood sign, just a few days after the release of her only film, Thirteen Women-- a film about the power of suggestion, and of the evils of gossip and snap judgments to derail careers, invisible forces that can drive women to murder and/or suicide. The stars never lie, but whomever controls the stars--be they God, Ursula, or RKO--can make whatever celestial adjustments suit their whims.

Who knows why she chose not to stick it out? I won't be coy in my mystic prowess and suggest some life imitates art occultly-foretold fate even when said fate is fiction, but I will venture is that a lot of actors are bi-polar and easily confused when it comes to make believe. Good actors can be enormously susceptible to the emotions of their characters, i.e. their roles bleed into their personal lives, sometimes fatally. In Thirteen Women her character is hypnotized into murdering her husband during a black-out, and this seems to have carried over into reality, as if the missing scenes found a way into her soul, like a kind of self-projection compulsion recreation disorder. We're in the black-out too. It's as if we can only hope some combination film archival sleuth and Montgomery Clift in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER somehow merge together and the repressed memory--that long excised scene of Hazel Cousins stabbing her husband--is at last unearthed in some long buried preview version. Until then, the spirit of Entwistle can have no rest. Her ghost still walks, they say, around the base of the letters, scaring off tourists and whitening the pallor of intrepid ghost hunters.

Clearly Entwistle had issues with this kind of actor-role power of suggestion psychoses going into Hollywood, which may explain why she was such a success doing Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK on Broadway. In that play (hod onto your cigars, my armchair Freuds!) she played Hevig, a sensitive daughter who.... kills herself at the very end. She allegedly was so good she inspired a young Bette Davis to become an actress. Maybe she was too good.


In the end, Hollywood rewards tenacity and gumption. Even terrible films endure forever, so if you're in them, so do you (unless your scenes are all cut).  Nailing the oblique existential pain of Ibsen without a camera present, ala in the theater, ultimately dooms your best work to the void. Hollywood's a tough racket, with a wide audience, where talent and charisma win out, provided you endure with trouper-level patience -- unless somehow they decide to bury you. Loy toiled diligently through a solid decade of vamp roles, stretching from silent to sound eras, waiting for Hollywood to stop saddling her with exotic femme fatales, but she never complained loud enough to earn top brass ire, nor did she blew her Asians off. She tackled each new half-caste or full-caste with sensual relish, and eventually she rose above the typecasting to become the fist cool wife in cinema, Nora Charles. And if Peg had bothered to read her stack of unopened mail in the foyer before taking that long walk up the hill above her bungalow and jumping off the sign, she would have realized she'd been offered Hedvig again in another production of Ibsen's Wild Duck, so her options had far from dried up.

Maybe she's still doing Hedvig out in limbo, caught in an endless loop of life imitating art not wisely but too well.

Here are the last lines of The Wild Duck, after Hedvig has shot herself (my underline):

Relling:
May I inquire,--what is your destiny?
Gregers:
To be thirteenth at table
Relling:
The devil it is.

Life imitates art a priori to the art.

In THIRTEEN WOMEN, Ursula implants suggestions into Hazel Cousins' (Entwistle) mind via hypnosis. Hypnosis is a tool for being able to influence the unconscious, and it's this unconscious mind that must be courted and accessed by the conscious self in pursuit of great acting. It's where paranoia is born, and where artistic gold is forged from molten lead of mania, despair, craft and inspiration, sometimes all at once

Without consciously surrendering the reins of ones' being to one's unconscious in some measure, a truly great performance cannot be achieved. That's the heart of 'method' and it can sometimes unhinge actors to the point their offstage personalities change in affinity with their characters. The unconscious doesn't always give back both reins.

Being too good at playing a suicidal woman onstage surely commingled with Entwistle's own genetic depression. Her mind was a pile of kindling responding to nightly Hedvig matches, sparked by Hazel Cousins and all the 'suggestions' of suicide going on around the other characters. Her summary rejection by Hollywood fanned a fire so large that no curtain call or vodka binge could quench it, all while a letter that would have kept her working for another six months at least lay hidden under a stack of unopened mail in the foyer. If that's not a sick sort of unlucky 'thirteenth at table' kind of fate, what is?

The Hollywoodland sign was right above her house; all she had to do was climb.

They took the 'land' part of it down awhile later.


Hers story, though, is far from done.

People who've snuck over the fence to stand below or near the famous sign sometimes run into her phantom (as seen in PARANORMAL WITNESS.)  Apparently, she leaves the scent of gardenias (her favorite flower) in her gliding eerie path. (See Stephen Wagner's: The Ghost of the Hollywood Sign or the short film and e-book by Hope Anderson.) It's bizarre how that all works: ghosts, scents, power of suggestion, unconscious, art, cinema, color lines, snubbing, fear, depression: LA.

She's become an emblem of Hollywood Babylon to the locals, and to me.

I hope one day we'll find the original preview cut of THIRTEEN WOMEN, and be able to see Entwistle's full part at last so we can judge for ourselves her real talent. Maybe then she can rest in peace--the stairway sprockets can roll her up through the angelic white light lens onto the screen of heaven at last--and what was just a truncated wisp of a film will finally be so weird and pre-code violent it can stand up to anything, even the sudsy micromanaging fingers of O'Selznick. Alongside the original pre-code cut of TARZAN ESCAPES and the excised Myrna Loy in her underwear singing her verse of "Mimi" in LOVE ME TONIGHT, this is my biggest 'lost reel excavation' fantasy. Similar recoveries have already happened to FRANKENSTEIN (the return of the girl being tossed into the pond), BABY FACE ("Crush out all sentiment!"), and THE BIG SLEEP (here)! Come on and happen!

Until then,
Peg Entwistle, 
may you find the peace in death, 
denied you in lights
by a cutting room snub
in Los Angeles.

May exhumers of dead reels
undo your scene's cold butchering,
May Tinseltown's fearful fathers
be judged cowards for snipping you down to a single scream,
lest you shred with your thousand sharp edges,
the dull leaf Dunne.

Let the autopsy of your shattered soul restore your role
on Blu-ray
or at least DVR,
but, either way, forever,
so your solo sign vigil might at last be relieved.

Let thy night's woe come off,
like a shroud,
that--as it flutters o'er LA's orange grid--
like tinsel in the Santa Anna wind--
turns to swaddling cloth
for a newfound print.

Bette Davis loves you!

1 comment:

  1. I had always heard THIRTEEN WOMEN mentioned in context of being perhaps the most proto- of all American slasher films, which was somewhat interesting to me despite my general apathy towards actual slasher movies.

    And thank you for acknowledging the role of sleepiness in regards to watching movies. I've seen you make mention of it before, and it's reassured me that I'm not the only one who thinks of dozing/waking/dreaming whilst a film is playing in the background as part of the overall experience and mentioning the impact it even makes on the movie's atmosphere. Some things were just meant to be watched in night's deadest hours with no other company besides your own shadow nodding off in the dark.

    ReplyDelete

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