Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 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 and hence booted out. She would slowly and creatively destroy the lives of all concerned, with much torture and hypnotic suggestion. Loy's very similar character Ursula Georgi in THIRTEEN WOMEN (from the same year) inflicts more of the latter on the title women (12 not counting her), sorority members who got her kicked out. Ursula knows revenge is best when cold, so waits until the ladies are all married and/or with children. Knowing her vengeance is on its way helps we in the audience endure sleep-inducing scenes of Irene Dunne's Westchester veranda, with its obnoxious brat child and continual flow of chauffeurs, butlers, and cops, and her relentless denial of the occult in this age of rational thinking, and/or the naive notion you can avoid fate through strenuous college educated denial, that a slew of suicide, trapeze accident, and imprisonment amongst her old girlfriends all being predicted by Giorgi-forged letters from Swami Yogadaci (C. Henry Gordon) is pure coincidence.

On a much cooler and shadowy eastern mystic exotica apartment set back in NYC meanwhile, Ursula toys with the Swami's undying devotion. Schooled in the arts of hypnotic suggestion, she's, as Ricardo Cortez labels her, "half-breed type, half-Hindu, half... Japanese, I don't know..." She toys with his affection to enhance his anxiety about his "skills" at divination (he didn't predict these fates for the ladies, but happy ones, she tears up his horoscopes and writes new, menacing ones, that plant the seeds). 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 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 be gliding through her then-typecast parts as Asian or half-caste femme fatales but she's still got Loy star powers, so evil or not,you'll be rooting for her all the way (unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing), even if it would have stung more and been more daring if Georgie was played by Anna May Wong instead, i.e. actually Asian or half caste. 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 her foil, the single mom of rich whiteness Irene Dunne, hardly a saint... Loy tells Dunne of a rape at the hands of white sailors as a child, but Dunne snaps "You're CRAZY!" And even then, Loy's racist, talking of how her "white half' craved the care and respect due her, i.e. she buys into the white superiority even then, telling of her desperation to pass as white but 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!

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. It reminds me of being bored as a kid (i,e, one of the reasons I hate the first third of GONE WITH THE WIND). 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, and the big train chase finale is train lover catnip. 

Alas, even with all that trimming and Dunne-upping, THIRTEEN WOMEN didn't do very well critically or commercially and still hasn't earned the cult reputation it deserves. 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, that falling in love with a pretty exotic girl may mean said girl's manipulated them, that love might be something easily harnessed and co-opted as a weapon rather than a wondrous magical blah-blah that goes on between two white people (with other races and half-castes freely used as servants or prostitutes). In most such miscegenation fantasies, it's never in doubt that the woman is in some way inferior to the white man she loves; she  usually has to die in the end so the white guy can marry the long-suffering dull-as-dishwater white girl waiting at home (ala MADAME BUTTERFLY).

But here there's never a doubt that Ursula is superior, mentally and coolly, to every other character in the film. Her only mistake is in letting her thirst for vengeance cloud her judgment. But in her crazed behavior up until then, seducing and beguiling every man in a ten mile radius, shamelessly trying to kill an innocent child, Ursula is 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 they were really white, in make-up, to avoid riots --see my award-free 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.

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. In other words, 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? Ten's the limit, Mayer must have retorted, "anything more and the South will riot!"

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 remaining women, Peg Entwistle, who's secene of killing her husband was almost entirely cut out of the film except for her standing there with a knife, looking down in horror and screaming behind an overlap dissolve of her headlines (above), her own dire horoscope at her feet. Was it perhaps a bad reaction to her performance in a a pre-release screening that led to the rest of her scene/s being cut mostly from the film? Did she ham it up too fierce, unacquainted with the subtler forms of big screen acting? Whatever the reason, she was dropped, almost sight unseen, by RKO, and 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 death from the 'Hollywoodland' sign a few days after THIRTEEN WOMEN opened, a film about the power of suggestion to drive women to suicide. You do the math.

Who knows why she chose not to stick it out? I won't be coy and suggest some life imitates art occultly-foretold fate. But I will venture is that a lot of actors are bi-polar which makes them enormously susceptible to the emotions of their characters, i.e. their roles bleed into their personal lives. In THIRTEEN WOMEN she's hypnotized into murdering her husband during a black-out, destroying her life, in effect, 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.

This deep bi-polar affliction may also explain why she was such a success doing Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK on Broadway, in which she plays Hevig, a daughter who also kills herself. She allegedly was so good she inspired a young Bette Davis, who saw her onstage, to become a dramatic actress herself. Maybe she was too good.

In the end, Hollywood rewards tenacity and gumption, though, not nailing the oblique existential pain of Ibsen. 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 that doesn't mean she blew her Asians off. She tackled each new half-caste or full-caste with sensual relish, and 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 exiting her bungalow, taking that long walk up and jumping, 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.

Here's the last lines of Ibsen's play, after Hedvig has shot herself (my underline):

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

And so it is that life imitates art a priori to the art just as much as vice versa. In THIRTEEN WOMEN, Ursula implants suggestions into Hazel Cousins (Entwistle) mind via hypnosis. 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, sometimes both 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. Sometimes the unconscious thinks well, it might as well just wreck the joint before being forced back behind the curtain. 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 sight unseen rejection by Hollywood fanned a fire no curtain call or vodka fifth could quench, all while a letter that would have kept her going lay hidden under a stack of unopened mail in the foyer. If that's not a sick sort of unlucky-13 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.

Peg Entwistle's ghost still haunts the hill, and people who've snuck over the fence to visit the 'Hollywood' 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, inn short 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 rolling 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 weird and pre-code violent enough it can stand up to anything, even the sudsy fingers of O'Selznick. Alongside the Welles cut of AMBERSONS and the excised Myrna Loy in her underwear singing "Mimi" in LOVE ME TONIGHT, this is my biggest 'lost reel excavation' fantasy. And don't think it can't happen! It's 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)!

And so...
Peg Entwistle, 
may you find the peace in death, 
denied you alive
by a cutting room snub
in Los Angeles.

May exhumers of dead reels
undo your scene's cold butchering,
And 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, by film's
eternal sentry, relieve thee of
Hollywood's foulest anonymity.

Let it come off
like a shroud that--
as if flutters o'er the grid,
like tinsel in the wind--
turns to swaddling cloth.

Bette Davis and I love 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.


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