Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

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 by the snobby sisters, and hence kicked out of school in shame. Naturally she would wait ten years or so, then slowly and creatively destroy the lives of all concerned, with the power of hypnotic suggestion. Man, I'd love to see that, wouldn't you? Well Loy's very similar character Ursula Georgi in THIRTEEN WOMEN (from the same year) does just this on the title women (12 not counting her): the very same sorority members who got her kicked out.
She knows revenge is best when cold, so waits until the ladies are all married and/or with children. Knowing her justified vengeance is on its way helps we in the audience endure sleep-inducing scenes of Irene Dunne's Westchester veranda, with its indulged boy child and continual flow of chauffeurs, butlers, and cops. As her old sisters form the sorority come trickling by, news of their friends' suicides and bizarre deaths follow. 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!

Dunne's relentless denial of the occult begins to weaken. In this 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, as belief in it may just make the deaths happen.
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 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, and doesn't know that she's been tearing up his horoscopes and replacing them with new, menacing ones, that plant the seeds in the ladies' minds).

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 powers and never phones it in, so evil or not, unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing, you'll be rooting her plans of bloody vengeance all the way, even 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, 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 as a child,  Dunne isn't even sympathetic, but merely snaps "You're crazy!" 

But even then, Ursula'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, 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.

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 (it's still barely an hour long, did they really have to cut so much?) 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 (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. The latter especially was a huge aspect of the whole Tarzan, shipwreck, DH Lawrence vibe so big at the time.
In what today are called 'miscegenation fantasies,'  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.

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, effortlessly avoiding the police dragnet out for her by shacking up with Dunne's live-in chauffeur, 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 --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 women--Peg Entwistle, whose scene of 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 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 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 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 death from the 'Hollywoodland' sign a few days after the release of her only film, Thirteen Women-- 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 anymore than I already have, 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 while--in effect--in a hypnotic trance, 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 played 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. Even terrible films endure forever (unless your scene is cut from them, so do you).  Nailing the oblique existential pain of Ibsen without a camera present ultimately dooms your best work to the void. Hollywood's a tough racket, but talent and charisma win out with trouper-level patience. 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 she complained loud enough to earn top brass ire, nor does  that 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 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, caught in an endless loop of life imitating art not wisely but too well.

Here are 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. 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. Sometimes the unconscious thinks to itself- well if it has to give back the steering wheel, it might as well just wreck the car like it's always wanted to try. Bfore being forced back behind the curtain, it just might try to set the building on fire.

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 so large that no curtain call or vodka fifth could quench it, all while a letter that would have kept her going 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 the 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: She's still active, they say, as a ghost.

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, 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 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 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. 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)!

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 it flutters o'er the grid
like tinsel in the Santa Anna wind--
turns to swaddling cloth
for a newfound print.

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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