Horror Author Aria Cain

Thirteen Women, One Movie

Thirteen Women (1935)

In the early decades of filmmaking, directors toyed with the idea of all female casts. Classics like The Women pushed the boundaries of what a single-gendered cast could accomplish (turns out, it was a LOT). Other films like Stage Door and Cry Havoc relegated men to minor roles, letting then and future superstars like Lucille Ball, Ann Sothern, Katharine Hepburn, Margaret Sullavan, and Ginger Rogers command the spotlight.

One pre-code film nudged the limits even further by focusing on women — not as part of a comedy or romantic drama, but as the central cast of a proto-slasher film. Released by RKO in 1935, Thirteen Women offered something new to moviegoers between the World Wars. Based on Tiffany Thayer’s bestselling 1930 novel, this daring psychological thriller tells the tale of thirteen sorority sisters (subtly edited down to eleven for the film) who are stalked by a shadowy killer. Over time they turn on each other and themselves as their numbers dwindle.

The movie starred Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy in parts that broke away from their more customary comedic roles. The book, considered shocking for the era, received a significant edit for the screen. Original themes of lesbianism, insanity, circus sideshows, suicide, and more faded a bit in the final cut. Still, the central themes remained titillating for 1930s film lovers accustomed to a wilder pre-Hays code aesthetic. In many ways, the novel and script presaged several film tropes from much later in the century including beats from movies as diverse as Terror Train, And Then There Were None, Battle Royale, and even Stephen King’s Needful Things.

One sad footnote to the story is the life and death of Broadway actress Peg Entwistle. Entwistle played the part of Hazel Cousins, a married woman who kills her husband and lands in prison. While she enjoyed 16 minutes of screen time in the original cut, her first — and only — screen role was reduced to 4 minutes following test screenings. Despondent over her failing career, Entwistle leapt to her death from the Hollywood Sign on September 16, 1932, only a month before the film’s release.

In the following decades, Entwistle achieved a degree of cult notoriety. She appears from time to time in pop culture works, including songs like “Lust for Life” by Lana Del Rey and Dory Previn’s “Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign.” In 1920, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Hollywood centered on the production of Peg, a fictional film about Entwistle’s life and death.

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Horror Author Aria Cain

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