Kay Johnson

Thirteen Women (1932)

When a group of sorority sisters all write to the renowned Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon) for their horoscopes, nothing good comes of it. First June Raskob (Mary Duncan) gets a letter from him saying that her sister May (Harriet Hagman) will die because of something she does.  June and May are trapeze performers and the Swami’s prediction makes June so nervous that she fails to catch May while performing a dangerous stunt. Then there’s Hazel Cousins (Peg Entwistle), who is told she will wind up in prison.  Sure enough, soon after, she murders her husband and finds herself in prison.

When Helen Frye’s (Kay Johnson) horoscope predicts that she will kill herself, she calls up her friend Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) for some reassurance.  Laura sees all of these untimely deaths as nothing more than coincidence and invites Helen to come visit.  While on the train, Helen meets Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy), another one of her former classmates. But what Helen doesn’t know is that all those fatal horoscopes are actually from Ursula, not the Swami. Ursula had wanted to be part of their circle of friends, but was rejected because of her mixed-race heritage. Now that she’s working with the Swami, she’s using the horoscopes and her hypnotic powers to exact her revenge.

After Helen kills herself on the train, Laura starts taking the horoscopes more seriously.  Her horoscope predicted that her son would die of a terrible accident on his upcoming birthday. When her son is mysteriously sent a box of poisoned candy, Helen turns to Sergeant Clive (Ricardo Cortez), who quickly makes the connection between Ursula and the deaths and comes up with a plan to catch her on a train by using Laura as bait.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by Thirteen Women. I didn’t have particularly high expectations for it, but I was impressed by how genuinely tense and scary it was. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Myrna Loy play a villain like that before, but she was quite wonderfully sinister and I loved it. The story is a bit rushed at times.  Seriously, this movie features the fastest police investigation I have ever seen.  But for a movie that’s only a little over an hour long, it could have been a lot more rushed than it was and it’s strong enough in other ways that I have no problem forgiving the unrealistically fast investigation.  This is one movie that deserves to be seen more often.

My biggest complaint about Thirteen Women is that we barely get a chance to see Peg Entwistle. Peg Entwistle is infamous for having committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood Sign in 1932, but she was first and foremost a very promising stage actress. Bette Davis always cited Peg’s performance as Hedvig in Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” as being her biggest inspiration to become an actress. Thirteen Women was the one and only film Entwistle made and if you blink, you’ll miss her. It’s too bad that now no one will ever be able to see just how talented she really was. I know I’d love to get a good look at the woman who inspired Bette Davis!

Madam Satan (1930)

Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is happily married to Bob (Reginald Denny), but unfortunately, she soon finds out that Bob isn’t as happy with their marriage.  After a wild night of partying with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young), Angela sees that their antics had made the newspaper.  Only the article mentions a Mrs. Brooks being with them and Angela was at home in bed early that night.  She also finds a card in Bob’s coat pocket from someone named Trixie (Lillian Roth) asking him to come over to her place.  When she tries to confront Bob and Jimmy about the newspaper article, they concoct a story about Trixie being Jimmy’s wife, not Bob’s girlfriend.  But Angela knows better and one night, insists on joining Jimmy to meet Trixie.

Trixie had been looking forward to an evening with Bob and isn’t at all pleased when she gets stuck with Jimmy and Angela in her apartment instead.  Angela does everything in her power to make their evening painfully awkward.  And when Bob finally does show up, lots of frantic attempts are made to cover up the fact that Angela was there and Bob leaves thinking that Jimmy was there with a woman.  Angela doesn’t want to lose Bob and when her trusted maid advises her to spice things up to win him back, she decides to try it.  Earlier, Jimmy had invited her to a costume party on a zeppelin and Angela decides to develop an alter ego for the occasion, Madam Satan.  While Angela is buttoned-up and proper, Madam Satan is the life of the party and wears extremely revealing outfits.

The party is already pretty wild before Madam Satan makes her grand entrance (fashionably late, naturally), but when she arrives, she instantly makes a big splash.  Every man wants her attention and she effectively upstages Trixie, who was shaping up to be the belle of the ball, at every turn.  Of course she picks Bob to be the lucky man who gets to spend the most time with her.  He is madly in love with the mysterious Madam Satan, but is totally unaware of who she really is.  When he does find out, though, he suddenly isn’t so impressed anymore.  But there are bigger problems at hand when the zeppelin they’re on is struck by lightning and everyone suddenly must parachute to safety.  Everyone survives, but once the party’s over, Bob still has a hard time accepting what Angela had done.  However, she did manage to impress Jimmy, who drops by and says that he’d be glad to marry Angela if they get a divorce.  Suddenly Bob realizes that he’s not about to let Angela go quite that easily.

I have never seen a movie quite like Madam Satan.  I’d heard that it was pretty wild, bizarre, and very pre-code so I figured it’d be right up my alley and I was not disappointed.  I’m actually kind of at a loss of words to describe it.  It’s kind of like Why Change Your Wife? but on a zeppelin.  The pacing had room for improvement, but I guarantee that you have never seen a party like the one in Madam Satan.  The party itself is so wild and the costumes are just insane.  It makes the most raucous fraternity party look like a quiet afternoon tea in comparison.