Director/Screenwriter: David Stenn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Many moons ago I worked for a publishing company that had a large door-to-door sales force. Every year, the company would bring them all to Chicago, put them up at one of the best hotels in the city, wine and dine them, and hire top-flight performers like Barbara Mandrell to entertain them. As an editor who helped produce the product they sold, I was paid $12,000 a year to start and saw my income generously climb to $22,000 in the 5 years I was with the company. Our managers never so much as picked up a box of Dunkin’ Donuts for us.
I tell you this so you know that I have a pretty good idea of what a 17-year-old dancer and extra named Patricia Douglas was caught up in when in 1937, she was “hired” by MGM for a motion picture and ended up instead at a private party for the MGM sales force that ended in her rape. In business back then, when I was with that publishing company, and probably still today, “anything you want” (as L. B. Mayer was captured on camera as saying to the salesmen in 1937) was reserved for the people who made the bosses the money; the little people who made the product were all but expendable.
David Stenn, a television writer who transitioned to books with a respected biography of Clara Bow, was working on another biography, of Jean Harlow, when he happened on a story that had pushed Harlow’s death off the front pages of newspapers of the day. Patricia Douglas had accused a doughy-faced MGM salesman from Chicago named David Ross of raping her at a party. She contended that she and dozens of other girls had been lured to the party by a false casting call. She had reported to the Western Costume Company, been issued a cowgirl outfit to wear, and reported to the Hal Roach ranch, a frequent site for movie shoots, where the party was being held. Stenn, who considered himself an expert on MGM, was floored that he had never heard about this scandal before. He was curious how a story this big had disappeared from view and remained hidden so long. At the urging of his editor on the Jean Harlow book, Jackie Onassis, he pursued the truth. Girl 27 was the result.
Truthfully, this story is not particularly unique or unusual in most respects. The exploitation of economically dependent women by Hollywood studios isn’t even an open secret. Scenes in which aspiring movie stars are asked to show their legs, as well as allusions to the casting couch, can be found in many films of the time, including a favorite of mine, Footlight Parade. Child labor laws seem not to have applied to female extras and dancers, as girls in their early teens dressed in skimpy costumes could be found on many sets. Hollywood studios were well known for controlling their stars’ image and actions, and their influence in a company town like Los Angeles was wide-ranging. It is not at all out of character for a studio to squelch bad publicity and make an inconvenient accusation of rape go away through character assassination and the bribing of a key witness, as happened in Douglas’ case.
What is unusual about this story is that Patricia Douglas spoke out against her attacker and the entire corporate machine to which she owed a livelihood. When her criminal case failed to move forward—David Ross was never even served with a warrant for his arrest—she filed a federal lawsuit against him that bore no fruit. What kind of a woman was Patricia Douglas? Obviously a courageous one, but Stenn never hoped to know the woman herself. Another rape victim who came forward in 1938 and suffered a similar fate to Douglas had killed herself.
As luck would have it, Stenn found Patricia Douglas, 86, living in Las Vegas. A recluse, she only left her apartment to see her doctor. We learn that Stenn has courted her (a word both he and Douglas used) by phone and recorded their conversations, which run as a voiceover to the film. Finally, he persuades her to appear on camera. Awaiting her call in his tacky Vegas hotel room, fussing about his appearance, Stenn answers a ringing phone; full of profuse apologies, Douglas says she can’t go through with it. Sure we’ll never get a chance to see the woman we’ve spent an agonizing time with, she suddenly appears in the frame. Looking into her fully aware, hurt eyes, we see the horror of rape staring back at us.
From a cinematic standpoint, Girl 27 leaves something to be desired. Stenn cobbles together images from the time and clips from various films that provide a rather cheesy punctuation to the points he is making. He fixates on the fact that rape is as rare in Hollywood movies of the time as someone like Douglas speaking out about it; he unearths a generally unavailable Miriam Hopkins film, The Story of Temple Drake, as a rare film that explicitly deals with rape and uses scenes from it as a kind of stand-in for Douglas’ experience. He repeatedly shows the same newspaper clippings of Douglas, including one in which her face is buried despairingly in her hands, to accompany her pained comments. He also repeatedly shows a clip of L. B. Mayer talking casually in a group of men who greeted the salesmen as they disembarked from a train. Interestingly, Stenn locates David Ross in film of the sales convention and follows him around on the train platform and into the barn where the party took place.
The film’s strengths are in the interviews he obtains, from the children of the MGM security guard who perjured himself for MGM in exchange for a guaranteed job for life to Douglas’ daughter and grandson. He trots out Fox legal commentator Greta Van Susteran and an attorney named Michael Taitelbaum to comment on the miscarriage of justice and how it went down, which gives the proceedings a little bit of a Court TV feel.
But, of course, it is Douglas herself bearing witness to the crime and its cost who completes the tragic picture of this shameful episode in business history. Her “innocence” taken, she cannot utter the words “virgin” or “rape” even 65 years after she was attacked. She has spent a lifetime distrustful, frigid, and without feeling she has ever loved anyone, not even her child. Being raped only 17 years after women won the right to vote in the United States and having a well-oiled corporate machine stamp you a tramp meant Douglas had none of today’s feminist organizations and social services to run to for psychological help and legal redress. Despite the great courage she showed, she handled the fallout friendless and alone.
It is to Stenn’s great credit that he gave her a voice and brought her forgotten story to light. Kudos, too, to Snag Films for making this documentary (and many others) available free of charge on their website. It’s well worth a look. l