Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Spotlight on: Girl 27

Every once in a while I like to get serious around here, and talk about something that is really important to me, don't stop reading, I promise to make it interesting. A while ago I saw a documentary that I have since shown to basically all of my film buff and non-film buff friends and every one has thought it to be very moving. It was a tiny film distributed by Red Envelope, directed by a first-timer who stumbled upon the story whilst researching his biography on Jean Harlow. It's called Girl 27 (2007) and it's about a young Hollywood extra named Patricia Douglas who was brutally assaulted and raped by an MGM salesman and whose case against said salesman and the studio that pays his salary was turned into a cruel media circus. She eventually lost, was disgraced, and spent the rest of her life in seclusion until David Stenn, the director, tracked her down for this film.
Here's some background. MGM like other big studios at the time (Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. etc.) ruled the movie business with an iron fist and controlled everything in the industry from a person's name to their shoe size, to put it in simplistic terms. Back then, if you were contracted to a studio like MGM it meant that you were owned body and soul and treated as a commodity.  and no one had less say about that than the women in those days, particularly female extras ,who's daily routine consisted of dancing around half-naked in elaborately choreographed musical numbers amongst all-male crews. Many extras vouch that they were subjected to many sexist and demeaning processes when they initially auditioned for contracts, the studio executive would often make passes at them, come up and grab them from behind, and ask them to pull up their skirts and show their legs.
Patricia Douglas was one such woman, well it's unfair to call her that. She was a girl. She was 17 when a 'movie call' came in that asked for her to report to what was known back then as the Hal Roach Ranch (Hal Roach was one of the top producers at MGM at the time) the year was 1937. She was asked to report in costume to what turned out to be a drunken free-for-all party hosted by Louis B. Mayer as a thank you for his sales task force. So basically you have a bunch of underage girls serving booze and being paid to make nice with a sea of older belligerent men. In this sea, was a man named David Ross who savagely and without mercy attacked Patricia Douglas, beat her up, and raped her in the back of a Ford Model-T while the rest of the party went on.
Patricia Douglas faces her attacker
Here's the thing, that's not even the worst part. The worst part is what happened next. Brave enough to take her case to court, MGM put all of their money and muscle into silencing her. This is before rape shield laws, so nothing was out of bounds. They played her up to be a tramp and a drunkard, ruining her reputation, getting David Ross acquitted, and pretty much ensuring that the rest of her life would be miserable and painful. 
It's an unforgettable and truly captivating story, the irony of which being that it wasn't a story anyone ever knew. Stenn talks about how he accidentally stumbled on it when trying to find newspaper archives regarding the sudden and shockingly early death of Jean Harlow at 26 years old, when he realized that something was 'pushing her off the front pages' and it was Patricia Douglas who took on the Goliathian MGM system at 17 armed with nothing but the truth. 
During this documentary we find out what a painstaking process it was to find anything on her at all considering the studio had done everything possible to suppress the case and the identity of Patricia Douglas, successfully I might add, and she herself absolutely refused to talk about it completely until Stenn's begging finally paid off and she made a few on-camera interviews. 
It's an incredibly heartbreaking and profound piece of work, not necessarily for the film making itself, but for the story it tells. It is shocking considering the corruption of the criminal justice system and the moral ineptitude of an entire infrastructure and is a black spot on the entire history of the movie business that had for a long time gone unnoticed. That is why I chose to write about it, and that is why I recommend everyone please see it. This is my contribution to its word-of-mouth trajectory. It had premiered at Sundance in 2007. I believe it is still streaming on Netflix, if not, you can find it online. Here is the trailer. 

1 comment:

Chris Bungo said...

I saw this documentary a few years ago and was stunned. Not so much about Louis B. Mayer's involvement, but the involvement of Hal Roach.

Hal Roach wasn't part of MGM. He had his own studio and used MGM to distribute his films from 1928 until 1938. However, the MGM party was held at the Hal Roach Studios "ranch" which today is a quiet neighborhood of houses on either side of David Avenue between Robertson and Canfield. Walking up that hill with all those pleasant homes and thinking about what happened there in 1937 is eerie. Anyway, Hal Roach apparently was involved in the cover-up as well - something that was truly shocking.