Last night I watched Girl 27, a fascinating documentary by David Stenn. You need to see this one.
On May 2, 1937, teenager Patricia Douglas reported for a casting call from MGM, at Rancho Roachero, owned by Hal Roach. She and the other women—many of them also underage teens—were plastered in makeup and dressed in a burlesque version of a wild west costume.
But it wasn’t for a film. The women were unknowingly there to entertain a group of some 300 salesmen being honoured by MGM at a 5-day sales convention. There was enough Scotch and champagne to get everyone good and plastered. Douglas was a non-drinker, but two men held her down and poured a full glass of champagne and Scotch down her throat. She managed to get to the bathroom to vomit and then out of the building, hoping to leave, before one of the men, 36-year-old David Ross grabbed her, dragged her into the back of a car, beat her, and raped her.
She was taken to a medical facility that was dependent upon MGM for the majority of its revenues, where she was given a cold-water douche that washed away all the evidence of the rape. No criminal report was ever filed.
Unwilling to accept this, Douglas swore a complaint against Ross and MGM, Louis B. Mayer, and the other parties at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. When the story broke, the studio was not even named in the newspapers. Douglas was, and her picture and even her home address were provided. Her name was dragged through the mud. When a Pinkerton investigation reported that she was, indeed, the teetotalling virgin she claimed to be, the studio leaned on the other women at the party to get them to say that there was nothing improper happening, and that Douglas was a sex-crazed lush.
The case never went anywhere, and Douglas disappeared from public view until the day that David Stenn, a Hollywood biographer, found something about her story as he was researching his book on Jean Harlowe.
Stenn discussed the case with his editor, who said that if anyone could find out the truth, it was he. And he was off.
The end result is a fascinating documentary. It has mixed reviews at IMDB, with a net rating of about 50%. It fares better at Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s currently rated at 83%. Part of the dislike for the film is Stenn’s intrusions into the narrative. He shows us his research. He shows himself waiting in a hotel room for his meeting with Douglas that ultimately gets canceled. It works for me, though, because as a writer and researcher I appreciate seeing how things unfold.
It is heartbreaking when Douglas makes her appearance about halfway through the film. The photos of her as a vibrant young woman with a big, beautiful smile are juxtaposed with film of her as an elderly woman to tremendous effect. You can still see the traces of that young woman in the sorrowful face of the woman she turned into.
Douglas initially refused to meet or even speak with Stenn. Eventually she did talk with him by telephone, permitting him to record their conversations. She has an appealing husky voice. And at long last, she also permitted him to meet with her and film one interview.
She was horribly scarred by the events of May 1937, as well as her upbringing with a narcissistic mother; she ended up turning into an equally bad mother, estranged from her only child. But she seems to have found some relief in telling her story, and died in 2003 knowing that the truth would no longer be silenced.