- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2008

Another Sundance Film Festival commenced yesterday. A year ago, one of the docu -mentaries entered at the winter showcase for independent features was “Girl 27,” an idiosyncratic blend of memoir and historical expose that recalled a forgotten scandal effectively covered up by the management of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1937.

David Stenn, the enterprising filmmaker who retrieved this lamentable case history from a long undisturbed memory hole, had worked as a television writer and producer several years ago. His credits include “Hill Street Blues,” “21 Jump Street” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Also a published author, he alternated between mystery novels and Hollywood biographies. Sassy flappers were evidently close to his heart, since he wrote about Clara Bow and Jean Harlow.

While researching the Harlow book, Mr. Stenn happened upon news accounts of a rape suit brought on behalf of a young woman, 19-year-old Patricia Douglas. The ingenue claimed that she had been assaulted by one of the salesmen invited to an MGM convention, a five-day event organized to reward the national sales force for a banner year in 1936, when Metro profits defied the Depression by surpassing $12 million.

The convention, which was documented to some extent by MGM camera crews for newsreel and corporate promotional purposes, was headquartered at the Ambassador Hotel. The alleged assault occurred off-site one evening at the Hal Roach ranch, where a large converted barn served as both soundstage and social hall. About 120 young women had been hired from the ranks of extras and dancers to dress up in cowgirl costumes for what turned out to be a mass stag party for the 280 conventioneers. Miss Douglas was No. 27 on a roster discovered at the MGM archives, now a scholarly possession of the University of Southern California.

Mr. Stenn surmises that the circumstances were deliberately misleading for the young women, who had every reason to assume they were answering an ordinary casting call and not being recruited as complacent party favors. During the festivities a Chicago salesman named David Ross got violently presumptuous with Miss Douglas. According to her account, he assaulted her in a car in the parking lot and then fled when she started screaming, although not before violating her sexually.

Discovered by an attendant (who later declined to identify Mr. Ross as a fleeing assailant), Miss Douglas was transported by ambulance to a Culver City hospital, near the MGM lot. She was sedated. A cold water douche made it promptly impossible to establish clear-cut evidence of rape.

Several suits were filed on Miss Douglas’ behalf by her mother, a Hollywood apparel designer named Mildred Mitchell, who had hired a flamboyant criminal attorney, William J.F. Brown. Nevertheless, the suits were dismissed or suspended, under circumstances suspicious enough to suggest that MGM negotiated deals with both mother and advocate. End of story until Mr. Stenn dredged up the case about 65 years later.

The remarkable aspect of his belated inquiry, first revealed in a Vanity Fair article in January of 2003 and now vividly preserved in “Girl 27,” is that it led to the discovery of Patricia Douglas, living in seclusion in a garden apartment in Las Vegas. She becomes the climactic interview subject in the movie, photographed in a close-up style modeled after the talking-heads prologue in “Reds,” where the presence of elderly, richly expressive faces against dark backgrounds provided an imposing sense of gravity and authority.

Miss Douglas’ recollections, drawn from one stop-and-go shooting session that the filmmaker recalls as lasting about three hours, prove an extraordinary highlight. Although there are reasons to grow fitfully impatient with Mr. Stenn as a narrator and confidant, giving this forgotten wronged woman an intimate opportunity for reflection and vindication (Patricia Douglas died later in 2003 at age 86) does justify his crusading zeal and persistence.

As a theatrical attraction, “Girl 27” seems to have made little or no impression on the marketplace. Its staying power evidently depends on the video and repertory sectors, although these are often graveyards for intriguing chronicles of the film business. Witness “The Last Mogul,” an account of the career of MCA’s prodigiously influential executive Lew Wasserman, whose ghost must be restless at the prospect of a prolonged writers strike. In his heyday it was a Wasserman specialty to resolve all such labor-management disputes behind the scenes.

“Girl 27” arouses a certain degree of embarrassment about being susceptible to the movies in general. In the case of “The Last Mogul,” these feelings were associated with all the persuasive anecdotal evidence of Mr. Wasserman’s links to organized crime. Mr. Stenn’s pursuit of the Patricia Douglas case tends to provoke a similar retrospective unease.

Miss Douglas herself ultimately lets us off the hook to some extent. In one exchange she remarks that the crime of her assailant came as a total shock. She had been a sexually naive member of the dance ensembles in movie musicals since she was 17, but she felt safe in that milieu. “Nothing bad had ever happened before,” she says.

The Ross encounter was evidently more than sufficient to warp a lifetime. Though a partisan, Mr. Stenn is also scrupulous and curious enough to explore repercussions in Miss Douglas’ later relationships with her mother and her own daughter, Patti Minter. On the commentary track you learn that his interviews with the daughter had to await the death of the mother, also a repeated marital calamity who neglected her own child with unhappy consequences.

It is satisfying to learn that MGM never made blowout sales conventions an annual event. The 1937 edition had blown up in management’s face much too conspicuously.

TITLE: “Girl 27”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, involving the investigation of a sexual crime in 1937)

CREDITS: Written and directed by David Stenn. Photography by Peter B. Good.

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes

DVD EDITION: West Lake Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.westlakeent.com


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