When biographer and historian David Stenn was meeting a tight deadline for his book on Jean Harlow, he came across a sensational rape case involving a MGM extra that blasted across newspapers and then suddenly disappeared, with no clear resolution nor any follow-up details on any of the participants. When he brought this curiously fuzzy historical footnote to his editor, Jacqueline Onassis, she sensed the case was bugging him, and urged him to pursue the story.
Stenn doesn't explain why he chose to craft a documentary around his quest, but one senses the film grew as an offshoot of his book, partly because he realized the details and interview subjects were shedding light on an extremely repulsive aspect of Hollywood that was buried in the late thirties.
The idyllic world of a studio's young talent pool has been recounted by luminous contract stars like Robert Wagner in his handful of DVD commentaries (see Titanic and Let's Make It Legal), as well as the first of director Mitchell Leisen's two-part printed autobiography; characterized as rewarding, fun, and exciting, both men recalled the studio system as a grand factory where talent was shaped and groomed into potential stars during the standard seven years of contractual servitude.
Others were a bit more savvy of Hollywood's dark side – Budd Schuldberg's memoirs of growing up as the son of a Paramount production head provides a more sobering account of the industry's egos, sexual indulgences, and child exploitation – and there's the old joke about the casting couch, and doing favours to get ahead in a cut-throat, jealous-drenched business.
Although Stenn's documentary is centrally a validation of the late Patricia Douglas as a woman who was raped and excoriated by the media during her efforts to get justice, it also shows Hollywood as a cold-hearted factory that trained underage girls to perform in often skimpy costumes, as in Busby Berkeley's insanely choreographed musicals.
Douglas was a dancer, and like a daily call sheet for a day's filming, as the 27th girl among many, she was fitted in the wardrobe department and told to head off to the Hal Roach farm. The presumption was another film shoot, but the reality was girls presented to salesmen for their enjoyment as rewards from MGM for raking in heavy revenues during a depression year. Everyone was supposed to have a good time, except one salesman, David Ross, tried to liquor up Douglas, and ultimately raped her.
The subsequent events demonstrate the awesome power MGM possessed at the time, with plenty of local businessmen, officials, and law enforcement personnel on the studio's payroll, or enjoying financial support; Los Angeles was an industry town, and no one wanted to piss off its biggest employer.
Masking drunken binges from the press, denying pregnancies to the gossip columnists, and creating fake sexual personas for the studio's most popular and profitable leading men were part of the normal duties MGM's security department handled, and Stenn's documentary is structured like an investigative drama with interviews and archival footage that give us an increasingly unsettling account of how young talent was manipulated by powerful figureheads.
More important is the legacy of rape, which in Douglas' case robbed her of her innocence, rendered her frigid, and affected her relationship with her mother, her various husbands, and her only daughter. Stenn also traces the effects the case had on the family of the one witness who could've connected Ross to the scene of the assault, and interviews a former child star who describes the mores of the era: rape was never discussed, acknowledged, and if an assault had been committed, the victim's 'loose' behaviour was singled out as the chief cause – which is exactly how Douglas was treated by the media during the court hearings.
There's a lot of details – many painfully tragic and despicable – that are covered in the doc, but what's fascinating is how much archival evidence and how many survivors – even family relations – Stenn was able to find and interview. The fact a promo film of the salesmen's arrival exists is pretty shocking, but then MGM never figured the convention would become a massive embarrassment that it would subsequent bury in its archives.
Time never healed any wounds, and it's extremely moving to hear Douglas, then a sharp 85, speak of details she's kept padlocked for more than 60 years. There's an odd point near the final third where Stenn admits his affection for Douglas took on a strong familial bond, and his persistence in trying to reconcile the non-relationship between mother and daughter does show the writer got emotionally involved with his subject and her family, but his compassion is probably what helped mother, daughter, and grandkids understand some of the key reasons why their relationships were so sour for so many years.
Girl 27 has a solid narrative, but the pacing is sometimes too brisk, and editorial seams during a few audio interviews are abrupt. There's pinched audio compression on some interview segments, but the overall picture and stereo sound mix are quite clean.
In terms of extras, Stenn provides a largely engaging feature length commentary that adds additional historical footnotes, although it slows down and gets a bit repetitive during the lengthy interview extracts with Douglas.
Stenn also talks about the rare footage used in the film, and specific material refused by certain sources once they realized the documentary's focus. (Surviving material of singer Eloise Spann, who lived a traumatic life after being raped, was denied to the filmmakers.)
The most intriguing footage comes from The Story of Temple Drake, a 1933 studio film starring Miriam Hopkins that dealt with rape when the subject was totally taboo. It's apparently still unavailable for any commercial viewing – a real tragedy, given Hopkins ' performance looks amazing – but the clips and extracts from surviving storyboards demonstrate the filmmakers' difficulties in depicting a violent act within the parameters of the emerging Production Code.
(When David O. Selznick tried to include a rape scene in his monstrous ego trip Duel in the Sun, various trims and re-edits more or less reduced the assault to the usual nonsense where the woman protests, fights, and gives in to what emerges as an act of genuine passion, which is of course classic Production Code baloney.)
The DVD also includes a trailer (quite clumsily edited), a stills gallery set to music, and a vintage Paramount short, Hollywood Extra Girl (1935), that's been foolishly matted from its 1.33:1 ratio to 1.85:1, chopping off the opening credits and mucking up the compositions. (Who thought this was a smart idea?)
Blandly directed by Andre Moulton with an appearance by a young Ann Sheridan, the complete short is a strange piece of propaganda that doesn't exactly celebrate extra work as the ideal stepping stone to film fame. “Pride, necessity, adventure, ambition. From the ends of the Earth they come, waiting for that magic call,” barks the narrator, and the spotlight moves to #1472, aka Suzanne Emery (who?), a lowly extra girl who starts work on Cecil B. DeMille's The Crusades (1935).
DeMille appears as a grumpy but wise team leader who initially chastises the young lass for yapping onset, but he notices her down-to-earth demeanor and shares his own views on yearning for success, being a wise pop at home, and giving it the all when ‘Lady Chance' comes along. It's all propagandistic hogwash, and ends with the narrator shouting “Dream on, Little Miss 1-4-7-2,” assuring her (and us) that whether she's a star or extra girl, Suzanne rocks!
Much of the clichés and hypocrisies cited in the doc and Stenn's commentary track resonate loudly when watching the creaky short, and although the 1.85:1 matting mucks up the short's presentation, it's still a notable extra that compliments Stenn's sobering doc, itself an earnest and effective contrast to the usual glossy portraits of silver screen stars, and grim and sensationalistic reports of classic Hollywood scandals that clutter the boob tube late at night.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan