Judge Kristin Munson examines the evidence in a case than has been closed more than seventy years.
"282 salesmen. 120 underage chorus girls. 500 cases of Scotch. One Hollywood cover-up."
Girl 27 is a small-time film with big-screen ambitions. It's a documentary that wants to go out on the festival circuit and come back a star, but can't resist tabloid territory and directorial missteps. Using period footage, unearthed documents, and legal analysts, it recreates a time where MGM could buy everyone from the police to the press to the district attorney, and rape was something that could only happen to virtuous women.
In a movie that dares to dig up an ugly piece of Hollywood history buried almost seventy years, director David Stenn takes on a fascinating topic and nearly kills it with kindness.
Facts of the Case
One fateful night in 1937, MGM sent more than a hundred scantily clad dancers to the secluded Hal Roach ranch on a movie call. The "set" was really a shindig for MGM's traveling salesman and the girls were the party favors. When a seventeen-year-old dancer is beaten and raped, and the police do nothing, the girl goes public and MGM goes in for the kill. She is Patricia Douglas, girl number 27.
Hollywood is no stranger to miscarriages of justice and its golden age was no exception. Busby Berkeley was acquitted of causing a fatal car crash thanks to his studio lawyer, and William Desmond Taylor's murder was never solved after Paramount employees removed evidence from the crime scene. But there is an extra layer of scandal and an added stink of corruption, when the studio isn't just covering up the crime, but is also directly responsible for it.
There's a tragic absurdity in the way MGM bigwigs go circling the wagons against a lone teenager. The papers published her name, her picture, and her address, private detectives staked out her house, and her coworkers were pressured to slander her reputation. Meanwhile, accused rapist David Ross was sent back to his territory where process servers were "unable" to locate him and, after three years, the case died, never to be heard of again.
Peggy Montgomery (formerly Baby Peggy, America's first child star), was an extra during the same period as Patricia Douglas; she provides not only her experiences with sexism and sexual harassment on set but what the people of Hollywood were saying about Douglas once the story broke. Most of the plot's players are dead or unwilling to talk, so the film relies on their offspring and court documents, evaluated by an attorney who peels back layer upon layer of betrayals before reaching the truth about the failed court case. It's disgusting how deep the corruption ultimately goes and how many lives were ruined in the process, especially Douglas'.
At 86, Patricia is sharp, funny and still bitterly angry. It's with much reluctance that she comes out of seclusion but all the film's power rests with her. Sixty years of guilt and shame and lies have estranged her from her family and made her wary of people, but her memory is as strong as if May 1937 was only yesterday. Stripped of all its Hollywood elements, her testimony is wrenching but not pitiful. This is a woman who, at the age of seventeen, dared to sue the millionaires that put her in a dangerous situation when they were the only studio making money during the Depression and literally owned everything.
If the film had settled around her and her story, it would have been a very effective piece. Instead, the movie is a casualty of an overzealous amateur. Having uncovered this whole sordid story, as well as biographies on Clara Bow and Jean Harlow, David Stenn is clearly a tenacious researcher but he's not an experienced filmmaker. He lets the narrative get bogged down in insignificant details like vicuna coats and KFC coleslaw or sidetracked by other bits of Hollywood lore. An anecdote about Loretta Young's secret pregnancy (a complicated story that needs its own documentary) spirals into an unnecessary fifteen-minute tangent. Every once in while Stenn's preoccupation with detail pays off, like when he finds David Ross in convention footage from an MGM newsreel and is able to isolate and follow him through the crowd, but most of these distractions only pull attention away from the main story, a story that's never been told and deserves total focus.
First-time director Stenn feels like an intruder in his own film. "Here we are at the Ambassador Hotel," he says. Or, "Up the hill is the field where Patricia was dragged to a parked car and attacked." You'll have to take his word for it, because the camera never pans away from him to show us these locations. There are scenes of him driving, walking, and standing around, when a voiceover would be equally, if not more, effective. It's not that he's willfully narcissistic (although maybe he is), but that this story is his baby and he needs to be involved in every frame of it.
Girl 27 includes a decent mix of extras, including a vintage short about a female extra that showcases the Hollywood fantasy of life on set in opposition to the unpleasant reality presented by the movie. The short's been reformatted, poorly, so that tops of heads and credits are cropped off, but it's worth a look just to see Cecil B. DeMille playing a benevolent caricature of himself. There's also a full-length director's commentary that goes into a lot more history but says little about the filming process, except to show how Stenn mishandled the decision of what wound up in the final film and what didn't. The documentary gives the impression that the federal case Douglas filed against MGM accomplished nothing, when Stenn admits in his commentary, even as the credits are rolling, that MGM never again put on a party for its salesmen. That is a major, important fact, and yet it's not in the film. A J. Lo montage is though; I'm sure the audience would much rather have t! hat than a small sense of justice.
The video transfer is good for an indie; television quality for the recent footage and varying based on the original quality of the 1930s film clips. Audio is a bit of a mess. The sound is off-balance, with loud movie clips cutting to regular volume interviews, and no attempt to equalize, but even that can't ruin Hal Lindes' evocative score.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're anything like me—and I've got the number of a good therapist if you are—you can't help checking the reader reviews on IMDb and Amazon before picking a DVD. Most of the IMDb reviews for Girl 27 are from the original Sundance screening, not the limited theatrical release, and the film has been revised since then. Several prominent things mentioned in those reviews are no longer there, most notably the scene where the director travels all the way to Missouri just to dance on David Ross's grave. That's either grossly inappropriate or morbidly hilarious, and the whole reason I chose to watch this DVD. So if you get to the end of the film and feel you've been denied the pleasure of watching a grown man dancing on a rapist's final resting place don't go shaking your fists at the sky yelling 'Damn your black sequined heart Judge Munson! You lied to me!', because I warned you. Even if you are totally cheating on me by visiting Rotten Tomatoes.
Girl 27 is a well-intentioned documentary with a flawed execution. As entrancing as it is repulsive, it's worth a rental at least.
Passing a verdict on a film that's about passing a verdict has to create some hideous infinite loop that threatens to collapse time and space, doesn't it?
Court is in recess.
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