Filmmaker David Stenn sinks his teeth into a dirty Hollywood scandal in his 2007 film, Girl 27. Stenn, a self-proclaimed expert on MGM was writing a book on Jean Harlow when he discovered a front page news clipping about a young dancer who was raped at an MGM party. Determined to find out what happened, and how such a seemingly large story could just disappear, Stenn began to investigate. Unfortunately, his fervor to find a sizzling story leads to some questionable behaviour on his part, and may have ended up doing harm to the wrong people.
The film covers the long buried story of the rape of a dancer who worked for MGM. The dancer, Patricia Douglas aka Girl 27, accused a salesman of rape during the night of a huge party MGM held for their stakeholders. The film covers the sleazy atmosphere of the studios, and power relations between dancers and their overseers. The dancers interviewed recall uncomfortable working environments, and unwanted groping on set and in the privacy of offices. The film looks into why Douglas’s story disappeared, and how he was quickly discredited in the press by doctors and coworkers, who essentially labeled her a tramp, and thus, in the opinion of the public, incapable of being raped.
Girl 27 is full of false starts, some which lead into promising territory. Stenn seems to think that certain aspects of his story are far more interesting than they actually are. The film makes half-hearted attempts to connect Patricia Douglas’s story to the larger issue of female morality at play in Hollywood, and Western culture itself. For instance, Girl 27 draw parallels between other actresses who faced pressure around scandal and morality, such as the tale of Loretta Young’s not so secret love child with Clark Gable. There were a lot of chances to take this event and use it to make a grander critique of Hollywood, and Western views of women and sexual assault in general. Instead, we only get brief glimpses of a bigger story, before being pulled back into the clumsily presented case of Douglas’s rape.
As the film progresses, we are treated to repeated interviews with indignant reporters who can’t understand how a story this big (their words) could have been buried. I would have cared a little more about their apparent anger had they demonstrated the ability to connect this to the trend of dismissing, and burying stories of rape in the media that continues on today. Patricia Douglas’s experience is, tragically, not an anomaly. On top of this, Stenn’s questioning of Douglas is painful to watch. He is incredibly blunt, and gleefully pries into some of Douglas’s worst memories. It’s insensitive and voyeuristic. Why force her to give the details of such a terrible event? Can’t we just take her word that this is something she experienced, and not force her to relive it?
The film is sloppy, uneven and squanders potentially interesting material. In more capable hands, this could have been a compelling story. Instead it falls flat, and even worse, is an offensive viewing experience due to Stenn’s unrelenting pursuit of a story at the expense of Douglas’s own well being.