Hollywood’s well documented history of sexual abuse towards female performers did not start with Harvey Weinstein. He is merely one more player in a continuing legacy of powerful men taking advantage of their positions in the most criminal and brutal of ways. The horrible truth is that the casting couch, and much worse, has always been an entrenched part of the film industry dating as far back as the 1930s—a decade now seen as the golden era of filmmaking. Despite the abundance of recent allegations, thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement emboldening previously alienated women, for every woman who has ever come forward, dozens more have remained silent. The public will never know the names or the stories of the women whose lives were damaged or destroyed by a system that forsaken them.
For women in the 1930s things were even worse as they had few legal protections and as a result even fewer legal avenues to pursue if they were raped or sexually abused. Women in that era understood that if she were the victim of a sexual assault, she needed to remain silent about it as no one would take the allegations seriously. However, there was one brave soul who challenged both the legal and Hollywood system, mounting a novel legal battle that was unheard of it for its time.
This courageous woman was Patricia Douglas, and her story is the subject of the documentary film Girl 27, a film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over a decade ago. It’s currently available on Netflix and merits a viewing for its illuminating and disturbing depiction of the historical treatment of women alleging rape against powerful men in the film industry, an especially poignant topic in the wake of so many recent scandals plaguing Hollywood.
In 1937, Patricia Douglas was twenty years old and worked as a film extra. A talented dancer who started working in the movies at the age of 15; she responded to a casting call in the spring of 1937. “They never mentioned it was for a party,” she recalled years later. She had no reason to suspect anything was awry since it was being held by the powerful film studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer. MGM was already a venerable institution in Los Angeles, and was headed by the notoriously ruthless Louis B. Mayer. Mayer, the same man responsible for such classics as The Wizard of Oz, created “the star system” and who helped usher in one of the greatest eras of studio filmmaking.
Girl 27 makes clear that this success came at a price: the human toll he extracted from the women who attempted to work at MGM studios. There was no actual casting call or filming that took place that fateful day Patricia Douglas arrived. Instead, Louis B. Mayer and MGM threw a raucous party for its salesmen and the young women, having been called there on false pretenses, were expected to provide the entertainment. The documentary features archival footage of Mayer telling the salesmen they could have “anything you want.” Louis B. Mayer was not exaggerating and what at least some of the salesmen wanted and felt entitled to was sex with the young women who provided courtesy of a phony casting call.
Director, David Stenn, scoured the archives of MGM’s records at the University of Southern California and located the call sheet identifying Ms. Douglas as number 27. The documents also revealed MGM hired police from four different departments to work the party, presumably to provide security. It’s unclear what type of security, however, given that in their presence Patricia Douglas was forced to consume alcohol and get raped by MGM salesmen David Ross.
The story does not end there. Patricia Douglas mounted a courageous attempt to fight back and filed charges against her rapist. For a young woman who had been the victim of a rape to take on both the perpetrator and MGM studios was unheard of in 1937. The legal case proceeded through the judicial system and the particulars of the matter are heartbreaking, but an important part of the story as they show us what has and hasn’t changed in the light of current cases such as that of Weinstein.
And eventually Ms. Douglas did receive a small measure of justice. Her once famous case, long since forgotten, was discovered by the Stenn while he was researching the life of actress Jean Harlow. In bringing her story to light and immortalizing it on film he has, in a sense, redeemed her actions of over eighty years ago. A modern day audience will recognize she was telling the truth and that the powerful men who did victimized her are held to account, albeit many years after the actual occurrence. She is a true pioneer and had she lived this nightmare in contemporary times, the story may have ended differently. As unjust as things are now, women were in an even worse position then.
At the film’s end, Ms. Douglas is asked if she feels vindicated. She replies, “that is my vindication—the truth.” By revealing the great injustice she suffered at the hands of MGM and a culture that only served powerful men, Girl 27 has helped to restore this brave woman’s agency by simply allowing her to tell the truth of what happened to her on that day.
© 2018 BeyondTheBechdel. All Rights Reserved.