A Hollywood role she never asked for

Times Staff Writer

Momentous things happened the first week of June 1937. Jean Harlow, one of Hollywood's biggest stars, died suddenly and mysteriously at 26. The Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated his kingdom, married the woman he loved. And, though nobody would remember it, a 20-year-old dancer and extra named Patricia Douglas who'd been raped by an MGM salesman at a studio party futilely pressed for justice.

David Stenn, a 45-year-old Los Angeles biographer and TV writer, stumbled across her story when he was researching his 1993 book, "Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow." When his editor, Jackie Onassis, asked him what project he'd like to tackle next, he told her about the long-forgotten rape and the victim's harrowing legal battle against the studio.

Years of digging led to a Vanity Fair story by Stenn in 2003, and then to his directorial debut with "Girl 27," a self-financed documentary that will premiere Monday at the Sundance Film Festival. "Girl 27" is an uneven but strangely compelling documentary about a shocking and highly publicized event that disappeared into the mists of studio history.

While the movie is something of a detective story, with Stenn in the role of a gumshoe -- tracking down the victim, her family, the rapist and obscure film footage that brings the historical narrative to life -- it is mostly a tale about the omnipotence of the studios, the heartbreaking and lifelong damage done by rape and the radioactive half-life of secrets.

A tenacious if sometimes hyperbolic researcher (was this really Hollywood's "most shocking scandal"?), Stenn found suppressed MGM files and memos about the party -- at MGM producer Hal Roach's ranch in Culver City -- court records, newspaper clippings and, to his great surprise, the victim herself, an octogenarian whom he'd presumed dead, since 65 years had passed.

After many phone conversations, he persuaded Douglas, thrice-divorced and alienated from her only child, to meet with him. Eventually, he got her to tell her distressing story on camera. It's impossible to watch her without understanding that, intact though they may seem, some victims never recover from the shattering experience of sexual violence.

The title of the film is taken from Douglas' place on the call sheet for what she and 120 other young women were told was a movie call in the spring of 1937. But the women were actually brought in as party hostesses (and a sort of sexual bait) for the studio's sales executives, who had come to Los Angeles from all over the country to celebrate MGM's extraordinarily successful year.

Stenn unearthed footage of the men pouring off the trains, and audio of studio chief Louis B. Mayer welcoming them. The ranch party -- with 500 cases of scotch and Champagne for fewer than 300 men -- was the culmination of their days-long visit. Laurel and Hardy were there, wrote Stenn, and "the Dandridge sisters -- 13-year-old Dorothy -- performed in a live revue."

In grand jury affidavits unearthed by Stenn, waiters testified that the party was debauched. "The party was the worst, the wildest, and the rottenest I have ever seen," wrote one.

At some point, two men grabbed Douglas, pinched her nose and forced her to drink alcohol. She was dragged to a parked car and viciously raped by a man she later identified to police as David Ross, described by Stenn as a "roly poly 36-year-old Catholic bachelor from the Chicago sales office."

A parking lot attendant heard Douglas screaming and saw her attacker run away. By the time the witness was called to testify to the grand jury, however, he said Ross was not the attacker. In a poignant on-screen moment, one of the man's middle-aged daughters tearily confesses her father perjured himself in exchange for lifelong employment by MGM.

The grand jury didn't indict Ross, and here's where Douglas' story gets really amazing: The young woman decided to press ahead anyway and filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court a month later, accusing Ross and studio big-wigs Eddie Mannix (who was recently played by Bob Hoskins in "Hollywoodland"), Hal Roach and others of conspiring to "defile, debauch and seduce" her "for the immoral and sensual gratification of male guests." When that case was dismissed, Douglas filed suit in federal court. "In an apparent legal first," wrote Stenn in Vanity Fair, "a female plaintiff made rape a federal case, based on its violation of her civil rights."

Many machinations followed, and though Stenn can't prove it, he suspects that Douglas' mother, who acted as her legal guardian, was paid off by the studio to go away. He also suspects that her lawyer cut some sort of deal, since he failed three times to show up in court. Eventually, Douglas and her mother moved to Bakersfield and disappeared.

"I don't want to say MGM [executives] sat there rubbing their hands, saying we want to destroy these girls, because they didn't," said Stenn, who began his TV writing career straight out of Yale when he was hired at 21 to write for "Hill Street Blues." "Patricia was a cog in a wheel. Louis B. Mayer and Eddie Mannix had morals clauses in their contracts, and they both reported to a corporate board. MGM had a squeaky-clean reputation and was suddenly being accused of throwing a party during the Depression that cost $35,000, supplying men with liquor and underage girls. That's what they cared about."

The movie chronicles the studio's efforts to ruin Douglas' reputation. MGM tried to get her doctor to claim she had been treated for a sexually transmitted disease, tried to get her fellow extras to describe her as a woman of loose morals and followed her around to intimidate her.

For Douglas, the rape became a long-held family secret, never to be mentioned. She couldn't stay married and was never much of a mother to her now-grown and still-puzzled daughter.

Housebound in a dingy apartment -- depressed, obese and living on Social Security -- she tells Stenn she was a virgin when she was raped and was never able to enjoy sex.

"He took my innocence," she says, and there is nothing hyperbolic about that.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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