'Girl 27' recalls how MGM called shots in 1937

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Hollywood history: Studios wield tremendous power today, but it's nothing compared to how powerful they were 70 years ago.

In 1937, for example, MGM was the biggest employer in Los Angeles County and, according to filmmaker David Stenn's powerful new documentary "Girl 27," the studio was able to engineer the biggest cover-up in Hollywood history. It's a fascinating story about the brutal rape of Patricia Douglas, an underage chorus girl who along with more than a hundred other young dancers was tricked by the studio into attending a stag party the studio held as part of a convention to reward hundreds of its salesmen from across the country for doing such a great job.

Presiding over the festivities that opened the convention were such top MGM executives as legendary studio head Louis B. Mayer and general manager Eddie Mannix. They were honoring their sales team's success at a time when most of MGM's rivals in Hollywood were in bankruptcy or receivership. MGM's sales department had devised a new formula for calculating film rentals that instead of being based on a sliding percentage scale of grosses was on a per-film basis determined by a title's performance in 30 top markets. This meant that a film's success in major cities would generate higher theatrical rentals in smaller markets once it went into wider release.

Produced by Stenn and Lindsay Webster, the TLR Productions film opens June 27 via Westlake Entertainment and Red Envelope Entertainment at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and will be released in DVD Oct.16. It's based on the article "It Happened One Night ... At MGM" that Stenn wrote for the April 2003 issue of Vanity Fair, which focused in detail on what happened to Douglas and how it completely destroyed the 20-year-old girl's future. Needless to say, the events Stenn focuses on have absolutely nothing to do with the MGM of today. Those responsible for what happened to Douglas in 1937 are long gone from Hollywood and this world.

As a Hollywood history buff I enjoyed "Girl 27" because it exposes a seamy side of the film business that typically isn't talked about in books dealing with the industry's Golden Age. The movie hammers home just how much power the most important studio of its day was able to exercise when it came to dealing with L.A.'s criminal justice system. While it's certainly no secret that in those days the studios were able to hush up drunken driving incidents involving their stars, knew how to clean up after the stars' nightclub brawls and could keep their marital misadventures out of the newspapers, what "Girl 27" deals with is felony rape and assault that in other circumstances would have put someone in prison. That someone, according to the film, was David Ross, a Chicago salesman for MGM who was a 36-year-old bachelor at the time. Unfortunately for Douglas, of all the chorus girls MGM told to show up in costume for the party -- although they thought they were going to be auditioning for a film -- she was the one who caught Ross' eye.

I had the opportunity recently to talk to Stenn about his movie and to find out more about the tragic turn of events in Douglas' life that terrible night in 1937. "MGM was the largest employer in L.A. County and it was the Depression," Stenn explained. "There was no job security. Social Security had been instituted literally five months earlier. So the idea that MGM could protect you for life (was very persuasive). In the case of Clement Soth, the parking attendant (who saw Ross flee the rape scene, but later changed his story in front of the grand jury), they guaranteed him a job for life. Here's a man who was making $5 to be a parking attendant and MGM comes to him and says, 'We will give you a job for life.' That's hard to walk away from."

Not only could silence be bought, he noted, "Anything could be bought. I'm really curious to know if people can even understand the power that Hollywood wielded over Los Angeles. In the footage of Louis B. Mayer greeting the sales people as they arrived there's a man standing next to him in a police uniform. That's L.A. police chief James Davis. So here you have Louis B. Mayer exhorting these guys to 'have a good time, anything you want' and he has the presence and, therefore, the endorsement of the Los Angeles Police Department's chief right behind him."

How did Stenn first hear about the Douglas case and decide to make a movie about it? "I was on deadline for my second book," he replied, referring to "Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow." "It was the first week of June 1937 when Jean Harlow was dying. She was MGM's biggest female star. She's 26 years old and doesn't come to work and no one knows what's wrong with her. One day the report is she's sick but recovering. The next day the report is she's (had) a relapse and suddenly she dies. Meanwhile, the Duke of Windsor, who has abdicated his throne as the King of England to marry an American divorcee, is actually getting married that same week. So these are two of the biggest stories certainly of that year and, partially, of that decade. I'm reading this and all of a sudden there's this third story (about Douglas) that dominates the headlines -- and it's not just local, it's all over the country.

"As someone who is immersed in MGM in June 1937 and has never heard of this (I was surprised). And then I went to all the other reference sources and there's nothing. And I even went to less reputable reference sources and there was no mention of it there either. I didn't understand how it was possible. At first I just assumed, well, it isn't a story because if it was a story and it had any credibility or validity we would know about it or it would have appeared somewhere prior to me stumbling on it. So I really didn't know what to make of it. I talked to my editor (Jacqueline Onassis was editing Stenn's book) about what to do next. I mentioned it to her and having done two books with me she really understood my obsessive research. So when someone like that says to you, 'Well, if anyone can find it, it's you,' you really listen because it's such a vote of confidence. I started to (look into it) initially as almost a back-burner because I honestly didn't expect it to lead anywhere."

One of the people Stenn spoke to at this point was Budd Shulberg, he said, "because Budd grew up in the business and Budd, at that point in 1937, was working as a young writer in Hollywood. I asked him, 'What do you make of this?' And he said, 'Well, I don't know it, but it was not uncommon for some of these unscrupulous ambitious starlets to run a shell game where they would accuse an important person of an embarrassing act and parlay that into some sort of contract.' So that possibility did stay with (me). You've got to remain neutral. You can't make up your mind in advance about something because then you start becoming biased. So I really maintained a healthy skepticism until, as the movie shows, you just keep uncovering all this documentation, which becomes progressively more damning.

"And then you find Patricia Douglas and nothing in her conduct indicates any kind of untruthfulness. If she had been someone who wanted publicity or wanted to use it to further her career, why did she never give any interviews? Why did she pursue it all the way up to Federal Court when her name and her career (were ruined)? You were damaged goods as a rape victim. That was the concept at the time. So why would she do that if she really just wanted publicity or some sort of contract? It just seemed more and more legitimate and valid. And then, of course, it turned out to be those things. But, who knew?"

MGM was the dominant studio in Hollywood at the time. "I think that was because it gave Hollywood respectability. It was the classy studio," Stenn observed. "It was the studio that had the best stars, the biggest budgets, the most elaborate productions. It was posh. It was elegant. It was all of the things that Hollywood really aspired to be in terms of its reputation. The people who worked at MGM in 1937 (would for the most part have) been old enough to remember a time when hotels said, 'No dogs or actors allowed.' So this bid for credibility and respectability was very important at the time."

Moreover, Louis B. Mayer was known for being a highly moral studio head who regarded studio employees as his extended family. "He was not known as a (woman) chaser," Stenn said. "He was a paternalistic figure at MGM. He (was an immigrant to America who) chose July Fourth as his birthday and they would have a company picnic to celebrate it. And there was a sense of MGM taking care of its own, which they did. They protected the people within the studio and, in turn, the studio demanded and received complete loyalty. When I was doing the Jean Harlow book I was contacting a lot of people. I did several hundred interviews and occasionally you'd come across someone and you'd ask them a question and they would say, 'Well, I would love to talk about that, but I don't think Mr. Mayer would approve.' And you would say to them, 'Well, Mr. Mayer died in 1957 and that was (more than) 35 years ago.' And they would say, 'I'm sorry.'"

It was an arrangement, he added, that could be called "loyalty for life. It was a different way (of doing business). Our mindset doesn't work that way today. The idea of being a whistle blower or the idea of being what would have been considered a traitor was inconceivable. Back then, if you did that you not only could never work at, say, MGM, but at any studio. You know, if you were blackballed at one studio, you were blackballed at all of them. So your career in the business was over."

Asked how he came to write the Vanity Fair article that the movie is based on, Stenn told me, "Well, I found Patricia and then, as the movie shows, we developed this very close relationship. I always felt that if she told her story now she would find the only recourse left to her, which was vindication not in a court of law but in the court of history. I felt she needed that. She was sitting at home thinking about this and there was something that was keeping her going. I felt what was keeping her going was this need to tell her story, to have the truth told. So even when she was hanging up on me (when he first started calling to ask about interviewing her) I had to remind myself of that because there were times when I felt I should just leave her alone. And then (I) thought, 'Well, if she was like this in 1937 that is her character. That is who she is.'

"The paradox of her situation was really that she was very current in terms of television because that was her lifeline to the world. So you'd call her and she'd say, 'I can't talk to you now. 'Sex and the City's' on' and hang up. And yet, she had internalized the attitudes about a rape victim from her era. So she still carried around this shame. It was very important to me to express to her and convey to her how proud she should be that she was a trailblazer (for having) filed the first Federal civil suit for rape. It was a civil rights case. Because no one had ever given her any feedback at all she had no idea she'd done anything significant. So rather than write a book, which would have taken time, I felt the quicker it got into print and the quicker she received that validation the better it would be for her. The Vanity Fair article was a way of getting that into print very quickly, but as you saw that's just strictly the facts of the case."

What struck Stenn that he said he "didn't expect was to encounter the ripple effects of a rape and how that can get passed along to your daughter and your grandchildren because the very thing that defines you most -- the event of her life that characterized the rest of her life -- her own child had no knowledge of. So she's not understanding why her mother has these bizarre habits (like watching TV all night and sleeping throughout the day) and her mother's not explaining that to her. Patricia's mother didn't tell her about sex, so Patricia didn't tell her daughter about sex.

How did the movie come about? "I had the footage of Patricia," Stenn said. "I'd always sort of documented it (by filming the interviews). One of my favorite movies is 'All the President's Men.' I always would have loved to see a documentary of that film as Woodward and Bernstein are stumbling upon revelation after revelation after revelation. People always ask, 'Well, how did you find so-and-so and how did you do this?' And a lot of it is just boring procedural work and then suddenly something really amazing comes along. I thought, 'Well, I'll document this because this will be the only time in my life that I ever experience it.'

"Really, there's two reasons for this movie. (One is) the footage of her, which is the only interview she's ever given, and it shows her better than any written word ever could. She's such a vivid, powerful presence to me. It really is like a survivor's testimony. To me it has that quality. This is someone who endured a trauma and is now speaking about it for the first time in unsparing detail. We use a lot of dissolves in the sequences with her because there were moments when she had to stop. And then she would force herself to continue. The second reason is that (there was) footage of the event. You had footage of David Ross getting out of the car to enter the Ambassador Hotel. You had footage of Louis B. Mayer saying, 'These girls -- anything you want.'"

Just having been able to find Ross in the sea of people attending the MGM convention was amazing. "Has this ever happened to you where you feel it's almost providential?" Stenn asked. "What are the chances that (with) 282 men you get the one guy you need getting out of the car, going out of frame and you think, 'Oh, well, we got a quick glimpse of him' and then he comes right back into center frame.' I'll never forget the feeling of seeing that for the first time. That footage was shot as a souvenir for the conventioneers. After this story broke, they just sat on it. No one ever did anything with it. They were like home movies."

A few prints of the footage apparently survived without anyone realizing what made them important in terms of this story. "If you have no context for what happened at that event, it just looks like tame boring footage of a lot of guys in suits," he said. "But if you understand that there's Eddie Mannix and there's Louis B. Mayer and there's James Davis, the police chief, and there's (MGM's legendary publicity head) Howard Strickling guarding Louis B. Mayer and there's David Ross, the rapist, and there's a guy on the train saying, 'We ran out of Scotch last night,' you suddenly see how ominous (the footage is). It takes on a completely new tone."

The movie came about, he explained, "because I felt Patricia was an important figure in her way in film history because she did something that no one else has ever done. She was a minor when she did it and she did it against all odds and she did it against the opposition from the studio to the press to her mother -- and she was completely forgotten. I thought it was a fascinating story, also, in the sense of how the system operated and how they were able to trample on the civil rights of one individual and how a woman who was violated on several levels tried to stand up and seek justice."

Douglas wasn't well when Stenn was doing his interviews with her and she passed away after he'd finished them and had gotten to know and like her. He told me how frustrated he felt when he failed to get the New York Times to run her obituary: "I puzzled over that and ultimately, as I understood it, what they were saying was, 'Well, she didn't win.' But to me it wasn't about her winning, it was about her trying."

To get the film financed, Stenn joked, "I ate a lot of peanut butter. You know, you make decisions in your life and it was a decision of, 'Do I want to do X, whatever that might be, or do I want to put my money where my mouth is and really make this?' because I felt like I had raised the financing. They said when we were in negotiations, 'We want creative control' and I said, 'Does that mean if I'm somewhere and I decide to do something different I need to check with you first?' And they said, 'Yeah, it does.' I completely understood that. That made perfect sense. But I thought, 'Well, I should really do this the way I feel it should be done. I know this story.'

"I didn't take a director credit. There is no director credit because I don't think I'm a director. I feel like the film is authored because it's a story and that's something I do know how to do. I'm not a director. You know, I'm writing a movie now for Martin Scorsese and he's a director. I was compelled to tell this story. It wasn't even like I wanted to. I would call it a compulsion. I felt like it was something that needed to be told. The secrecy had to stop. I saw a grave injustice inflicted upon a human being. Her motive for all of this, according to her, was she just didn't want what happened to her to happen to another girl. To me, the selflessness of that and this idea that she would be willing to put herself through what she did in order to just stop them from having those parties -- I felt like that was a story not only that I wanted to tell, but that I felt should be told."

As Stenn was talking about the documentary's story I realized it has great potential as the basis for a fiction film and asked him if that idea had occurred to him and, if so, had he talked to anyone about turning "Girl 27" into a feature film? "Yes and yes," he replied. When I asked him to tell me more about that, he said, "I'm not sure I can yet. Truth is stranger than fiction, as we all know. You really can't make this story up. It defies belief and that was certainly (what) I felt going through those records in that USC file. You're looking at those documents and it's not even like a smoking gun -- it's just a gun that's on fire.

"I think there's great roles in it and it's an unusual story. And it's a personal story, too, because I think there are very few times as a writer where you become involved with your subject and it affects you in a deeply personal way and you develop a relationship with your subject that affects you profoundly. I haven't known many heroes and I felt like she was. It's hard in our culture today to look up at people because the culture seems to be invested in toppling them. I think people need heroes because we all need something to aspire to."

So we could see Douglas' story as a feature film with stars and a period setting? "I guess so," he said, "although it depends on how they decide to do it. They may decide to do it as modern day with period flashbacks. Her situation in the present to me is very compelling. The idea of someone who is sitting at home on her couch all night long like Buddha waiting. And then suddenly you get a phone call from a complete stranger saying, 'I know what happened to you and I'd like to talk about it' and you think your secret is safe. You think, 'Nobody knows -- they're all dead except for me.'

"And that's an interesting relationship because it's instant intimacy. Here's someone who has never opened up to anyone and therefore feels, 'Well, if they knew the truth about me they wouldn't feel the same way' because that's her shame, but then someone calls and says, 'Well, I know the truth about you and I still care about you.' So for the first time in your life you're having a really authentic interaction with someone. I think it was a beautiful thing for her because she really felt loved."

At this point we'd been talking about Douglas and the fact that she was raped, but hadn't really said much about the man who committed the crime. "This is a movie about someone who is called a rapist, who was never convicted of a crime," Stenn said. "And I was acutely aware of that because I feel as a responsible -- forget, filmmaker -- historian, if you're going to make that accusation you'd better be able to back it up. I don't think there's anyone who watches this movie who walks out thinking David Ross is innocent. That was something I thought a lot about because if you're wrong, that's a terrible thing to say about somebody. That was why it was important to me even when I did the article to amass incontrovertible proof.

"The article makes it more clear why this convention was such a big deal and why the salesmen were treated the way they were. The movie doesn't get into those details, but what they had accomplished in 1936 was historic and set record profits (for MGM) and re-jiggered the way studios distributed their product. And that was really Bill Rogers, who was the head of the MGM sales force. You see him briefly in the movie in some of the footage. He was the person who was on the dais with Louis B. Mayer and James Davis because what the sales force did changed the way MGM distributed (its movies)."

What MGM started doing, Stenn pointed out, was making movies that were, in effect, "superspecial productions. Studios didn't do that. They didn't put more than one or two stars in a movie because you didn't need them. When I was doing the Clara Bow book ('Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild'), Paramount would just call her films 'Summer Bow' (or) 'Winter Bow' internally because it didn't matter what they were if they had her in them. So Gary Cooper would make his first dramatic film with her and then he was a star so they'd move him out. She would have a new guy every time because she didn't need a big leading man. (When) MGM put Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy all into one movie, people thought, 'You're wasting your talent, You're not making proper use of your assets.' But what they understood (at MGM) was that a superspecial production would bring in blockbuster returns. So between 'San Francisco' and 'The Great Ziegfeld' in 1936 you had a studio that completely dominated financially the industry -- not to mention 'Libeled Lady.'

"They were then able to say to the exhibitors, 'Well, if you want this one you have to pay these returns' and they raised their rate. So that $12 million profit in Depression dollars in 1936 (that MGM had was impressive). Except for Warners, every other studio was in bankruptcy or receivership. People think that pre-1948 the studios owned all their theaters (but) they didn't own all their theaters. Loews Inc. owned their theaters in the larger cities, but Loews Inc. owned a lot less theaters than Paramount. So outside of the major cities, those films were rented (by exhibitors). Those salesmen were driving those deals (and were competing with other studios to get them)."

The last time Mayer had invited his sales force to come and party in L.A. had been a decade earlier: "There was a big difference between going to Hollywood in 1927 and 1937 because in 1937 the country had been through hell and Los Angeles was paradise. So to be taken there by private rail car and then treated that way (was very special). It's hard (to see) in the banquet photo that Vanity Fair ran, but if you take a magnifying glass and look at the fringe tables you'll see Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. Every star is there because they're there to say thank you to the salesmen. They're there under the edict of Louis B. Mayer saying, 'We're having this luncheon and you're showing up.'

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Sept. 18, 1989's column: By now Rupert Murdoch is probably putting together some new deal of staggering proportions that will soon be dominating the headlines. At this point, we can only assess what his bid to acquire MGM/UA would have meant to Hollywood had it been successful.

"The difference between MGM/UA going to Qintex or to Murdoch's News Corp., which owns 20th Century Fox, is significant in terms of how either would impact on the film industry. Essentially it's the difference between keeping MGM and UA as major --albeit long dormant -- studios or seeing them disappear in the quicksand of corporate economies that typically follow such mergers.

"What made MGM/UA attractive to Murdoch was its film library and the way in which it would provide him with TV programming, especially for Sky Television, his fledgling satellite TV service in the U.K. It's hard to believe that the tiny remnants of MGM and UA's production arms would have had much appeal to Murdoch, who has already made major advances in rebuilding Fox.

"Some media accounts of the situation have observed rather grandly that if Murdoch owned both Fox and MGM/UA, he would be able to make 50 movies a year and then have enough product for his far-flung television interests. Well, yes, if he had two studios he would be able to do that -- and if he had wings he'd be able to fly and do a series for Fox TV. Besides, the best way to crank up production, if that's what you really want to do, is to create noncompeting labels -- like Disney has done with Touchstone, Disney and Hollywood Pictures -- under the same corporate roof...

"With Qintex acquiring MGM/UA and then selling MGM back to Kirk Kerkorian, the result is that the two studios survive as operating entities. The new Qintex-owned United Artists goes about gearing up to get back into the business of making movies while the Kerkorian-controlled mini-MGM does whatever it decides it should do to attract a buyer down the road.

"The Australian capital that flows into Hollywood via Qintex will also play a part in helping to bring about the globalization of the film industry that seems inevitable between now and 1992. We also can expect to see Japanese and Western European companies begin buying into Hollywood. Foreign partners will become especially valuable to Hollywood if 1992 sees the European Economic Community impose its threatened quotas on how much American-produced filmed entertainment can be imported."

Update: As it turned out, the bid by Qintex, headed by Australian television entrepreneur Christopher Skase, to acquire MGM/UA failed after a $30 million deposit was not made. A good book could be written about all this, but to make a very long story short: MGM wound up being sold instead to Giancarlo Paretti in 1989 for $1.3 billion. Ultimately, Paretti's ownership of the studio fell apart financially and in 1996 MGM/UA was acquired by Kerkorian and Australia's Seven Network. The Seven Network sold its stake in the studio for $389 million in 1998. Kerkorian wound up selling MGM/UA to a consortium including Sony Pictures and three investment groups for $5 billion in 2004. As for Murdoch, needless to say, he's still putting together new deals "of staggering proportions."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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