Squealing promise of “Hollywood’s most shocking scandal — exposed!,” muckraking “Girl 27” milks a sad real-life story with shameless abandon. First-time director David Stenn (who’s written decent Hollywood bio tomes on Jean Harlow and Clara Bow) lets his sob-sister side run away with this parasitical exercise. In tabloid-TV-host fashion, he stays onscreen as much as possible while exploiting the painful memories of a woman raped at a 1937 MGM party. Her story compels, but pic’s self-serving approach is contemptible. Cable-style exercise can only benefit from trimming for shorter broadcast slots.
Patricia Douglas was a 17-year-old dancer hired along with many others to entertain conventioneers at the remote Hal Roach Ranch for visiting MGM salesmen. One, Chicagoan David Ross, assaulted her in the brush outside the banquet hall. Douglas bravely went to the police, eventually taking her case all the way to the federal Supreme Court — but MGM seemingly paid off all witnesses, lawyers, etc., to bury it. The studio kept its own name out of the papers while the victim’s face and moniker were splashed everywhere.
Not surprisingly, the trauma appears to have scarred the rest of Douglas’ life. She never danced again, logged three failed marriages, bore a now-estranged daughter, and retreated into hermit-like seclusion.
Feature adopts a tone of shrill outrage from the start, complete with melodramatic narration from Stenn. Latter can’t express enough shock over the revelation that behind its public glitter, 1930s Hollywood was a grabby, sexist man’s world.
Still, early going sustains interest via rare archival footage of premieres and behind-the-scenes studio life. After about 45 minutes, however, it begins to repeat itself — and worse, drags on the elderly Douglas herself, who for months hung up on Stenn until he wore her resistance down. Appointing himself her confessor and new best friend, he presses for details of the 65-year-old incident she’s struggled to forget. He convinces her — congratulating himself at length for doing this service — that she will only experience peace and “vindication” if she tells the world her story once again. But onscreen evidence suggests the process provided more pain than healing in her final months. (She died last year.)
Stenn leaves no opportunity unseized to interview himself and express his anger at the injustices endured by his subject — oblivious to the fact that he’s using her in a violative fashion as well.
The film actually ends with a home-movie excerpt of the director as an adorable toddler — an inclusion completely pointless apart from its underlining who the real star of “Girl 27” is. Nor can Stenn (whose prior major feature credit, it should be noted, is as scenarist for the 1991 Vanilla Ice vehicle “Cool as Ice”) resist playing answering machine messages left for him by his late book editor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Yet even that is not the nadir: At one point, Stenn locates assailant Ross’ Midwestern burial site, and proceeds to dance on his grave, crowing that he’s sure it’s what Patricia Douglas would want him to do.
Packaging is in the cable style of a gossipy E! or A&E program, pro enough if in serious need of an editor with veto power over helmer’s more egregious indulgences. As well as over the inclusion of Greta van Susteren, a Fox News legal commentator whose hectoring pronouncements rival Stenn’s own for bogus self-righteousness.