David Stenn, Girl 27
In most people’s eyes, David Stenn’s first film as a director marks the start of his third career, but to him it’s a continuation of what he’s been doing all along: storytelling. Chicago native Stenn started writing for Hill Street Blues after graduating from Harvard, then moved on to more TV writing, most notably on teen guilty pleasures 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills 90210. In 1988, he published an acclaimed biography of 1920s film icon Clara Bow, and followed it in 1993 with an exhaustive tome on the tragically short life of another Hollywood legend, Jean Harlow.
In the process of researching the Harlow book, Stenn came across the story of 17-year-old Patricia Douglas, who in 1937 claimed to have been raped at a stag party held by MGM for its salesmen. Her story was briefly a tabloid sensation, but Douglas was then subjected to a character assassination by MGM, which protected David Ross, the MGM salesman she had accused, by buying off all Douglas’ witnesses – even her own mother. Douglas’ tale was then buried until Stenn rediscovered it and began tireless research to find out what went on, and ultimately discovered that Douglas was actually still alive. Girl 27 has compelling footage of Douglas recalling her traumatic attack, but the film is also about Stenn’s odyssey and the surprising and touching relationship that developed between the Hollywood historian and his subject.
Filmmaker spoke to Stenn about the uncovering of one of Hollywood’s greatest scandals, the part Jackie O played in his story, and why he hates it when people discuss 2001.
Filmmaker: How did you first find out about the story of Patricia Douglas?
Stenn: I was on deadline for my Jean Harlow biography, and I was just following the Harlow headlines, when all of a sudden [I came across] another story about this person I’ve never heard of who’s claiming that she was tricked into attending a stag party hosted by MGM, and that she was raped. I was so immersed in MGM at the time because of the machinations of how they handled Jean Harlow’s death, so I felt like, “How could I not have come across this anywhere?” So I started researching, looking at all the books again, and her name wasn’t mentioned anywhere, even in the books where you thought it would be, like Hollywood Babylon. I didn’t understand that, and that intrigued me. I was skeptical because I thought if the story had merit and validity, it would have appeared somewhere, because it was on the record, it was a legal case. What got me interested was that I thought I had heard of every Hollywood scandal, and here’s the biggest one of the 30s and I hadn’t heard of it, and nobody I talked to had ever heard of it, no research resource I consulted mentioned it.
Filmmaker: You were on deadline for your Jean Harlow book at the time you first came across the Patricia Douglas case, so how quickly were you able to progress with researching the story?
Stenn: That was 1993. These things take a long time, and there are always stories that I’m researching that take years because I’m not a big one for printing anything that says “purportedly” or “allegedly” — I like to have proof. So it takes a long time, and I didn’t immerse myself in it right away because I had the deadline. I started looking at the MGM convention, and it just seemed very straightforward to me: the coverage in the trades about it has no mention about Patricia Douglas, even after she went public – not a single mention of the case! It was about five or six years later when I actually found out she was still alive that it became a number one priority.
Filmmaker: You must have assumed that she was dead.
Stenn: Well, making presumptions in this line of work is always bad business but you’re right, I kind of just presumed it. If she were alive, you would have heard from her, because someone who was so vocal at the time wouldn’t have not been vocal again, or someone else would have found her way before me, or printed the story and said she’d disappeared.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the part that Jackie Onassis played in this.
Stenn: She was the editor of both my books, and after the Jean Harlow book came out we had lunch and she asked me what I wanted to do next. I really didn’t know, but I did mention this story. It was more a tentative mention, and having already done two books with her she knew me and my ferocious tenacity about research, so she said, “If anyone can find this story, it’s you. Because you won’t give up.” Then she passed away shortly afterwards, so it was the greatest vote of confidence you could possibly get, for someone like her to say, “You’re the guy to do it.”
Filmmaker: How did you go about finding Patricia? How did you first discover she was still alive?
Stenn: I only found out she was alive when I found out her mother was dead, because she was listed as the survivor on her mother’s death record. I was just astounded that she was alive, but then she was listed in the phonebook! I found her and was amazed and astounded and galvanized, because it was like, “My God, this woman is alive and no one has ever talked to her!” And then [when I called her], she hung up on me! I was so close, and yet so far. It got really emotionally difficult because I had this person I thought was a really important figure, and yet she wouldn’t tell her story. It’s a very strange and complicated dynamic when you call a stranger up and say to them, “I know your deepest, darkest secret, the thing you thought nobody else alive knew.” There’s an instant intimacy there, but it’s also very threatening to them. The thing about Patricia was that she could relate to me different than anybody else because I knew what happened to her, and yet I cared about her. She had spent almost 70 years thinking that if anyone found out, they wouldn’t respect or love her.
Filmmaker: One of the great things about the movie is that it turns into this wonderfully unexpected, unconventional love story between you and Patricia.
Stenn: And it is, to me. It was so unexpected because I never thought Patricia would be alive, and then I met her, and what were the odds that at her age, and after what she’d been through, she would be so lucid and intelligent and funny and dramatic and commanding, and all of those qualities that she has on screen? She’s a real personality, like one of the larger-than-life personalities in Grey Gardens. To me, Patricia had a quality to her that was very compelling, and I found myself at a certain point, after many phone calls, becoming so emotionally involved in a way I never had before with a subject, because my subjects prior to this had been deceased. Not only did I become close to her, but I also became zealously committed to finding vindication for her because I felt she deserved it so much, and it broke my heart on a regular basis to hear her talk about herself, and hear that she couldn’t understand why she should be proud.
Filmmaker: You said before that you were not certain the story was true when you started researching it?
Stenn: At the beginning you have to remain a healthy skeptic, because you don’t necessarily know that it’s true. There was a moment I remember vividly where, on my second trip out to see her, I brought about two dozen photographs, all black-and-white headshots, of Eddie Mannix, Louis B. Mayer, some other MGM executives and producers, and David Ross was in there with them. She sat on the couch and had the photographs on her lap and she looked at them and they didn’t mean anything to her. Then she got to [the photo of] David Ross and she had a physical reaction. Her whole body started to vibrate, and it was like I didn’t exist anymore: she looked down at that face and just cried, “Bastard!” Then I knew, because she hadn’t seen that face since 1937, and 63 years later at the second she saw that face, she knew that face. I thought to myself, “This woman is not lying, she is telling the truth. This really happened.”
Filmmaker: At what point did you make the decision to turn this into a film?
Stenn: I don’t know. I know when I shot her all I wanted to do was to get her on camera to testify. I thought of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project and the witnesses in Reds, the way Warren Beatty used some of the people who knew John Reed and Louise Bryant, and I thought, “She is the central figure in this story, she is its protagonist. She has never done an interview, and I just need to get her recorded for history’s sake.” And then finding the convention footage, those two elements made me think it should be a film. I believe this story happened in other industry locations — I think company towns have these scandals — but in the case of Hollywood, it is so photogenic. I felt that visual aspect lent itself more to a movie than [a book]. I would never have done it when she was alive, but when she passed away I felt like this could be her vindication.
Filmmaker: How much confidence did you have making this as your first film?
Stenn: I did everything wrong! You name it, I did it wrong. I used my own money, which is the first no-no of all time, I did everything myself, like legal clearances, our crew was tiny, and I just didn’t really know what I was doing. It was based on complete inexperience. I broke a cardinal rule by using my own money, but that turned out to be very liberating because I had complete control. But also I was blowing my savings and thinking, “Is anyone ever going to see this?” There was all that stuff, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, sitting in the car, crying, thinking, “There’s just too much here, I don’t know if we’re going to get it done.” But we did.
Filmmaker: You don’t actually have a director’s credit on the film, do you?
Stenn: I feel like it’s authored rather than directed. It’s a storytelling movie and I hope what it accomplishes is to tell a lot of story in a lucid way. There’s a lot going on there between the studio politics and the personal issues and then the [story of Patricia’s] family.
Filmmaker: What was your Sundance experience like? And what was it like when you were accepted?
Stenn: Overwhelming. It was the first festival I ever attended, and to have a film in competition…I’d say “dream come true” but I never dared to even dream it.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Stenn: The Wizard of Oz. It’s still my favorite film of all time. It’s consummate perfection on every level: direction, script, cinematography, performance, art direction, special effects…everyone a master at their craft.
Filmmaker: If you could hand out an Oscar to anyone who has never won, who would you give it to?
Stenn: Doris Day. I kind of think the name says it all.
Filmmaker: Which classic film are you ashamed to admit you haven’t seen?
Stenn: 2001: A Space Odyssey. It gets referenced constantly, and I’m always clueless.