My favorite David Stenn book is “Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow,” a wonderful look at Hollywood’s first blonde sex symbol and the dark and tragic circumstances regarding her too-short life. Insights about early Hollywood, sex scandals and ruthless exploitation by studio executives are similar themes in another Stenn book, the equally wonderful “Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild.” Everything I enjoy about Stenn’s writings can be found in his debut documentary, “Girl 27,” a fascinating investigation into a late 1930s sex scandal involving MGM. In 1937, at a MGM sales convention, 17-year-old dancer Patricia Douglas was raped at a convention party. She did not remain silent. In fact, she pressed charges. Yet, the case and Douglas faded into obscurity.
Content is everything in a matter-of-fact documentary like “Girl 27” and what Stenn lacks in technical prowess he compensates with a strong understanding of how to start one’s tale, articulate the themes, move the storytelling at a quick pace and finish well. Like another great Sundance documentary, “Crazy Love,” Stenn’s “Girl 27” stays close to non-fiction formula. A willingness to try something different that the standard dance between face-the-camera interviews and archival photos of Golden Age Hollywood would have helped the story. There are times when “Girl 27” is a little too PBS for my tastes, meaning too connect-the-dots.
Yet, just when I grow tired of another image of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer holding court over his many sales agents, Stenn leads viewers to a new revelation and an additional twist in the historical story. The highlights, the money shots in “Girl 27” are the interviews with Douglas, who was in her nineties at the time of the filming. Stenn may not be an expert at framing shots; like I said, “Girl 27” is as matter-of-fact as non-fiction filmmaking gets, but he knows how to interview and gather material. Among the crowd of writers who become filmmakers (another Sundance 2007 director comes to mind: Rod Lurie) it’s Stenn who shows strong promise.
The other thing I admire about “Girl 27” is the time and energy Stenn spends making sure people don’t forget the players of Golden Age Hollywood, whether they’re good or bad people. As far as whether he’s more filmmaker now than author, decisions regarding lenses and equipment will come over time. Crafting a good story; that’s ten times more difficult and Stenn has that skill down pat.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.
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