MGM’s 1937 sales convention was an affair to remember. There were celebrity meet-and-greets, marching bands, an escort of motorcycle cops. There was a private rail car and plenty of booze and conversation. And, on the night of May 5, 1937, there was a big party, complete with appearances by Laurel and Hardy, the Dandridge Sisters and an open bar.
But for Patricia Douglas, a dancer and movie extra, the party was one she wished she could forget. The dancer was one of 120 young women who were told they’d be filming on location that night. Once at the event, they were trapped—and Douglas was stalked by a drunken salesman who forced her to drink alcohol, then raped her.
The party was just one facet of a pervasive culture of sexual exploitation that was aided and abetted by the most storied studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Stag parties” like this one—put on by and for Hollywood men—were both common and notoriously dangerous for young women. “I’m going to give you some advice: Don’t go to any parties,” director Sam Wood warned Pauline Wagner, a starlet who was Fay Wray’s stunt double for the 1933 movie King Kong.
When a woman was selected to attend a stag party put on by a director or star, she might view it as a compliment. She might also see it as a meal ticket—often, studios and others would pay women to attend parties. When they arrived, they sometimes found they were expected to do more than be a pretty face.
Women extras were at particular risk. Without a contract to protect them, they were viewed as expendable and were often recruited as “party favors” by men on set. “A few of them effectively functioned as pimps,” says filmmaker and Hollywood biographer David Stenn, whose documentary, Girl 27, tracks the story of Douglas’ abuse and its aftermath.
Dancers, extras and starlets were regulars at these male-centered affairs. “If you had a stag event, you’d have entertainment, and that would have meant women,” says Stenn. The excesses of the convention party where Douglas was raped, says Stenn, were egged on by the expectations that, while attending conventions away from home, men could—and would—act as they pleased without suffering any consequences.
At the time, just a handful of Hollywood studios dominated both the motion picture market and the lives of their employees. Studios like MGM managed the lives of their actors, from their marriage choices to their hairstyles, and demanded complete loyalty from their employees. “It’s probably easiest to think of MGM as a totalitarian state,” says Stenn. “Pretend it’s not a movie studio—pretend it’s a country.”
That dictatorship—overseen by studio head Louis B. Mayer—functioned with the help of an army of staffers who moved in lockstep to create some of Hollywood’s most memorable films. And MGM and other studios upheld their positions not just by creating great movies, but by suppressing gossip and “fixing,” or disguising, unsavory stories.
The Hollywood dictatorship had a clear underclass: women. From casting to production to their private interactions with stars and studio heads, women were barraged with propositions, assaults, and assumptions that they were sexually available.
At the time, there was no concept of workplace harassment, and women were expected to endure scrutiny and sexualization in order to get work. The“casting couch” was ubiquitous, and women were expected to make themselves available to powerful men as dates and, sometimes, more.
Take Janis Paige, an actress who was told by her MGM director to go on a date with a man she had never met. When he tried to rape her, she fled—and she kept the incident a secret until recently revealing it at age 95 in an essay in the Hollywood Reporter. Judy Garland also reported being groped by Louis B. Mayer on set when she was still a teenager.
Stars and studio employees had plenty of other opportunities for sordid behavior. In 1935, for example, Clark Gable allegedly date-raped co-star Loretta Young while on an overnight train from a studio location to Hollywood. Young became pregnant, hid the pregnancy, and gave birth in secret. After leaving her daughter in an orphanage, she “adopted” her when she was 19 months old.
Young did not tell her studio about the rape or the pregnancy. But if she had, she may have experienced something like Douglas. When the young dancer told someone at the event about the rape, she was taken to a private hospital staffed by an MGM-paid doctor, Edward Lindquist. Like other studio-paid doctors of the age, he was on hand to provide abortions, treat sexually transmitted diseases, and perform operations stars wished to keep secret. That night, he gave Douglas a botched rape “exam” that removed all physical evidence of the crime.
Most Hollywood nobodies would have left it at that and attempted to recover from their trauma without restitution. Douglas, however, sued, battling all the way to federal court until a vicious smear campaign and a dismissal sank her case.
For Stenn, who tracked down and interviewed Douglas and other women, her case was part of a bigger pattern of abuse and oppression of women in Hollywood’s Golden Age. “The word these women used most [in their interviews] with me was ‘hunted,’” he says.
Yet thanks to the “fixing” that was just as pervasive as Hollywood’s sexual abuse, we’ll never know how many women yearning to be actresses during the era became prey instead.