Stories from a different era

To say that Polly Wagner McCourtney has lived a charmed life would be an understatement. In her 98 years, she has lived many charmed lives.

McCourtney, who will turn 99 years old in August, will be discussing Hollywood of the 1930s at the Alex Theatre on Feb. 14 before the screening of “The Philadelphia Story” starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. She is the perfect speaker for this golden age of Hollywood because she lived it.

“We used to spend all our time at the beach,” McCourtney said. “Marion Davies had a place on the beach and she had all this equipment, like rafts, and she let us use them. She was very nice.”

Davies was an actress in the 1920s and ’30s who became famous for her movies as much as the company she kept; she was the mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.

“We could be at the beach house but not when Hearst was there,” McCourtney said. “When he was there she would put a balloon up and we knew not to go.”

One day when they were on the beach, Davies’ maid came out and asked if any of them would like to be actors at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.

“We all said yes,” McCourtney recalled.

The group was told to go to the studio for an interview and audition. She was one of five that made it alongside actor Joel McCrea.

“He was gorgeous,” McCourtney remembered.

She was put on contract at MGM and her first film was “So This Is College.” She was given small roles in many productions.

“Back in those days, when you were on contract with a studio you went in every day, signed in and waited to see if you were put to work,” she explained. “You got paid whether you worked or not. Well, at first I didn’t know that.”

McCourtney said after she was on contract she thought she was supposed to go home and wait for a call. The call never came and she became a little worried.

“A friend said I should try working in a western, so I went to Universal Studios because they made all those types of movies,” she said.

She worked on several films, then went back to MGM to see if there was anything available. She was handed a check for six months of work, even though she hadn’t been at the studio.

“Then I knew how it worked,” she said.

She was making $75 a week, a huge sum for the Depression era. She bought a car and helped support her family. From that point on, she went into work every morning and worked with some of the biggest stars of the era, including Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford and Ginger Rogers — well sort of.

“I was on my first film with Ginger Rogers and her mother came on set,” McCourtney said.

Rogers’ mother, Lela McMath, was a notorious stage mother and McCourtney looked a lot like Rogers.

“She saw me, then walked over to the director,” she said.

The director told McCourtney that she would be hired on every one of Rogers’ films but she would not be seen. He didn’t want to do that, she said, but Rogers was the star.

So McCourtney was on set for all Rogers’ films including those with Fred Astaire.

“They fought, a lot, and one day it had been really bad,” McCourtney recalled. “So the director screamed that Fred would have a new partner and we all had to dance with him. When he came with me I was so nervous. I stepped on his toes.”

McCourtney loved her time in the film industry, but said that most of that ended when the studios began to break-up. Contracts were no longer offered and the feel and face of Hollywood changed.

But for those golden days McCourtney loved the work she was doing and the people she met along the way.

The Alex Film Society presents “The Philadelphia Story” at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Feb. 14. McCourtney will only be sharing her stories at the 8 p.m. showing.

The Alex Theatre, 216 North Brand Blvd. General ticket price is $13.50. For information, visit the theater’s website at www.alextheatre.org or call the box office at (818) 243-2539.


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