Golden contract

Pauline McCourtney remembers her time working with major motion picture studios from 1928 to ’42 — Hollywood’s golden era — like it was yesterday.

The 98-year-old Glendale resident, who will share her memories next week at the Alex Theatre, was Fay Wray’s stunt double in peril atop the Empire State Building in the 1933 horror hit “King Kong.” She had a bit part in the 1936 film “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and played a switchboard operator in the 1941 “New York Town.”

McCourtney, known then as Pauline Wagner, never forgot what famous director Sam Woods said to her while filming his picture, “So This is College.”

“He told me, ‘You’ll get invited to all these wild parties with alcohol and drugs; don’t accept any of those invitations and you’ll never be out of work,’” she said. “And I never was.”

The 6 a.m. calls to the studio every morning made going to parties prohibitive anyway, she said, as she had to get up by 4:30 a.m.

While on contract, actors had to be on call all day at the studio, whether they worked or not, she said. And there was no limit to the time they spent there.

“One day I worked on eight sets,” she said.

She’ll share more memories during an interview onstage at the 8 p.m. screening of “The Philadelphia Story” presented by the Alex Film Society on Feb. 14 at the Alex Theatre.

The society invited her to speak because she had done a couple of pictures with the film’s star, Jimmy Stewart, society President Randy Carter said.

“She’s going to talk about him and what it was like to work on studio sets in the 1940s — the golden age of the studio system,” he said. “The actors worked six days a week and often worked until midnight on Saturdays.”

On one film she did with Stewart, she said he had difficulty remembering his lines, and he stuttered.

“After several cuts, [director] Frank Capra told the other actors he was going to continue to roll the cameras and for them to just pick up and keep going, and he would edit out the pauses later,” she said. “And that became Stewart’s style. Capra got Jimmy to do the hand movements he’s also known for.”

Stewart received the Oscar for best actor for “The Philadelphia Story,” which also stars Katharine Hepburn

Hepburn performed it on Broadway, bought the rights to it and chose George Cukor to direct it, said Richard Stanley, Cukor’s personal assistant the last five years of his life.

“It has bright dialogue, quick pace and elegant sets that were adapted from the stage version,” Stanley said.

McCourtney never met Cary Grant, who stars in “The Philadelphia Story,” but came close, she said. When McCourtney had a break, she would often go to see what was being filmed elsewhere on the studio lot.

“A man came over and said, ‘Cary Grant wants to meet you,’” she said. “I told the runner, an errand person in those days, ‘he knows where I am.’ I never heard from him.”

Another time, Humphrey Bogart asked her to try on a mink coat he was thinking of buying for Lauren Bacall.

“He asked me which one I’d choose, and I said the dark black one,” McCourtney said. “That’s the one he picked.”

Bogart asked McCourtney to keep a secret that he had asked her to try it on, saying “She’ll kill me.”

But her favorite star was James Cagney, she said.

“He was so talented, and when you talked to him, he didn’t make you think he was a big star,” she said. “He was the gentlest person I’ve ever known and looked out after everyone.”


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