By Mary O’KEEFE
“Cecile B. DeMille asked if he could do a screen test on me.” “Oh yes, I knew Jimmy Cagney. He was a very nice guy.” “So they asked me to kick my legs and scream as King Kong carried me to the top of the Empire State Building. Of course Kong never laid a hand on me.” These were some of the memories shared at the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley on Monday night as former Metro Goldwyn Mayer contract actress Pauline (Polly) Wagner McCourtney spoke to a full house at the organization’s monthly meeting.
Polly was a contract player during the Great Depression, which was also the beginning of MGM’s Golden Years. During those years the studio boasted they had “more stars than there are in the heavens.” And walking among those stars was Polly.
“My first picture was ‘So This is College’ . It took two years to make,” she told the audience.
During those two years there was a lot of hurry up and wait kind of days but she made friends and got to know the film business. One of her first lessons had to do with the notorious Hollywood parties. Her first party was at the home of Gloria Swanson, who she found in a passionate embrace with a man who was not her husband. Swanson’s husband told her to find a room in the house to go to.
“Well this kind of behavior was a shock to me,” Polly said.
She went back to the set the next day and told her director, Sam Wood, what she had seen.
“He said, ‘Let me give you some advice. Don’t ever go to a Hollywood party again. You may not be a star but you will always have work,’” Polly said.
She took that advice and worked through the Great Depression into the beginning of World War II. Polly said she was never really interested in becoming a star; she just wanted to make money and getting $75 a week as a contract player helped support herself and her family.
Polly worked for MGM, Warner Bros., RKO and Universal. During her Hollywood years she work with stars that would become legends like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She became close friends with stars like Ruby Keeler and Maureen O’Hara and all the while remained true to who she was and never, never minced words. If she thought something was wrong she said so. If a guy was inappropriate with her she smacked his face, not carrying who he was including big time directors. For this she gained the respect of many including directors DeMille and Wood.
“I never expected to live to be 99. I think I just didn’t worry about things. It always seemed like it all worked out for me,” she said.
Even during the Depression before she signed with the studio there were times when she didn’t have anything to eat.
“Ruth Gordon and I used to dress nice and go to restaurants. We would sit next to the maître d’ and tell him we were waiting for our party. For some reason these restaurants were always full of men eating alone. They would notice us and invite us to lunch. They would pay for the meal,” she said.
Polly’s easy attitude toward life has helped her for all her 99 years, whether traveling with her parents from Oklahoma to California, finding herself in the film business or starting her own baby-clothing store in Beverly Hills when she was in her 80s.
Someone in the audience asked her where she got her attitude and her strength.
“That is where parenting comes in,” she said. “I was very lucky to have the parents I did.”
Polly is presently working on her memoirs. She will turn 100 years old in the fall.