Pauline Wagner, the Actress on the Ledge With King Kong, Dies at 103
UPDATE: The actress donned a wig at the last minute and stood in for Fay Wray when the climatic finale atop the Empire State Building had to be reshot.
Actress Pauline Wagner, who as Fay Wray’s double can be seen writhing on the ledge of the Empire State Building in the climax of the 1933 film King Kong, has died. She was 103.
Wagner died May 2 in Montrose, Calif., her manager and friend, Steve Vilarino, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Wagner was a contract player at RKO Radio Pictures and wandering around the lot when she was approached by a group of men, she recalled in a 2011 interview with Filmfax magazine. They were working on King Kong and needed to reshoot the finale, in which the big ape has grabbed Wray's character and climbed to the top of the New York skyscraper as military biplanes buzz around them.
Wray was in England working on another movie, and they figured that Wagner could pass for her.
“So the hairdresser came … and they sent me to wardrobe to put all the clothes on and the wig and everything ... and I worked for four hours and that was it,” Wagner said.
Of course, the ledge on which she was lying was not on the Empire State Building; it was actually a studio prop nine feet off the ground. And the image of New York was projected on a screen behind her. (It’s Wray, not Wagner, however, who is seen in the animal's clutches.) Wagner said she didn't realize that the work she had done was for King Kong until she saw the film about 10 years later.
Wagner was the second person — after James Cagney — to sign the petition that would lead to the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. “I knew something had to be done; we were working too many hours,” she once said.
Studio head Jack Warner fired Cagney and Wagner after learning that they had signed the pact, but he couldn’t do without Cagney’s talents and had to rehire him. Cagney then insisted that Wagner be given back her job as well.
Wagner also played a nightclub glamour girl opposite Cagney in Lady Killer (1933) and appeared in Little Miss Marker (1934) with Shirley Temple, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) with Gary Cooper, Vivacious Lady (1938) with Ginger Rogers, The Mad Miss Manton (1938) with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, Hold Back the Dawn (1941) with Charles Boyer and New York Town (1941) with Fred MacMurray.
She was born in Shattuck, Okla., came to California and graduated from Santa Monica High School (where her classmate was future actress Gloria Stuart) in 1927.
A game of volleyball and a swim in the pool outside the Santa Monica beachfront home of Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst — now the Annenberg Community Beach House — led to her being discovered by MGM.
Survivors include her sons Mike and Bruce, her daughters-in-law Sharon and Debbie, her niece Maureen, her grandchildren Michele, David, Scott and Tyler and her great-grandsons Ryder and Dylan.
Her final resting place was to be at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery alongside her husband, Judge Alfred J. McCourtney, who died in 1975. Her first husband was veteran character actor Mike Lally.