05 July 2020

Fay Wray

Canadian-born American actress Fay Wray (1907-2004) attained international recognition as the first 'scream queen' in a series of horror films during the early 1930s. Through an acting career that spanned nearly six decades, Wray is best known as Ann Darrow, the girl held in the hand of King Kong (1933). Two days after her death, the lights of the Empire State Building, the location of King Kong's climax scene, were dimmed for 15 minutes in memory of the "beauty who charmed the beast".

Fay Wray in Pointed Heels (1929)
French postcard by Europe, no. 720. Photo: Paramount. Fay Wray in Pointed Heels (A. Edward Sutherland, 1929).

Fay Wray in Street of Sin (1928)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3993/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Paramount. Fay Wray in Street of Sin (Mauritz Stiller, 1928).

Fay Wray
Italian postcard by Rizzoli & C., Milano, 1940. Photo: Radio Pictures.

One of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926

Vina Fay Wray was born in 1907 on a ranch near Cardston in the province of Alberta, Canada. Her American parents, Elvina Marguerite Jones and Joseph Heber Wray, were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was one of six children.

Her family returned to the United States a few years after she was born, in order for her father to find better work than what was offered in Alberta. They moved to Salt Lake City in 1912, and later they relocated to Los Angeles, where Fay attended Hollywood High School. Her parents divorced, which put the rest of the family in hard times.

Being in entertainment-rich Los Angeles, there was ample opportunity to take advantage of the chances that might come her way in the entertainment industry. At the age of 16, Wray made her film debut, when she landed a role in a short historical film, Gasoline Love (1923), sponsored by a local newspaper. The film was not a hit, nor was it a launching vehicle for her career.

It would be two more years before she ever got another chance. Wray landed a major role in the silent film The Coast Patrol (Bud Barsky, 1925), as well as uncredited bit parts at the Hal Roach Studios. In 1926, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers selected Wray, along with Janet Gaynor and Mary Astor, as one of the 'WAMPAS Baby Stars', a group of thirteen starlets whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. She was at the time under contract to Universal Studios, mostly co-starring in low-budget Westerns opposite Buck Jones.

The following year, Wray was signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures. In 1926, director Erich von Stroheim cast her as the main female lead in his film The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim, 1928), released by Paramount two years later. Over the six months of filming, Stroheim shot over 200,000 feet of film. The film's original budget was estimated at $300,000 ($4,333,000 today). By the time film producer Pat Powers shut down production, the budget had risen to $1,250,000 ($18,398,000 today). While the film was noted for its production values, it was a financial failure.

After her first lead role, Wray stayed with Paramount to make more than a dozen films, including Thunderbolt (Josef von Sternberg, 1929) with George Bancroft, and made the transition from silent films to 'talkies'.

Fay Wray
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 1169. Photo: Capitol.

Fay Wray and George Raft in The Bowery (1933)
British postcard in the Film Shots series by Film Weekly. Photo: 20th Century. Fay Wray and George Raft on the beach in the pre-Code movie The Bowery (Raoul Walsh, 1933).

A giant gorilla as her 'tall, dark leading man'

After leaving Paramount, Fay Wray signed to various film companies. Under these deals, Wray was cast in various horror films, including Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932), The Vampire Bat (Frank R. Strayer, 1933), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (Michael Curtiz, 1933), all starring Lionel Atwill.

In addition, she appeared in many other types of roles, including in The Bowery (Raoul Walsh, 1933) and Viva Villa (Jack Conway, 1934), both of which starred Wallace Beery.

However, her best-known films were produced under her deal with RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. Her first film under RKO was The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932), co-starring Joel McCrea.

It was followed by Wray's most memorable film, King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) with Bruce Cabot. The Most Dangerous Game was shot at night on the same jungle sets that were being used for King Kong during the day, with Wray and Robert Armstrong starring in both films.

When first-choice Jean Harlow proved to unavailable, Wray was approached by director Merian C. Cooper to play the role of Ann Darrow, the blonde captive of King Kong. Cooper told her that he had a part for her in a picture in which she would be working with a tall, dark leading man. What he didn't tell her was that her "tall, dark leading man" was a giant gorilla. Wray was paid $10,000 ($200,000 in 2020 dollars) to play the role.

Tony Fontana at IMDb: "Perhaps no one in the history of pictures could scream more dramatically than Fay, and she really put on a show in "Kong". Her character provided a combination of sex appeal, vulnerability, and lung capacity as she was stalked by the giant beast all the way to the top of the Empire State Building."

The film was a commercial success and Wray was reportedly proud that the film saved RKO from bankruptcy. Ann Darrow became the role with which Wray was most associated. In 1933, Fay Wray also became a naturalised citizen of the United States.

She continued to star in various films, including the romantic comedy The Richest Girl in the World (William A. Seiter, 1934), a second film with Joel McCrea, but by the early 1940s, her appearances became less frequent. She retired from acting in 1942 after her second marriage but due to financial exigencies soon resumed her acting career.

Fay Wray
French postcard by A.N., Paris, no. 513. Photo: Paramount.

Fay Wray
British postcard by Milton, no. 149. Photo: British & Dominions Films.

Turning the Titanic down

Over the next three decades, Fray Wray appeared in several films and she was also frequently seen on television. Wray was cast in the sitcom The Pride of the Family (1953-1954) as Catherine Morrison. Paul Hartman played her husband, Albie Morrison. Natalie Wood and Robert Hyatt played their children, Ann and Junior Morrison, respectively.

Wray appeared with fellow WAMPAS Baby Star Joan Crawford in the Film Noir drama Queen Bee (Ranald MacDougall, 1955). Wray appeared in three episodes of Perry Mason: The Case Of The Prodigal Parent (1958); The Case of the Watery Witness (1959), as murder victim Lorna Thomas; and The Case of the Fatal Fetish (1965), as voodoo practitioner Mignon Germaine.

Other roles around this time were in the episodes Dip in the Pool (1958) and The Morning After of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1960, she appeared as Clara in an episode of 77 Sunset Strip, Who Killed Cock Robin?

She ended her acting career in the made-for-television film Gideon's Trumpet (Robert Collins, 1980), starring Henry Fonda.

In 1988, she published her autobiography 'On the Other Hand'. In her later years, Wray continued to make public appearances. In 1991, she was crowned Queen of the Beaux-Arts Ball presiding with King Herbert Huncke.

She was approached by James Cameron to play the part of Rose Dawson Calvert for his blockbuster Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) with Kate Winslet to play her younger self, but she turned down the role, which was played by Gloria Stuart.

In 1998, King Kong wound up being named one of the 100 greatest films of all time by the American Film Institute. On the 70th Annual Academy Awards (1998), Billy Crystal introduced a clip of her in King Kong (1933) and then came offstage and stood next to Miss Wray in the audience, and introduced her as the "Beauty who charmed the Beast, the Legendary Fay Wray".

In 2003, the 95-year-old Wray appeared at the 2003 Palm Beach International Film Festival to celebrate the documentary film Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (Rick McKay, 2003), which she also appeared in. She was honored with a 'Legend in Film' award.

In 2004, Wray was approached by director Peter Jackson to appear in a small cameo for his remake of King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005). Jackson wanted Fay to say the closing line of the film. She met with Naomi Watts, who was to play the role of Ann Darrow, but she politely declined the cameo and claimed the original "Kong" to be the true "King".

Before the filming of the remake commenced, Wray died in her sleep of natural causes on 8 August 2004, in her apartment in Manhattan, five weeks before her 97th birthday. Wray is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.

Fay Wray married three times. Her husbands were the authors John Monk Saunders (1928-1939; divorce) and Robert Riskin (1942-1955; his death), and the neurosurgeon Sanford Rothenberg (1971-1991; his death). She had three children: Susan Saunders, Victoria Riskin, and Robert Riskin Jr.

Denny Jackson at IMDb: "She was an excellent actress who never was given a chance to live up to her potential, especially after being cast in a number of horror films in the '30s. Given the right role, Fay could have had her star up alongside the great actresses of the day. No matter. She remains a bright star from cinema's golden era."

Trailer The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932). Source: WKAJ Entertainment (YouTube).

Trailer King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933). Source: Warner Bros (YouTube).

Sources: Tony Fontana (IMDb), Denny Jackson (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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