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Fay Wray Movies: 'King Kong' Actress' Enjoyed Long Hollywood Career

Fay Wray bio moviesFay Wray movies

Actress Fay Wray, best remembered for playing the love interest in the 1933 interspecies romance classic King Kong, would have turned 105 on Sep. 15, '12. Besides Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 iconic horror tale and mammoth box office hit, the Canadian-born Vina Fay Wray (in 1907, in Cardston, Alberta) also screamed and/or fainted in a number of other movies of the '30s. (Image: Fay Wray in a publicity shot ca. late '20s / early '30s.)

Among those were Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel's first-rate thriller The Most Dangerous Game / The Hounds of Zaroff (1932), in which Wray and Joel McCrea are – quite literally – hunted down by madman Leslie Banks, and a couple of two-strip Technicolor horror films directed by future Oscar winner Michael Curtiz: Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), both starring madman Lionel Atwill.

Additionally, the minor Majestic studios paired up Wray and Atwill a third time in Frank R. Strayer's The Vampire Bat (1933), a surprisingly good-looking production thanks to Frankenstein and The Old Dark House sets leased from Universal. Wray also found herself enmeshed in danger in The Woman I Stole (1933) and Black Moon (1934), opposite Jack Holt; Below the Sea (1933) and Woman in the Dark (1934), with Ralph Bellamy; and Shanghai Madness (1933), with Spencer Tracy.

Fay Wray: Solid dramatic and comedy actress in the right roles

Although known as the Scream Queen of Old Hollywood, Fay Wray actually played a wide range of roles in a career that spanned more than half a century in film, on stage, and on television. Powerful vocal cords or no, she was at her dramatic best in a silent melodrama: Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1927), which features Wray as the unhappy young bride Mitzi. She also excelled as a flirtatious young maiden in Gregory La Cava's period comedy The Affairs of Cellini (1934), effortlessly stealing scenes while holding her own opposite Fredric March, Constance Bennett, and the Oscar-nominated Frank Morgan.

An Erich von Stroheim Discovery

“[Erich von Stroheim] had such a reputation of being militaristic, of cracking a whip,” Fay Wray would tell film historian Kevin Brownlow. “But he was a very genteel person, immaculately dressed in white linen. When Stroheim had finished telling the story of the film [The Wedding March], he asked, 'Do you think you could play Mitzi?' I said 'I know I could.' And he offered me his hand and said 'Goodbye, Mitzi.'

“And when he said that, that was my answer. I couldn't take his hand. I could only put my face in my hands and cry. And I heard him say, 'Oh, I can work with her.' I knew from that moment that my life was going to be immensely different.”

Having begun her Hollywood career in minor Westerns, as a result of The Wedding March Fay Wray became a top Paramount leading lady. Real stardom, however, would prove elusive; Wray and Paramount, in fact, would part ways shortly after the arrival of sound, a time when the Hollywood studios were beginning to feel the effects of the Great Depression.

Fay Wray movies at the dawn of the sound era

Among the Fay Wray pictures released in the early '30s, whether at Paramount or elsewhere, were George Abbott's The Sea God (1930), an adventure tale featuring Richard Arlen; Frank Capra's adventure drama Dirigible (1931), with Jack Holt and Ralph Graves; John Francis Dillon's socially conscious crime drama The Finger Points (1931), with good-guy-gone-bad Richard Barthelmess and Clark Gable in a supporting role; and George Fitzmaurice's romantic melodrama The Unholy Garden (1931), with Ronald Colman and silent-screen siren Estelle Taylor.

Fay Wray: King Kong actress, but never a Hollywood superstar

While at Paramount at the dawn of the sound era, Fay Wray was featured opposite the fast-rising Gary Cooper in three movies: William A. Wellman's war drama Legion of the Condemned (1928), Rowland V. Lee's romance The First Kiss (1928), and John Cromwell's Western The Texan (1930), the pair's last film together while they were both at the studio. (Image: Fay Wray King Kong, in which Wray plays screaming heroine Ann Darrow.)

A mere three years later, Wray was reunited with Gary Cooper in Stephen Roberts' slice of nostalgia One Sunday Afternoon. By 1933, however, Cooper had become the much bigger box office draw; he was one of Paramount's top stars, while Wray was mostly working as a free-lancer at various studios. In fact, despite King Kong, which turned out to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the '30s, Wray was never to become a Hollywood superstar.

From the mid-'30s onwards Fay Wray was either cast in supporting roles in A productions or, more frequently, as a leading lady in B movies. For instance, she supported Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea in The Richest Girl in the World (1934), Wallace Beery in the Academy Award-nominated Viva Villa! (1934), and conveniently died in Gregory Ratoff's likable romantic drama Adam Had Four Sons (1941) so governess Ingrid Bergman could find happiness with widower Warner Baxter.

Wray's leading roles during that period included those in an array of B movies and programmers of various genres. Here are a few titles: the comedies The Countess of Monte Cristo (1934) and They Met in a Taxi (1936), featuring, respectively, Paul Lukas and Chester Morris; the mystery Murder in Greenwich Village (1937), with Richard Arlen; and the crime thriller Smashing the Spy Ring (1937), opposite Ralph Bellamy.

Fay Wray also went to England, back then the destination of many struggling Hollywood performers, to be featured in two bigger-budgeted 1935 British releases: Maurice Elvey's thriller The Clairvoyant, starring Claude Rains, and Walter Forde's crime comedy Bulldog Jack / Alias Bulldog Drummond, with Jack Hulbert.

Fay Wray's marriage to screenwriter Robert Riskin, temporary retirement

In 1942, Fay Wray retired from films after marrying screenwriter Robert Riskin, best known for his collaborations with Frank Capra, such as American Madness (1932); It Happened One Night (1934), which earned Riskin an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); and the Best Picture Academy Award winner You Can't Take It with You (1938).

About a decade later, Wray returned to the big screen in minor roles. Her film appearances at that time included those in the MGM musical Small Town Girl (1953), starring Jane Powell and Farley Granger; the soapish melodrama Queen Bee (1955), with Joan Crawford; Vincente Minnelli's all-star melo The Cobweb (1955), with Lauren Bacall and Richard Widmark, among others; and the romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), with Debbie Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen.

Fay Wray's last two feature films, both minor, youth-oriented efforts released in 1958, were Dragstrip Riot / The Reckless Age, featuring Gary Clarke, and Summer Love with John Saxon.

Fay Wray Dirigible Jack Holt Frank CapraFay Wray and John Monk Saunders, later film career

Robert Riskin died in 1955. Wray had been previously married (1928-1939) to writer and aviator John Monk Saunders, a Best Original Story Oscar winner for the aviation drama The Dawn Patrol (1930), and the writer of two Fay Wray movies: the aforementioned Legion of the Condemned and The Finger Points. An alcoholic who developed a serious drug problem during his marriage to Wray, Saunders committed suicide in 1940, the year after the couple's separation became final. (Image: Fay Wray and Jack Holt in Frank Capra's Dirigible.)

Also worth noting is that beginning in the early '50s, Wray became a regular guest star in numerous television series. Those included Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Playhouse 90, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, The David Niven Show, and Perry Mason. Her last television credit was a supporting role in Robert L. Collins' 1980 TV movie Gideon's Trumpet, starring Henry Fonda.

Fay Wray's autobiography, On the Other Hand, was published in 1989.

Fay Wray phone call

One of my most pleasant surprises – and, paradoxically, biggest disappointments – while working on my Ramon Novarro biography about a decade ago was when I arrived home early one evening to find a voice message from Fay Wray. In the early '20s, Wray had been an extra in Ferdinand Pinney Earle's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was eventually to be released as the Novarro vehicle A Lover's Oath (1925). Unfortunately, we would never connect after that one call.

Fay Wray died “of natural causes” at the age of 96 in New York City on Aug. 8 '04.

King Kong remakes

King Kong, itself sharing several elements with The Lost World (made into a movie in 1925), would be remade twice. Dino De Laurentiis produced an unscary version in 1976, directed by John Guillermin and starring Jessica Lange in the old Fay Wray role, plus Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin as her leading men. In 2005, Peter Jackson directed an overblown, CGI-heavy remake starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Jack Black.

Additionally, two versions of Mighty Joe Young (1949 and 1998) borrowed elements from the 1933 horror classic, while a cheapo King Kong sequel, Son of Kong, was also released in 1933. In the now all but forgotten follow-up, King Kong co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack guided minor leading lady Helen Mack and one of the original film's leading men, Robert Armstrong.

Note: A compact version of this Fay Wray article was initially published in Sept. 2004.

Fay Wray quote: The Independent.

Fay Wray King Kong photo: RKO publicity shot.


         
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14 Comments to Fay Wray Movies: 'King Kong' Actress' Enjoyed Long Hollywood Career

  1. Lynette Chilton Cheney

    I was raised being told that Fay Wray was my grandfathers' (Ernest Edwin Pritchett) 1st cousin. Does anyone know her lineage? Thank you.

  2. silent_gal_pal

    There are some websites that specialize in old hard to find classic movies. I've seen a few like GRapevine or Flicker Alley or Milestone. I'm sure I've seen Fay Wray movies being offered, but I can't remember which sites or if they have Mills of the Gods.

  3. johannes

    Is “Mills of the Gods” available anywhere? I've never seen it. Fay Wray is one of my favorite actresses. I've tried watching and collecting all of her movies. “Mills of the Gods” is one I've never seen.
    And I agree that “King Kong” is Fay Wray's best movie. But there are many other good ones.

  4. aishie

    My favorite Fay Wray movie is “The Mystery of the Wax Museum.”

    Fay Wray not only looked so beautiful, she could scream like no one else!

    Rest in Peace, Fay Wray.

  5. Nareen

    Fay Wray was the most beautiful movie actress of the '30s. Lovely. I also remember her in a TV movie with Henry Fonda. Fay Wray at 70 still looked lovely.

  6. silent_gal_pal

    Favorite Fay Wray movie: King Kong obviously.
    Runner-up: The Vampire Bat and The Most Dangerous Game.
    Also worthwhile: Son of Fury (Fay has a supporting role. Tyrone Power is the lad)
    And Queen Bee because of Joan Crawford and all the B thriller she did in the 30s' with Ralph Bellamy and others. They're not great movies but they're lootta fun.

  7. mario

    “mills of the Gods” is also a fun

  8. mario

    “King Kong” is my favorite Fay Wray movie too, but I also enjoyed a little-known Fay Wray movie called “shanghai Madness.”

  9. anita

    My favorite Fay Wray movie is “King Kong.”
    My second favorite is “Queen Bee”, with Joan Crawford.
    My third favorite and my favorite Fay Wray performance is “The Wedding March”, directed by the great Erich von Stroheim.

  10. Sandra

    My favorite Fay Wray movie is “The Mystery of the Wax Museum.”
    What's yours?

  11. Andre

    @Earneast,

    You should check out Fay Wray doing comedy in “The Affairs of Cellini.” Wray is quite good in it.

  12. Earneast

    Another good Fay Wray movie: THE CLAIRVOYANT. Don't miss it!

  13. Earneast

    I've also watched Fay Wray in The Vampire Bat numerous times. KING KONG is a favorite, but I think that my favorite Fay Wray performance is in a later movie. She has a small role in a movie with Warner Baxter and Ingrid Bergman called ADAM HAD FOUR SONS. Fay Wray has a small role, but her performance in that sweet charming movie is simply beautiful.

    Fay Wray should be remembered as much more than just a “Scream Queen.”

  14. Earneast

    Fay Wray is my favorite actress. I've watched KING KONG about a million times.