Top Ten Scream Queens
Halloween is over until next year, but the equally bewitching Day of the Dead is just around the corner. So, dead or alive, here's my revised and expanded list of cinema's Top Ten Scream Queens.
This highly personal compilation is based on how memorable – as opposed to how loud or how frequent – were the screams. That's the key reason you won't find listed below actresses featured in gory slasher films. After all, the screams – and just about everything else in such movies – are as meaningless as their plots.
You also won't find any screaming guys (i.e., Scream Kings) on the list below even though I've got absolutely nothing against guys who scream in horror, whether in movies or in life.
There are no Scream Kings on my list simply because the vast majority of movie heroes (and antiheroes) suffer from emotional constipation. They're too cowardly and/or uptight to demonstrate those qualities that help to make human beings human. Their loss – and really, ours as well, in case we're stupid enough to take those castrated psyches as something to be admired and/or emulated.
Women, on the other hand, have usually been allowed to let it all out. So here they are, my Top Ten Scream Queens.
10. Mary Philbin in 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925)
Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera is a silent film. That means top Universal star Mary Philbin's piercing scream after she unmasks The Phantom (Lon Chaney) was all in my head. But it worked – even though the film generally available after the advent of talking pictures was not the same one that had thrilled North American audiences back in 1925.
Here's a true horror story, one to keep in mind next time you hear the bullshit about Old Hollywood moguls being “businessmen who had a passion for movies.” In 1948, a difficult year for the major studios – what with fast-rising competition from television and the U.S. government forcing them to chop off their exhibition arm – the powers-that-be at Universal Pictures, the studio that to this day makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to have access to their (and Paramount's)* old movie library, ordered the destruction of the extant nitrate prints of all but a handful of their silent films.
Why? Because the films themselves – starring by then long-forgotten names such as Priscilla Dean, Marie Prevost, Frank Mayo, Laura La Plante, Reginald Denny, and The Phantom of the Opera's own Mary Philbin – had no financial value, but their nickel silver content did. Also, safety vaults for nitrate prints are costly.
In the last eight decades or so, available prints of The Phantom of the Opera have been either poor, choppy transfers of the 1925 film, or copies from a negative created for the George Eastman House in 1952, featuring elements from one of two reissues released at the dawn of the sound era. The story here gets a bit complicated, with disparate explanations for the different versions of the film.
Until recently, the most commonly available version of The Phantom of the Opera 1925 was apparently created from the print sent to international markets, shot by a camera placed next to the one filming the North American version. The now mostly lost reissue print – the one featuring dialogue sequences (except for Lon Chaney, at the time an MGM contract star) – included scenes and characters not found in the original domestic cut.
Besides Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney, who died of cancer in 1930 after making only one sound film (a remake of his own silent hit The Unholy Three), the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera also features popular silent era leading man Norman Kerry as Philbin's love interest, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny.
Kino Lorber released a special The Phantom of the Opera Blu-ray in Sept. 2015, featuring “the 1929 theatrical version” and “the original 1925 cut,” in addition to “rare, lengthy excerpts of the partially-lost 1930 sound re-issue version.”
* Universal owns the rights to most of the Paramount film library from the dawn of the talkie era to 1948.
9. Patricia Owens in 'The Fly' (1958)
Wouldn't you also scream your head off if you saw a fly named Andre – who happens to be your husband, no less – coming straight at you?
In Kurt Neumann's The Fly, David Hedison (later one of the stars of the long-running 1960s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) plays the unlucky Andre, a scientist who swaps heads with a buzzing fly.
Curiously, I find this 1958 B movie more interesting than David Cronenberg's darker, more complex 1986 remake starring Jeff Goldblum as the scientist and Geena Davis as his love interest.
8. Susan Backlinie in 'Jaws' (1975)
Few people know the name of the naked young woman who becomes shark breakfast at the beginning of Steven Spielberg's 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws. On the other hand, just about everyone is familiar with her moment of screen glory, which is far more memorable than the segments featuring nominal leads Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss.
Susan Backlinie didn't have much of a movie career – a mere seven appearances, as per the IMDb, including a bit in Spielberg's 1979 critical and box office flop 1941. Yet thanks to her protracted death scene in Jaws, Backlinie's place in film history is assured.
Note: Denise Cheshire played the tasty white shark meal in some of the swimming sequences.
7. Jane Wyman in 'Johnny Belinda' (1948)
Johnny Belinda isn't a silent movie, but Jane Wyman's screaming as she gets raped by Stephen McNally was all in my head. In this effective Jean Negulesco-directed drama, the Best Actress Academy Award winner plays a young, deaf-mute small-town woman who becomes the victim of the local psycho.
A surprising box office hit at the time of its release, Johnny Belinda consolidated Jane Wyman's stardom – after more than a decade in Hollywood, having risen from bit player in the mid-'30s (King of Burlesque, My Man Godfrey) to leading lady in the mid-'40s (The Lost Weekend; The Yearling, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination).
6. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom in 'The Haunting' (1963)
I first saw Robert Wise's sex-themed classic The Haunting on television, when I was a little kid. I had nightmares for weeks.
What am I saying? I've been traumatized for life. Every time I see a locked Gothic door I wonder if some powerful, evil force is waiting for me on the other side – like the one out to get terrified Julie Harris and roommates Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn in Wise's haunted house creepfest.
And to think that another sex-themed classic, Debbie Does Dallas, wouldn't have been acceptable for me to watch on television – or anywhere else, for that matter – because of its graphic intercourse scenes. Even so, I have no doubt that Dallas' Debbie and her sexually liberated pals would never have made such a strongly negative impact on my young and impressionable psyche.
I should add that Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), starring Deborah Kerr as a sexually repressed Christian governess who sees ghosts (and sex) everywhere she turns, didn't help matters any. Kerr isn't included on this list simply because her sex-starved governess is so uptight that her screaming, much like her libido, is wholly internalized.
5. Janet Leigh in 'Psycho' (1960)
I don't recall myself recoiling in horror while watching Janet Leigh's iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho – in my humble opinion, one of the most overrated movies ever made – but I do recall quite vividly one night long ago when I was showering at an acquaintance's place and imagined myself facing the same fate as Leigh's bank clerk. So I guess that sequence did have a lasting effect.
Janet Leigh, until then best known for fluff like Little Women and Fearless Fagan,† deservedly earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her Psycho performance. She lost to fellow good girl gone bad Shirley Jones in Richard Brooks' Elmer Gantry.
Also worth noting, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis' daughter Jamie Lee Curtis achieved Scream Queen status about two decades later thanks to a series of B slasher flicks:
- John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980), the latter also featuring Leigh in a supporting role.
- Paul Lynch's Prom Night (1980), with Leslie Nielsen.
- Roger Spottiswoode's Terror Train (1980), with Ben Johnson.
- Rick Rosenthal's Halloween II (1981), co-written by John Carpenter.
† Released in 1958, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil presented an unsuspected Janet Leigh; one quite unlike her peaches-and-cream heroine of the previous years.
4. Fay Wray in 'King Kong,' 'Doctor X' and 'Mystery of the Wax Museum'
To Fay Wray belongs the title of Hollywood's Scream Queen Emeritus chiefly thanks to RKO's giant ape with a healthy appetite for young, good-looking, curvaceous blondes. Wax figures and mad doctors also triggered Wray's acute stress response – in her particular case, scream and faint – in two Warner Bros. releases, Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum.
Although not as effective as Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper's 1933 blockbuster King Kong, Michael Curtiz's Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) should be better known. As usual, Fay Wray is thoroughly convincing as both screamer and fainter, which is pretty much all she does in these two early two-color horror movies co-starring the ever untrustworthy Lionel Atwill.
Indeed, screaming and fainting would seem to be pretty much all Fay Wray did throughout the '30s, in movies such as The Clairvoyant, The Vampire Bat, Black Moon, and Schoedsack and Irving Pichel's The Most Dangerous Game – in which bloodthirsty hunter Leslie Banks does exactly what so many bloodthirsty hunters the world over can only dream of doing: hunt “the most dangerous game,” i.e., other human beings.
In truth, however, Fay Wray was much more than a Scream Queen. To label her a “horror movie heroine” would be an injustice to her range as an actress during that time. For instance, Wray is excellent in Gregory La Cava's 1934 comedy The Affairs of Cellini and held her own opposite Miriam Hopkins – no easy task – in another 1934 release, William A. Seiter's The Richest Girl in the World.
3. Edwige Fenech in 'The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh' (1972)
Here's an ideal entry for any Day of the Dead or Halloween Movie Series: A mix of kinky sex, suspense thriller, and more kinky sex, Sergio Martino's giallo The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (a.k.a. Blade of the Ripper / The Next Victim!) makes most Alfred Hitchcock movies – including the revered Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window – feel as thrilling and “perverse” as a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
The scene in which the stunningly gorgeous Edwige Fenech is caught off guard after waking from a long slumber made me not only jump, but scream even louder than she did.
Also in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh cast: George Hilton and Alberto de Mendoza.
2. Barbara Stanwyck in 'Sorry, Wrong Number' (1948)
Every plot hole in this melodrama-cum-film noir directed by Anatole Litvak is forgiven as a result of Barbara Stanwyck's unsettling performance as Burt Lancaster's shrewish invalid wife who believes there's someone who wants to kill her.
Thanks to Stanwyck, one of the greatest film actresses ever, and her vocal prowess, the last few moments in Sorry Wrong Number are some of the most disturbing I've ever seen on film.
For her efforts, Barbara Stanwyck received her fourth and final Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Although Jane Wyman was excellent in Johnny Belinda, the 1948 Best Actress Oscar should have gone to the veteran Stanwyck.
For the record, Barbara Stanwyck's previous Oscar-nominated performances were for:
- King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937).
Winner: Luise Rainer in The Good Earth.
- Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941).
Winner: Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.
- Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944).
Winner: Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.
Stanwyck finally took home an Oscar statuette – an Honorary Award for her career – at the 1982 ceremony.
1. Lee Patrick in 'The Sisters' (1938)
Another Anatole Litvak-directed film, The Sisters is sheer – but highly watchable – melodrama, what with Bette Davis (instead of the originally announced Kay Francis) and Errol Flynn meeting and parting ways, not to mention all the emotional travails faced by Davis' siblings Anita Louise (instead of Miriam Hopkins) and Jane Bryan.
But there's one sequence in the film, when the ground starts shaking in San Francisco (it's 1906), that is unforgettable – and not just because of the remarkable special effects.
Neighbor Lee Patrick, best known for her wisecracking assistant to Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, comes running into Bette Davis' crumbling apartment. While clinging on to Davis, Patrick lets out a blood-curdling scream the likes of which I've never heard on film – and that I hope I'll never hear in life.
The lonely earthquake
In Mother Goddam, Bette Davis biographer Whitney Stine wrote that Lee Patrick, as reported in a 1972 article in the Los Angeles Times' West magazine, “appeared surprised that Davis had called her autobiography The Lonely Life, but went on with the opinion that those featured players who worked with Davis during those early years thought that she never knew they existed.”
According to Stine, Patrick added that “although she appeared in the earthquake sequence in The Sisters with her, Davis gave the impression in her book that she had appeared in the scene by herself.”
Besides Stine's narrative, Mother Goddam is peppered with comments by Bette Davis herself. This is what Davis had to say about Patrick's remark:
Not until I read this book of Mr. Stine's did I ever know of Lee Patrick's feelings about me. Dear Lee: You and I worked together many times. I always felt you were one of our very best actresses and therefore felt very fortunate when you were in a film of mine. Quite the contrary, the record shows how very many times I fought for featured players not only to be cast with me because they were good actors but stood up for them when difficulties arose during shooting. If I failed to mention your name in connection with the earthquake sequence in my book The Lonely Life, it was an unintentional oversight. I offer my apology. You certainly suffered through it with me!
Considering that Lee Patrick steals the San Francisco earthquake scene from Bette Davis – in fact, Patrick nearly steals the scene from the earthquake itself – it is understandable that while reading Davis' autobiography she would have been less than pleased at finding herself erased from The Sisters' sensational climax.
Lee Patrick and Bette Davis movies
For the record, Lee Patrick and Bette Davis didn't exactly work “many times together.” Besides The Sisters, they were seen in two 1942 Warner Bros. releases:
- John Huston's In This Our Life. With Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Dennis Morgan, Charles Coburn, Billie Burke, and Hattie McDaniel.
- Irving Rapper's Now Voyager. With Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, and Bonita Granville.
During the course of her acting career, Lee Patrick was seen in about 70 films, 40 television shows, and two dozen plays (Blessed Event, Stage Door). Her later film credits include John Cromwell's prison drama Caged (1950), Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thriller Vertigo (1958), and, her final film, David Giler's The Black Bird (1975), a comic reboot of The Maltese Falcon.
Lee Patrick died in the Southern California resort town of Laguna Beach on Nov. 26, 1982, four days after her 81st birthday.
Universal's systematic destruction of its silent films is mentioned in Michael Binder's A Light Affliction: a History of Film Preservation and Restoration.
Scream Queen Edwige Fenech The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh / Blade of the Ripper image: Devon Film.
Scream Queen Fay Wray King Kong scream: RKO Pictures.
Scream Queen Barbara Steele Black Sunday / The Mask of Satan / Mask of the Demon image: Galatea–Jolly Film.
Scream Queen Barbara Stanwyck Sorry, Wrong Number image: Paramount Pictures, via the Room with No View blog.
Scream Queen Patricia Owens The Fly image: 20th Century Fox, via the Girls Meets Freak blog.
Scream Queen Lee Patrick and Bette Davis in The Sisters San Francisco earthquake sequence: Warner Bros.
Scream Queen Janet Leigh Psycho scream image: Paramount Pictures, via Giphy.
Silent era Scream Queen Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney The Phantom of the Opera unmasking sequence: Universal Pictures.
Scream Queens Julie Harris and Claire Bloom The Haunting image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Stephen McNally and silent Scream Queen Jane Wyman Johnny Belinda image: Warner Bros.
Jaws first victim and unheralded Scream Queen Susan Backlinie image: Universal Pictures.
Scream Queen Lee Patrick image via waytofamous.com.