Fay 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. 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 1930s.
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 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.
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 1920s, 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 in August 2004.
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.
Fay Wray quote: The Independent.
Fay Wray King Kong photo: RKO publicity shot.