Beautifully-formed FAY WRAY, delightfully bra-less in the days just prior to Hollywood's Production Code crackdown, cowers next to
hero Bruce Cabot as the mighty Kong closes in on them in the 1933 film classic, 'King Kong.'
Fay Wray, star of the 1933 movie monster classic "King Kong," died Aug. 8 at age 96. We asked one of Canada's most widely respected film authorities, James Bawden of the Toronto Star's Starweek Magazine, who knew Miss Wray well from several in-person private interviews, to share his memories of her with us. This is his column, written expressly for TheColumnists.com.
BY JAMES BAWDEN
By Special Arrangement with TheColumnists.com
I watched as the gorgeous Beverly Hills housewife, impeccable in a tweedy Chanel suit, sauntered through the lobby of the Century Plaza hotel. People stopped to stare. Was it really her? No, no, it couldn't be!
But it was: King Kong's Fay Wray. The date was June 10, 1974, and the 67-year-old legend, looking scarcely 40, sat down for lunch and sighed. Everybody including the waiter seemed to know her or at least remember that one movie made over 40 years earlier. Being a big fan and a fellow Canadian, I'd handwritten an invitation--I was in town for the annual convention of TV critics at the Century Plaza hotel. And I'd learned that Miss Wray lived almost across the street in the fanciest condominium in
town. She accepted my invitation by phone and two days later appeared.
"That King Kong stuff--I used to resent it," she laughed. "But now I'm rather proud. Few actresses have such a big hit among their credits. I receive hundreds of letters a year, mostly from young, first-time viewers of the film. They instantly get what the movie is really about: the impossibility of love and the dangers of being trapped in modern civilization. One six-year-old wrote me in crayon recently, 'I've been waiting half my life to meet you!"'
She said French cinema magazines had devoted whole issues to the meaning of the movie. "It affects many people spiritually. He could have destroyed anybody, anything. Why didn't he squish me to death like an annoying gnat? Instead he died for someone he instinctively loved. He's reaching for me as he's shot, a great force of nature cut down by modern times. You see this movie has become timeless."
KONG, the 50-foot tall gorilla,
was actually a small, doll-like
figure whose movements were
animated by a stop-frame
Miss Wray was born in 1907 in the province of Alberta, Canada, on her father's ranch, Wrayland. The family moved to Salt Lake City when she was a girl "because my mother's health would not tolerate another Albertan winter. But I still consider myself Canadian. I went back to the centenary of the town, Cardston, in 1958 and they gave me the gigantic boulder outside my father's property with 'Wrayland' carved on it. It's now outside my son's home in L.A."
Miss Wray's parents separated when she was 12. "My mother, a university-educated woman, never adjusted to that life. I wrote a play called 'Meadowlark' about my years aged 8 to 12 and how formative they were for me." (The play was performed in stock in 1987.)
From Salt Lake City, mother and daughter moved to Hollywood and in 1923 Fay Wray broke into movies in two reel comedies for Hal Roach. "I was all of 16. We needed the $5 a day so I worked as much as I could. I'd be picked up by Janet Gaynor, another unknown girl trying to make it, and she'd drive to the studio in a borrowed Model T. (Gaynor went on to win the first Hollywood Oscar for the year 1927-28.) A few months later Hal gave me a raise to $60 a week and then I went into two reel westerns."
Paramount finally offered a full starlet contract in 1927. "I tested with another unknown, Gary Cooper, and the studio was determined to build us into screen lovers. But we just couldn't do it. I was all of 20 and Gary was afraid of women. We'd do a love scene and then he'd fall asleep. So did the audience!"
Paramount was about to release her when film great Erich Von Stroheim selected her as the lead in "The Wedding March."
Fay Wray in her starring role
in von Stroheim's silent
'The Wedding March'
"My best picture. I was Mitzi, the crippled Viennese harpist. A truly great role. And
Erich was kindness itself. Forget that mad Prussian stuff. Every detail had to be right before we started filming. But I was 21 and not interested in the romance he also was offering."
Miss Wray well remembered the day in 1929 when all the Paramount stars were lined up to take a talkie test. "Every 15 minutes those huge soundstage doors would clang open and the technician would bawl 'Clara Bow can talk!' Or 'Buddy Rogers can talk!' When Florence Vidor left in tears nothing was said --she was one of sound's early victims.
"Paramount wanted to fire all its stars and begin again with cheap Broadway talent. They fired Warner Baxter and he went to Fox and won an Oscar. They fired Bebe Daniels and she went to RKO and into big musicals. My contract was up in 1931 and I was let go as too expensive. I was 24 and considered washed up."
Then I was invited to RKO to the office of Merian Cooper, a big time producer I'd worked with at Paramount in 1929 on the film 'The Four Feathers.' And he told me he wanted me for a new adventure epic which would star the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood history. That was in May, 1932, the depths of the Depression.
"I got excited and jumped and said 'Clark Gable is coming over to RKO?' He shook his head and instead showed me a tiny ape, no more than 18 inches tall and Mr. Cooper said this was the mighty Kong and he was going to change movie history. I laughed nervously because I didn't know what I'd gotten myself in for. I wanted to cuddle the doll, he was so cute. Did you know Mr. Cooper first thought about lizards and how two prehistoric lizards got to the Bronx zoo but couldn't take civilization and died? Kong as a lizard? Blah!"
Fay Wray, without a blond wig,
flees with Joel McCrea as
big game hunter Leslie Bank
stalks them with his hounds
and his bow and arrows in
'The Most Dangerous Game,'
filmed on the 'Kong' sets.
McCrea was first choice for
Wray's leading man in 'Kong,'
but wanted too much money
and the part went to Bruce Cabot.
Miss Wray was promised a minimum of 10 weeks work at $1,000 a week "and filming took 10 months to complete. The first choice for the girl, Jean Harlow, turned the studio down flat. But the girl, Ann Darrow, had to be a blonde, so I wore a wig. To keep me busy RKO offered another film, 'The Most Dangerous Game,' which was filmed in the Skull Island jungle when Kong wasn't shooting. Joel McCrea was the leading man and he was originally scheduled for 'Kong' Then his agent asked for more money and they let him go and Bruce Cabot came in."
Miss Wray's memories of "King Kong" include her jumping into the eight-foot furry paw with the retractable fingers and hanging on for dear life as the paw was lifted 40 feet in the air to be placed in front of a transparency, so the Kong figure could be blown up to appropriate height. "The paw was the only part of Kong that was to size and I'm often seen clinging on for dear life. It looks like I'm struggling to get free. My first scene up there I'm being menaced by a tyrannosaurus via a transparent screen. It took 22 hours to get it right and I almost fainted from the heat. Did you know little Kong had a wooden stand-in? He was made of latex as were all the prehistoric animals and they'd start to melt if left too long under the heat of the lights."
She remembered one day when she screamed for a solid 10 hours and had no voice left. "My job was to believe. I had to be scared and I was. I was petrified of falling and breaking my neck. And after hours up there I did become distraught. I stopped acting and became that scared girl."
Miss Wray met special effects wizard Willis O'Brien, who was separetely shooting via stop-action all the movements of Kong and the other creatures. "He showed me his matte shots, the glass scenes, the miniature jungles. But he was not a man for small talk. And neither was Edgar Wallace, who wrote the thing--he suddenly died from pneumonia."
Miss Wray attended the klieg lighted premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, watching the whole film for the first time and thinking "Gee, it's not Shakespeare. There was a lot of screaming. I got sick of that. But the saga of Kong, it grabbed me. The audience roar at the end told us we'd made a big hit and the movie saved RKO, which was going under. The big bosses plopped $680,000 on it, more than any other Radio picture. It made $90,000 in its first three days at Radio City Music Hall."
Fay Wray, blouse still intact, awaits who knows what at the paws of the immense 'King Kong.' Yes, she screamed a lot. Wouldn't you?
Miss Wray remembered talking to fellow players Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot at a premiere party about what this gigantic hit would do for their careers
"It typecast me," she said. "I had such hopes for better parts."
Instead she became the Screaming Queen of movies, pursued by a mad scientist in "Doctor X," stalked by a vampire in "The Vampire Bat," threatened with a bath of molten wax for "The Mystery Of The Wax Museum" and held prisoner in a diving bell in "Below The Sea."
The same year she made "Kong," Miss Wray also appeared in 10 other movies, including "Shanghai Madness" with Spencer Tracy and "The Bowery" with George Raft and Wallace Beery--"the first movie made by a new studio, Twentieth Century, which merged with Fox in 1936. The one with Spence was made on the old Fox lot, exactly where I have my apartment these days. He was the best actor I ever met, but a hopeless alcoholic. I remember driving around one night looking into every bar in town because he'd disappeared on a bender."
In 1934 she was called by MGM on one day's notice when a reshoot was ordered on another Wally Beery picture, "Viva Villa."
"We were told a drunken Lee Tracy had disgraced the company on location in Mexico when he staggered onto a balcony and tinkled on the soldiers below. The cast and crew were deported and MGM fired Lee and director Howard Hawks. I was called in because I looked vaguely Mexican and director Jack Conway had to stitch together new scenes to match up with what was already shot. Stuart Erwin replaced Lee and I replaced Mona Maris. The picture turned out to be a huge hit. Even in
Not long after that, her first marriage--to screenwriter John Monk Saunders ("Wings," the first Oscar-winning movie)--began to fail and she decided to escape to England to make pictures.
"That was a big mistake. Nobody saw "The Clairvoyant" (1935) with Claude Rains or "When Knights Were Bold" with Jack Hulbert. The BBC invited me to drop in for an interview and then dared me to scream. I did it right on pitch and the microphone blew up and they were off the air for minutes."
She blushed when it was suggested writers fell for her. Her first husband, screenwriter John Monk Saunders, hanged himself in 1940. Affairs with playwright Clifford Odets and novelist Sinclair Lewis (with whom she wrote a play) followed. But actor Cary Grant also proposed as did aviator/filmmaker Howard Hughes. A second, happy marriage to screenwriter Robert Riskin ("Mr. Deeds Goes To Town") ended tragically when he suffered a brain aneurysm and died in 1955.
"The first time I met Bob was to test for "Lost Horizon" for the part that Margo got. I liked to remind him of that."
But after Riskin's lingering illness, "Funds ran out. I needed a job and phoned Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth and he put me in "Treasure of The Golden Condor" (1953). Then I was Jane Powell's mom ("Small Town Girl"), Leslie Nielsen's mom ("Tammy and The Bachelor"), Natalie Wood's mom (TV's "Pride Of The Family"). Joan Crawford hired me for "Queen Bee" because she liked to work with older actresses. She claimed they made her look younger by comparison! Then came Barbara Stanwyck, who killed my husband, poor Raymond Burr, in "Crime of Passion" (1957).
"The very last two movies I made, 'Dragstrip Riot' and'Rock Pretty Baby'? Never saw them. They were just too awful."
Miss Wray continued to act on TV until 1965 "when I just gave up and began writing full time." She only went back once in 1980, cast as Henry Fonda's landlady in the TV movie "Gideon's Trumpet," as a favor for daughter Victoria Riskin, who was married to the film's producer, David Rintels, and is now a producer herself. Miss Wray's other children are daughter Susan, now an actress in New York, and son Bobby, who runs a guitar shop in Santa Monica.
After our 1974 lunch I kept in touch with Fay Wray by phone, particularly in 1976 when the new and terrible remake of "King Kong" (with future double Oscar-winner Jessica Lange in the Wray role) was being released. Miss Wray indignantly refused offers to make a cameo and thought the new version "just terrible."
When we lunched again in the same hotel, it was 1990. She was all of 83, but without any visible wrinkles and with only a few grey specks in her hair. "I never exercise but here is what's left of me," she giggled.
The beautiful Fay Wray was
in great demand in the 1930s
as a leading lady. And she could
She was back in the limelight to promote her autobiography "On The Other Hand" and was delighted to be offered the foyer of the Empire State building as the launch site.
"Flying into New York City, I'm always thrilled to see my building. You see, I feel as if it partly belongs to me. A good friend of mine died up there long, long ago."
She'd surely be proud the lights of the Empire State building were ordered dimmed for 15 minutes the night after her death was announced. As darkness engulfed the great edifice a crowd of passers by stopped to stare and one could almost hear Carl Denham declaiming "T'was beauty killed the Beast!"
©2004 by James Bawden. The photos are from various Internet sources.
JAMES BAWDEN is a television and movie specialist for STARWEEK Magazine, a Sunday supplement to the Toronto Star. He has written widely about classic films and was a regular contributor to Films in Review magazine. He has written special pieces for TheColumnists.com since 2000.
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