by Susan King
Fay Wray is the ultimate scream queen. Just check out the compilation post on YouTube.com of her indelible screaming scenes in the 1933 masterpiece “King Kong.” The sound is terrifying; you feel her character Ann Darrow’s fear, panic and desperation.
The scream, Wray told me in a 2003 L.A. Times interview, “It just came because it was honest. That’s all. It was needed at the moment.”
Even nine decades after its release, “King Kong” is still a thrill ride. And a tragic love story. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and featuring the then-cutting-edge stop-motion special effects of Willis O’Brien, the blockbuster also stars Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot.
“I think it’s quite fascinating that ‘King Kong” has an energy all of its own,” noted Wray, who died in 2004 at the age of 96. “He was fond of my character. He loved me. I never had anything against King Kong. It was ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”
Though the diminutive actress was a brunet, Wray decided that struggling actress Ann Darrow should have platinum blonde hair, like bombshell Jean Harlow
“I felt that was more appropriate for the role,” she said.” So, I went to Max Factor on Highland Avenue to be sure they made me a nice wig. It was right for the part, wasn’t it.”
She was still amazed at the continuing popularity of the film. “People do love it and children love it,” Wray said in a 2001 L.A. Times interview. “It appeals to a lot of people and has a different meaning to different people.”
After she made “King Kong” and the horror-thrillers 1932’s “Dr. X” and “The Most Dangerous Games” and 1933’s “Mystery of the Wax Museum” and “The Vampire Bat,’ Wray left Hollywood for a while, though, “Kong” followed her to England.
“I felt I would never get out of doing these sorts of horror pictures,” said Wray. “So, I went on a boat to England. When I got off the boat, there was a nice person who met me and said, ‘Would you come up to our offices and scream for us.”
Wray was 26 at the time of “Kong” and was under contract to Paramount, which loaned her out to several studios. Though actors would often balk and go on suspension if they didn’t like the projects their studios told them to do, Wray never complained. She had grown up in poverty to poor Mormon family in Salt Lake City and was just 14 when she travelled to Hollywood to seek her fame and fortune. When she made “King Kong,” Wray was the family’s breadwinner.
Wray found working with director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) on deliciously scary two-strip Technicolor classics “Dr. X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” was difficult. Her daughter Victoria Riskin, author of the acclaimed “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir,” told me in a TCM interview that her mother found Curtiz an “unyielding character with an obsessive work ethic. From her point of view, as a lovely young woman, he was almost like a machine-detached, impersonal and not much fun. She was used to the kind of warmth and playfulness that can happen around the set. Certainly, that happened with Merian C. Cooper on ‘King Kong.’ But there was none of that with Michael Curtiz.”
Wray even had a difficult time screaming in a scene in which she hits the mask of the deformed wax sculptor (Lionel Atwill). Wray had been kept in the dark about Atwill’s gruesome make-up. Though she was supposed to scream when she first sees his grotesque face, Wrap gasped. Curtiz insisted they do another take. “They had another mask — just one more,” noted Riskin. “He said you have to really hit him and scream, so she did it.”
Despite her issues with Curtiz, Wray appreciated the Oscar-winning filmmaker. “She admired the result,” said Riskin.
Wray was so much more than a scream queen. A veteran of 90 films, she declared that Erich Von Stroheim was the director she most admired working with — Wray played his love interest in the 1928 silent “The Wedding March.”
“I respected everything that he did,” said Wray. “I had the good fortune to work with a lot of talented and interesting people.”
Wray was also a terrific comedic performer in such romps as Gregory La Cava’s 1934 farce “The Affairs of Cellini,” which also starred Constance Bennett, Frank Morgan — who earned a best actor Oscar nomination — and Fredric March.
“It’s a pretty good film,” she told me in 2001. “I do have fond memories of it. I think it was shown at Grauman’s Chinese. It had a certain amount of charm, even though it was a little wacky.“
Like the fact that her character’s mother (Jessie Ralph) sports as a beard and mustache. "How did I get to be attractive with a mother like that,” Wray said, laughing.
Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.