In the Shadow of Beasts

I've always been a sucker for a woman in a beret. This time it's Fay Wray in a 1930s pose.

I’ve always been a sucker for a woman in a beret. This time it’s Fay Wray in a 1930s pose.

The always-interesting Marina Gray pointed me to the link to a 1998 article that appeared in Scarlet Street magazine. The article detailed an encounter by filmmaker and writer Rick McKay with Hollywood leading lady Fay Wray in New York City in 1997. I was bowled over by the nature of the piece, which included an extensive interview with Wray, who was almost 90 at the time and very much a real-life Norma Desmond in manner, as actresses can be.

You know how sometimes you read about a person now gone and get the feeling you would love to have met him or her? Well that’s the feeling that hit me reading about the evening spent by the author with Fay Wray. Here was a woman who started out in silents and remained so full of life that James Cameron had recently, as of the time the article was written, offered Wray the role of “Old Rose” in his epic in the making, Titanic. Wray had declined the offer because one of the plays she had authored was opening in New England and she didn’t want to miss it. Wray’s contemporary, Gloria Stuart, then landed the role and earned an Oscar she had coveted for 70 years.

Rick McKay asked all the right questions during his evening with Fay Wray, a date that included a Broadway show and dinner and drinks. Man: dinner with Fay Wray. Does it get better than that?

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Fay in one of her best pictures.

In the lengthy interview, McKay returned time and again to Kong, Kong, and more Kong. The making of the film, reaction to the film, and Wray’s opinion of the film. After a while it became apparent that Fay Wray was a brilliant person who was (naturally enough) sick to death of King Kong but too gracious to say it in so many words. She was an early—perhaps the first—casualty of that one career-crippling iconic Hollywood role. A chosen few know what it’s like; Basil Rathbone with Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Nimoy with Mr. Spock, and so on. But mixed in with Kong Q&A, Fay offered the kind of insight into Old Hollywood that can only be learned on the inside.

Her first big picture was Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, and she describes a sexual Svengali/Trilby sort of vibe between them. She starred in a number of pictures in the early era of sound, including three with Gary Cooper. She also made an early masterpiece with horror undertones, Most Dangerous Game, and two early Technicolor features at Warner Bros., The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Doctor X., both directed by the Hungarian maestro, Michael Curtiz. Like most others who toiled under the Curtiz whip, Wray’s memories of the experience were not fond: “I didn’t appreciate him at all as a director. I thought he was more like a part of the camera. He didn’t have any warmth whatsoever.”

Of course it didn’t help that conditions were brutal on Warner soundstages. Wray provides thought-provoking testimony regarding the experience of working in early Technicolor on sets that had to bathed in light—drenched in light—to suit the Technicolor cameras. Today we’re used to mega-chip HD cameras and cool LED lighting, but in 1932 the lights were incandescents that give off 10 percent of their energy as light and 90 percent as heat, which was “Awful! Awful! … They left the lights on, because a lot of scenes were so sustained that you needed quite a bit of time. But, it was an unhealthy kind of feeling that we all had to go through … it was just a miserable experience.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Toiling under hot lights and showing some leg in The Mystery of the Wax Museum with co-star Glenda Farrell.

Both Wax Museum and Doctor X and a third scream feature, The Vampire Bat, paired Way with one of Hollywood’s more unusual actors, Lionel Atwill, whom she described as “a profile” and explained that “He knew just how to position his head to get the right angles! He was very conscious of his contour.”

Here was a thoughtful, serious young actress now in her mid-20s making what she considered mindless horror pictures for brutes like Curtiz. And then came Kong. She remembered working in the giant mechanical Kong hand, which was manually manipulated by stage hands, and her fear wasn’t being crushed by the hand of Kong but rather falling out of it because the grip was loose at best. Of the origin of her Kong screams: “I went into the sound room and made an aria of horror sounds.” They were screams directed by … Fay Wray.

Wray discussed the decline of her career and relationships with a succession of talented, high-profile screenwriters, first John Monk Saunders, then Clifford Odets and finally Carole Lombard’s ex-boyfriend, Robert Riskin. Her marriage to Riskin endured through his severe stroke and subsequent death in 1955. During his illness she went back to work in television and movies to pay the medical bills, most of the roles forgettable or downright embarrassing. Her biggest pictures of the time were The Cobweb with Widmark and Bacall and Queen Bee with Joan Crawford. And what a terrific take Wray had on the star: “Joan was not a happy person and she liked showing that. She worked on her fan mail all day long. I just didn’t understand that, but she did. She washed her hands a lot. She washed her arms all the way up past her elbows … She was so worried about herself, I felt. She was a good soul, a good soul. She wanted to be nice to everybody and kind, certainly kind to her fans. She thought about them a lot.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Wray in a straight role with Gary Cooper in 1933. Coop was stamping out pictures at this time and made three with Fay; two with Carole Lombard.

Like so many actors of her day that disdained the kind of pictures they were in—for example, Olivia de Havilland would not condescend to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood for 20 years after its release—Fay never went to see completed versions of Mystery of the Wax Museum or Doctor X, pictures that are today considered horror classics. She was a year older than Carole Lombard and started in pictures about the same time Lombard did, around 1925, and both made their move in Paramount Pictures in the early 1930s. Both were good-looking women with earthy sexuality, but Wray had none of the Screwball Queen’s savvy for crafting a career, and if it weren’t for the horror pictures, Fay Wray’s name would barely be remembered at all. Instead, she remains a Hollywood icon.

Later in life she became a writer, and I want to read her books and drink in more wisdom like this: “I love films, I love the camera—I love the thought that when you’re in front of the camera, whatever you do can go around the world. Isn’t that a marvelous feeling to have? That’s a beautiful feeling.”

Rick McKay’s full article can be accessed here.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Putting it all in perspective: one small woman and the big ape who immortalized her.



  1. A few years ago I was speaking to a contractor at my company who told me of his having recently been to the top of the Empire State Building. And who did he spot there at the same time, he asked me. “You know, that old time movie star, Fay Wray.”

    I had read about Wray making some kind of promotional visit to the top of that building and, of course, discussing the mighty Kong with the media, but hadn’t expected to bump into someone who had actually seen her on that occasion. Just how many people can say they saw Fay Wray at the actual building with which she remains most identified?

    While King Kong is, of course, THE Fay Wray movie as far as film legend is concerned, the lady got in a lot of screaming else where on screen, as well, through the early talkie years. She had further larynx testing encounters with, as you pointed out, Robert, Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff, Lionel Atwill (on least three hair raising occasions) in addition to Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa. (Actually, from what I’ve read about Beery, any encounter with that actor, either on or off screen, had the possibility of being a stressful experience. Ask Ted Healy, at least, according to urban legend).

    It seems to me that by 1935 or so, the majority of Wray films of any renown in her career were behind her. But it has been enough to keep her name from being forgotten with film buffs, and, thanks to her most famous film, the general public, to a degree. There was an appealing innocent sexuality about Miss Wray that made more than a few adolescent males’ pulses beat quite rapidly, my own included.

    Quite frankly, when it came to the fair sex, I always gave King Long credit for having exceptionally good taste.

  2. I met Fay Wray’s neice!

    We were in Waterton, BC in 2005, and our friendly (and VERY good-looking) waitress asked us where we were from.
    “Pittsburgh. Do you live here in Waterton?”
    “No, I’m live in a town you’ve never heard of: Cardston.”
    I had done my weird travel destination homework, and said: “Cardston! Home of the Fay Wray Fountain!” (
    She said: “Fay Wray is my aunt! She would come to visit us at the ranch when I was little!”

  3. Well now, that’s a nice shout out. Thank you. I really like Fay Wray. I like that she wasn’t drop dead gorgeous but earthy, as you say, and so lovely in her own way. It’s unfortunate that she ended up on the treadmill of so-so films (some which today are classics) but I admire that she made the most of it and was happy to be working. And how terrific that she managed to carve out a personal life that mattered very much to her and then lived to be a grand dame who knew where the bodies were buried. Her interview with McKay is a treasure and I’m glad you highlighted it.

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