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?
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.”
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.”
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.