Remembering Fay Wray, our very first Scream Queen

Seven Days of Scream Queens: The iconic actress has long been conflicted over her status as Hollywood’s first scream queen, but her impact is undeniable.

About 43 minutes into the 1933 pre-Code horror classic “King Kong,” aspiring actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) finds herself on a remote island struggling to free herself from the two stone pillars she’s held to tied as an offering to the giant monkey. cult of the inhabitants. The trees rustle, then we see it. Kong. The camera quickly pans to Wray, who instantly freezes, holding his breath as if his life depended on it. The camera zooms in on the monkey’s face, his eyes widening, then suddenly back to Wray, who lets out the most iconic scream in movie history.

And thus, the Queen of Scream was born.

“I would have become Hollywood’s scream queen without even realizing it,” Wray told journalist James Bawden in a 1989 interview. After the film was completed, Wray recorded what she called a ” Aria of Agonies” – screams and moans for editors to use as they see fit. Upon seeing the final product at the film’s premiere, Wray felt it was a bit too much.

Still, a Hollywood Reporter review said, “Fay Wray is brilliant in ‘King Kong’.” For much of her career, Wray remained bewildered by the film’s impact. Speaking with Bawden, Wray recalled that she worked on “King Kong” for ten weeks – but that ten weeks was spread over ten months. During this time, she also directed four other horror films. It was from this coincidence that she was dubbed cinema’s first “scream queen”, a title Wray only reluctantly accepted.

Born in Canada, but mostly raised in the United States, the Hollywood High School graduate began her career in Hollywood during the silent era with small roles in Hal Roach shorts. In 1926, she was selected as one of 13 WAMPAS Baby Stars by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (the list of most promising rising starlets that year also included Janet Gaynor, Dolores del Rio, Mary Astor and Joan Crawford). Indeed, fame was about to befall him.

KING KONG, Fay Wray, 1933

“King Kong”

Courtesy of Everett Collection

Searching for a new face, Erich von Stroheim cast 18-year-old Wray for the lead role in his romantic epic ‘The Wedding March’ because he believed she could portray the innocence and sensuality that the role required. Wray would long consider this his best performance.

She shot a dozen films at Paramount during the transition from silent to talkies, before signing the contract at RKO that would change her life forever. As Wray recounts in his autobiography “On the Other Hand”, in 1932 producer-director Merian C. Cooper called her into his office to discuss a film he was in pre-production on. He told her she would have “the tallest, darkest man in Hollywood.” Wray, who had just finished a play with Cary Grant on Broadway, had hoped it would be his film debut. Alas, Cooper continued, “He won’t be real,” explaining to the disappointed actress her vision for the creature who would later be called Kong.

“King Kong” co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack used the jungle settings to simultaneously shoot an adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” also starring Wray and Robert Armstrong. According to the American Film Institute, Schoedsack shot one film during the day and the other at night. Just like in “King Kong”, in “The Most Dangerous Game”, Wray finds herself in great distress, this time instead of being an offering bride for an oversized ape, in this horror movie she and his co-stars are hunted like prey by the madman Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Along with a palpable chemistry with co-star Joel McCrea, the role of stranded socialite Eve Trowbridge also gave her the opportunity to show off her facial acting skills. While plotting their escape, she is often tasked with communicating only through looks.

Wray recalled in his autobiography that word must have spread about the creepy nature of both films, as many of the projects he was offered that year were also in the horror realm. On loan from Warner Bros., she directed two decidedly weird and wonderfully macabre horror films for Michael Curtiz, a director she described as “a one-person machine.” The films – “Doctor X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” – are both examples of Two-tone Technicolor, which, when viewed with modern eyes, adds an extra weirdness. In both films, Wray brings courage to his fashionable personas, while his wide-eyed expressions during moments of shock bridge the acting techniques of the silent era and the tropes that have been associated with the kind of horror.

KING KONG, Fay Wray, 1933

“King Kong”

Courtesy of Everett Collection

Hoping to pull off the success of their pairing in both movies, poverty-stricken studio Majestic Pictures Inc. hired Wray and his co-star Lionel Atwill, for a quick Dracula impersonation titled “The Vampire Bat.” The studio used abandoned sets from two James Whale productions (“Frankenstein” and “The Old Dark House”) to hide its tiny budget. With a acting performance from Melvyn Douglas (who would later win two Oscars) and Wray’s lively humor and wit, the result is a beautiful, if slightly grating, B-creature.

Screenwriter John Monk Saunders, her husband at the time, told Wray she would lose double the money offered if she turned down a role. Advice, it seems, she took to heart in those early years. In 1933 alone, Wray starred in eleven films in nearly every genre, a feat that earned her the nickname “Hollywood’s hardest-working actress.” She continued to work steadily for the next few decades, starring in a handful of films each year. Her marriage and creative collaboration with her second husband, Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin, was the subject of a memoir by their daughter Victoria titled “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir.”

However, despite his many creative pursuits, the shadow of “King Kong” regularly hung over his legacy. From mentions in songs like “Science Fiction/Double Feature” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to allusions in several Peanuts comics, Wray’s cultural impact remains closely tied to Kong.

For the 60th anniversary of the original film in 2003, Wray visited the town where she was born, Cardston, Alberta, where a fountain in the form as the silhouettes of Wray and his most famous co-star were erected. In 2006, she was honored posthumously a canadian stamp featuring the iconic Empire State Building scene from the film.

While the current “King Kong” franchise seems to have abandoned any connection to Wray’s iconic performance – or horror in general – Wray’s impact was still felt in the 2005 remake. When star Naomi Watts and the director Peter Jackson met Wray before shooting their version of the film, Wray cheekily tells Watts, “You are not Ann Darrow. I am Ann Darrow. Jackson wanted Wray to make an appearance in the film, but she died just a month before filming began. At the end of the credits, Jackson dedicates his film to “the incomparable Fay Wray”.

As a testament to her acting skills, she preferred her work in “The Wedding March,” but she told Bawden she felt lucky because “many of my contemporaries never had a single great movie. And I have two.’ While promoting her autobiography in 1989, another interviewer asked her if she liked being better known as Kong’s girlfriend, to which Wray replied“I can’t change it, can I? So what should I do but accept it graciously and happily?”

It was by understanding exactly how much “King Kong” meant to so many people over the years that Wray finally found peace with his lasting legacy.

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