So, who is really the greatest Screen Queen of all time? Is it Barbara Steele, who starred in many classic horror movies of the sixties? Or could it be Elsa Lanchester, who portrayed the ultimate female fantastic creation in Bride of Frankenstein? How about gals like Brinke Stevens, Julie Strain or Linnea Quigley who can claim to have shot many (and many) horror projects in their busiest years? Well, all these women are worthy names to toss around, but for many the individual to remember for real Queen status remains a Canadian actress from Alberta…
On September 15, 1907, was born Vina Fay Wray, in Cardston, Alberta, Canada. Her family moved out of their ranch in 1910 to the United States, staying around Mormon communities. Fay began to participate in school plays, becoming fascinated by the world of motion pictures. She lost a sibling during the influenza epidemic of 1918. And her parents eventually divorced.
After moving to Los Angeles, young Fay would soon after make her movie debut by being cast as an extra, soon to be seen in Hal Roach comedy shorts and B westerns, this around 1925. The pay was $75 per week. In 1926, she was one of thirteen lucky actresses chosen to most likely enjoy a profitable future in the industry, alongside Joan Crawford, Dolores del Rio and Mary Astor. This resulted in a contract with Paramount.
Still, in 1928, she was permitted to go back to Universal Studios to become the leading lady in eccentric Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, a big-budget project that became a flop, due to new interest in talking pictures. Nevertheless, it put Fay on the map and she surely enjoyed escaping von Stroheim’s proposed romantic liaison…!
Soon after, she began working with many of Hollywood’s main male stars, such as Gary Cooper, William Powell or Ronald Colman. The Four Feathers, Thunderbolt and Dirigible still remain enjoyable viewings. It was in 1932 that the Scream Queen seed began to grow, as Fay became involved in her first horror film, Doctor X, with Lionel Atwill. For the first time for such a project, the Fay Wray scream would be heard in a theatre! Fay soon after worked on The Most Dangerous Game, a movie shot by the team that was producing at about the same time King Kong, using the same jungle sets. Running around in wet clothes was to be Fay’s major physical activity for many days.
Having just dyed her hair blonde, Fay Wray already joined the ranks of immortal performances for her work in King Kong, a role that had been refused by Jean Harlow. Oddly, she didn’t produce herself her famous screams: these actually came out of fellow actress Julie Haydon’s throat. It’s interesting to note that as early as 1933, censors were at work to preserve our moral integrity, as they cut the scene where Fay’s clothing is slowly peeled away by an overexcited Kong. This segment was actually restored in 1971!
The tremendous success of King Kong would immortalize this project as a movie classic and one of the 100 best American movies. The naive charm of its special effects remain potent even today. And Fay Wray’s timeless beauty is still unforgettable. The movie actually grossed $90,000 on its opening weekend, a record for the time. This resulted in RKO Studios being saved from complete bankruptcy. Fay was not present for the sequel The Son of Kong, which came out later in 1933, and picked up the story some days later.
But in 1933, Fay Wray was still being threatened on movie screens, first in The Vampire Bat and then in another important horror movie milestone, Mystery of the Wax Museum, as she faultlessly played helpless heroines. For the second and third time, she had to endure Lionel Atwill’s formidable villainy. Consequently, the year 1933 was to be Fay’s busiest, as eleven different movies took the screen with her name in the cast.
1934 was equally busy, with a couple of fantasy projects, namely The Clairvoyant and Black Moon. She steadily worked through the rest of the thirties and early forties. Fay had been married to screenwriter John Saunders from 1928 to 1939, having one child by him. In 1942, she wed another writer, Robert Riskin, an union that lasted until 1955 and resulted in two children. Motherhood put a stop to her career in 1942, as she pursued her movie work in 1953. The same year, she also began being a regular on a television show, The Pride of the Family on ABC. She enjoyed supporting roles until 1958, the year that she stopped acting for movies.
Fay married for a third time in 1970, this time with a doctor named Sanford Rothenberg. They stayed together till his death in 1991. Fay made a final acting appearance for the television movie Gideon’s Trumpet, alongside Henry Fonda, in 1980. A autobiography was published in 1988, with the title On the Other Hand. In 1991, she was a guest of honor in the celebration of the Empire State Building’s sixtieth anniversary. Still looking spry and youthful but somewhat befuddled by host Billy Crystal’s clowning around, Fay made an impromptu appearance at the 70th Annual Academy Awards in 1998, being asked to rise and take a bow, resulting in a standing ovation.
On August 8, 2004, Fay Wray died in her Manhattan appartment, from natural causes, close to a month before celebrating of 97th birthday. A posthumous star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto was unveiled to her memory on June 5, 2005. The immortal paramour of King Kong, Fay Wray had actually been approached by director Peter Jackson about doing a cameo appearance in his remake of Kong, but alas it was not meant to be. Anyway, any time is appropriate to honor one of the greatest Scream Queen of all time.
1925 The Coast Patrol; A Lover’s Oath 1926 The Man in the Saddle; The Wild Horse Stampede; Lazy Lightning 1927 Loco Luck; A One Man Game; Spurs and Saddles 1928 The Honeymoon; The Legion of the Condemned; Street of Sin; The First Kiss; The Wedding March 1929 Thunderbolt; The Four Feathers; Pointed Heels 1930 Behind the Make-Up; Paramount on Parade; The Texan; The Border Legion; The Sea God; Captain Thunder 1931 The Conquering Horde; Three Rogues; Dirigible; The Finger Points; The Lawyer’s Secret; The Unholy Garden 1932 Stowaway; Doctor X; The Most Dangerous Game 1933 The Vampire Bat; Mystery of the Wax Museum; King Kong; Below the Sea; Ann Carver’s Profession; The Woman I Stole; Shanghai Madness; The Big Brain; One Sunday Afternoon; The Bowery; Master of Men 1934 Mills of the Gods; The Clairvoyant; Madame Spy; The Countess of Monte Cristo; Once to Every Woman; Viva Villa!; The Affairs of Cellini; Black Moon; The Richest Girl in the World; Cheating Cheaters; Woman in the Dark 1935 Come Out of the Pantry; Bulldog Jack; White Lies; 1936 When Knights Were Bold; Roaming Lady; They Met in a Taxi 1937 It Happened in Hollywood; Murder in Greenwich Village 1938 The Jury’s Secret 1939 Smashing the Spy Ring; Navy Secrets 1940 Wildcat Blues 1941 Melody for Three; Adam Had Four Sons 1942 Not a Ladies’ Man 1953 Treasure of the Golden Condor; Small Town Girl 1955 Hell on Frisco Bay; The Cobweb; Queen Bee; 1956 Rock, Pretty Baby 1957 Crime of Passion; Tammy and the Bachelor 1958 Summer Love; Dragstrip Riot