Queen Kong

Fay Wray, an actress whose star rose and fell with a 50-foot ape, dies at 96

Appreciation

August 10, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Director Merian C. Cooper promised her the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood. He wasn't kidding.

Actress Fay Wray, the famously unrequited love of a 50-foot ape named Kong, died Sunday at her Manhattan apartment. She was 96.

"She went as she was going off to sleep, and it was painless and completely comfortable," said film director and friend Rick McKay, who had been with her the night before. "It's really and truly the kind of way you want a leading lady to die in a film."

Although she made nearly 100 movies in a career spanning 35 years, Wray today is remembered only for one. But 1933's King Kong, the story of a god-like beast taken from his Skull Island lair and thrust unwillingly into civilized New York, all for the love of a woman, wasn't just any movie, and Wray's performance as the screaming object of the big monkey's affection wasn't just any role. Safe to say that few actresses in history have been so indelibly linked to a single performance. And, to the ever-personable actress' credit, few handled such narrow acclaim with more grace.

While being typecast as the screen's first scream queen doubtless shortened her career and restricted the types of roles she was called on to play, Wray embraced her iconic status and rarely seemed to mind being so closely identified with a single role. To play Ann Darrow, who goes from being a starving waif on a New York street corner to sharing a Broadway stage with Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, Wray was forced to wear a blond wig over her naturally dark hair, hang suspended in midair from a mechanical paw and scream, scream, scream. It wasn't the most flattering role for a young actress with dreams of a long Hollywood career, but it made her a star - a fact Wray never forgot, or seriously attempted to live down.

"I'm not going to get tired of talking about it, if you love it," she said during a 1989 interview, probably the gazillionth she had given to a starstruck movie buff who grew up watching her and Kong scale the Empire State Building. "I don't object, because it's a very good movie, it's a very interesting and entertaining movie."

Surprisingly, Wray did not start off as a big fan of King Kong. "I thought it was too noisy," she said. "I thought there was too much screaming, and I sort of shrank from that."

But like millions of filmgoers throughout the world, Wray grew to love the big guy. The turning point for her came during a screening of the film at Cooper's home in the mid-1950s. "On that occasion, I really was very much affected by the last scenes," she said, "and felt so sorry for that poor creature that my throat just hurt. I really felt very sad for him."

Born Vina Fay Wray on Sept. 15, 1907, in the Canadian Rockies town of Cardston, Alberta, at age 3 she moved to the United States with her parents. After stints in Arizona and Salt Lake City, the family settled in Los Angeles, where the teen-aged Wray found occasional bit parts. Eventually, she landed a $60-a-week contract with Hal Roach Studios, despite the concerns of her mother, who believed movies were sinful.

The round-faced, almond-eyed beauty worked steadily in the movies, and not without being noticed; in 1926, she was one of 13 young women chosen as stars of the future by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (others selected included Janet Gaynor and Mary Astor). Two years later, that prediction seemed on its way to being fulfilled when she starred as Mitzi, a peasant girl who falls in love with a nobleman in Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March.

Always working

Wray never became a superstar, but she also never wanted for work; in 1933, the year Kong was released, she appeared in 11 movies. Although most filmgoers couldn't name a second Fay Wray movie, she starred in several that have stood the test of time - most notably Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), an early experiment in Technicolor that was later remade as House of Wax, and The Most Dangerous Game (1932), an adaptation of Richard Connell's much-anthologized short story about a big-game hunter whose quarry is humans unfortunate enough to find themselves on his island (much of the film was shot using the same sets as Kong).

She also co-starred with some of the biggest names of the era, including Gary Cooper (The Texan, 1930), Wallace Beery (Viva Villa!, 1934), Ralph Richardson (Bulldog Jack, 1935), Richard Arlen (The Four Feathers, 1929), Richard Barthelmess (The Finger Points, 1931) and William Powell (Pointed Heels, 1929).

But it was as Ann Darrow in Kong Kong that Wray will always be remembered, and her contributions to the film should not be underestimated. Her fresh-faced beauty and sensuality were beguiling enough to make Kong's infatuation perfectly understandable. And her way with a scream has been copied by generation after generation of horror-movie heroines.

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