Icon Of The Month: Fay Wray

That’s right, this month the legendary Fay Wray, is my icon of the month.

Vina Fay Wray was born September 15th 1907 on a ranch near Cardston in the province of Alberta, Canada to two Mormons, Elvina Marguerite Jones, who was from Salt Lake City, and Joseph Heber Wray, who was from Kingston upon Hull, England. She was one of six children. Her family returned to the United States a few years after she was born; they moved to Salt Lake City in 1912 and moved to Lark, Utah in 1914. In 1919, the Wrays returned to Salt Lake City again and then relocated to Hollywood, California, When she was twelve years old, Wray took a menial job with a newspaper, stuffing envelopes. When she was 14 years old, Wray was sent with her older sister Willow to Los Angeles, where she lived with a succession of friends and enrolled as a student, first at the Thirtieth Street Junior High School and eventually Hollywood High 

After moving to California, her parents divorced, which put the rest of the family in hard times. As a young girl, Wray enjoyed trips to the local movie theater and made her stage debut as Mrs. Claus in a school Christmas pageant. In 1923, Wray appeared in her first film at the age of sixteen, when she landed a role in a short historical film sponsored by a local newspaper, The film was “Gasoline Love”. It would be two more years before she ever got another chance, Wray landed a major role in the silent film “The Coast Patrol” (1925), as well as uncredited bit parts at the Hal Roach Studios.

In 1926, American film association, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, selected Wray as one of the “WAMPAS Baby Stars” (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers), a group of young women who they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. She was at the time under contract to Universal Studios, She was the leading lady of cowboy actor ‘Hoot Gibson’ in “The Man in the Saddle” (1926) and appeared in several films by director William Wyler. On loan to Paramount, she was paired with rising star Gary Cooper in William Wellman’s “The Legion of the Condemned” (1928). She appeareared in more westerns along with Joan Crawford, Mary Astor and Delores Del Rio, often performing her own stunts on horseback.

In 1928, director Erich von Stroheim cast her as the main female lead in his film “The Wedding March”, released under Paramount, a film noted for its high budget and production values. It was a financial failure, but it gave Wray her first lead role. Wray stayed with Paramount once they claimed her contract, As a Paramount employee, Wray survived Hollywood’s transition to sound films that had finished many a career from the silent epoch. For director Merian C. Cooper, she appeared in “The Four Feathers” (1929), alongside William Powell and Richard Arlen, while reuniting with Gary Cooper for “The Texan” and “The First Kiss” (1928). After the stock market crash of 1929, a cash-strapped Paramount began to loan out its contract players to other studios. For Columbia, Wray played the leading lady to Jack Holt in “Dirigible” (1931), an early film by director Frank Capra, and for the Samuel Goldwyn Company she was paired with Ronald Colman in the Sahara-set “The Unholy Garden” (1931). Wray lost the lead role in William Dieterle’s “The Last Flight” (1931), based on the novel “Single Lady”; she made her Broadway debut in a short-lived musical adaptation of the book in the fall of that year alongside a young British actor named Archie Leach who would find success in Hollywood as Cary Grant.

After leaving Paramount, Wray signed to various film companies. It was under these deals that Wray was cast in various horror films, including “Doctor X”. However, her greatest known films were produced under her deal with RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. Her first film under RKO was “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932), co-starring Joel McCrea and shot at night on the same jungle sets that were being used for “King Kong” during the day, with the leads from both films, Wray and Robert Armstrong, appearing in both movies. She also starred in early horror thrillers – among them “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933), directed by Michael Curtiz, and Frank Strayer’s “The Vampire Bat” (1933). 

Up next was Wray’s most memorable film, “King Kong”. According to Wray, Jean Harlow had been RKO’s original choice, but because MGM put Harlow under exclusive contract during the pre-production phase of the film, she became unavailable and Wray was approached by director Merian C. Cooper to play the role of ‘Ann Darrow’, the blonde captive of ‘King Kong’. Wray was paid $10,000 dollars to play the role. The film was a commercial success. Wray was reportedly proud that the film saved RKO from bankruptcy and it was the role would become most associated with, Hher blood curdling screams as the obsessed ape took possession of her would become one of cinema’s most iconic scenes in the history of the medium.

Signing a non-exclusive contract with Columbia, Wray appeared around town in a flurry of features through the next few years. At Paramount, she played an atypical bad girl role in “One Sunday Afternoon” (1933), again opposite Gary Cooper. At Fox, she was paired with Spencer Tracy in John G. Blystone’s “Shanghai Madness” (1933), and at Universal she played a young actress who passes herself off as “The Countess of Monte Cristo” (1934). At Columbia, she fled from voodoo practitioners in “Black Moon” (1934) and at RKO she switched places with Miriam Hopkins to play at being “The Richest Girl in the World” (1934). In England, she appeared in “Alias Bulldog Drummond” (1935) with Ralph Richardson and “The Clairvoyant” (1935), starring Claude Rains, but lost out back home on a coveted role in Frank Capra’s classic “Lost Horizon” (1937). She retired from acting in 1942. However, due to financial exigencies she continued in her acting career, and over the next three decades, Wray appeared in certain film roles and also frequently on television. Wray was cast in the 1953-1954 ABC situation comedy, “The Pride Of The Family”, as ‘Catherine Morrison’. Paul Hartman played her husband, ‘Albie Morrison’. Natalie Wood and Robert Hyatt played their children, ‘Ann’ and ‘Junior Morrison’, respectively.

She starred in Vincente Minnelli’s “The Cobweb” (1955), Wray enjoyed the small but pivotal role of the wife of Charles Boyer’s disgraced psychiatrist, and she re-teamed with her fellow ‘WAMPAS’ star Joan Crawford for “Queen Bee” (1955). In “Hell on Frisco Bay” (1956), Wray’s testimony saved the reputation and neck of star-producer Alan Ladd and in “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957), she was the stick-in-the-mud mother of leading man Leslie Nielson. Wray appeared in three episodes of CBS’s courtroom drama, ‘Perry Mason’, the first of which was “The Case Of The Prodigal Parent” (Episode 1-36) in 1958. In 1959, she portrayed murder victim ‘Lorna Thomas’ in “The Case of the Watery Witness”. In 1965, she played voodoo practitioner ‘Mignon Germaine’ in “The Case of the Fatal Fetish.”

In 1959, Wray was cast as ‘Tula Marsh’ in the episode “The Second Happiest Day” of the CBS anthology series “Playhouse 90”. Another 1959 role was in the episode “The Morning After” of CBS’s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. In 1960, she appeared as ‘Clara’ in the episode “Who Killed Cock Robin?” of the ABC/Warner Bros. detective series “77 Sunset Strip”. Another 1960 role was that of ‘Mrs. Staunton’, with Gigi Perreau as her daughter, ‘Julie’, in the episode “Flight from Terror” of the ABC adventure series, “The Islanders”, set in the South Pacific and starring Diane Brewster.

In 1963, she played “Mrs. Brubaker” in the episode “You’re So Smart, Why Can’t You Be Good?” episode of the NBC medical drama about psychiatry, “The Eleventh Hour”. She ended her acting career again in the 1980 made-for-television film, “Gideon’s Trumpet” starring Henry Fonda. In 1988, she published her autobiography, “On the Other Hand”. In her later years, Wray continued to make public appearances. In 1991, she was coronated Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball presiding with King Herbert Huncke.

She was approached by James Cameron to play the part of ‘Rose Dawson Calvert’ for his 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” with Kate Winslet to play her younger self, but she turned down the role and the part of Rose was given to Gloria Stuart. She was a special guest at the 70th Academy Awards, where the show’s host, Billy Crystal, introduced her as the “Beauty who charmed the Beast”. She was the only 1920’s Hollywood actress in attendance that evening. On Oct. 3, 1998, she appeared at the Pine Bluff Film Festival, which showed “The Wedding March” (with live orchestral accompaniment). In January 2003, a 95-year old Wray appeared at the 2003 Palm Beach International Film Festival to celebrate the Rick McKay documentary film “Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There”, where she was also honoured with a “Legend in Film” award. 

In her later years, she also visited the Empire State Building frequently, once visiting in 1991 as a guest of honour at the building’s 60th anniversary, and also in May 2004, which was among her last public appearances. Her final public appearance was at an after-party at the Sardi’s restaurant in New York City, following the premiere of the documentary film “Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There”.

In 2004, Wray was approached by director Peter Jackson to appear in a small cameo for the 2005 remake of “King Kong”. She met with Naomi Watts, who was to play the role of ‘Ann Darrow’. She politely declined the cameo, and claimed the original “Kong” to be the true “King”, In the 2005 film, Carl Denham (Jack Black) mentions he hired ‘Ann Darrow’ (Naomi Watts) “because Fay was unavailable”. Before filming of the remake commenced, Wray died in her sleep of natural causes on August 8, 2004, in her Manhattan apartment. Her friend Rick McKay said that “she just kind of drifted off quietly as if she was going to sleep… she just kind of gave out.” She was 96 years old. Two days after her death, the lights of the Empire State Building were extinguished for 15 minutes in her memory.

In 1989, Wray was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award. Wray was honoured with a “Legend in Film” award at the 2003 Palm Beach International Film Festival. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Wray was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6349 Hollywood Blvd. She received a star posthumously on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto on June 5, 2005. A small park near Lee’s Creek on Main Street in Cardston, Alberta, her birthplace, was named “Fay Wray Park” in her honour. The small sign at the edge of the park on Main Street has a silhouette of King Kong on it, remembering her role in the film “King Kong”. A large oil portrait of Wray by Alberta artist Neil Boyle is on display in the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod, Alberta. In May 2006, Wray became one of the first four entertainers to ever be honoured by Canada Post by being featured on a postage stamp. Her brother, J. Vivian Wray, suffered from a mental disorder and was confined to a sanitarium. He escaped and apparently committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a streetcar in Stockton, California, on June 4, 1928.

Wray was married three times – to the writers John Monk Saunders and Robert Riskin and to the neurosurgeon, Dr. Sanford Rothenberg (January 28, 1919 – January 4, 1991). She had three children: Susan Saunders, Victoria Riskin, and Robert Riskin, Jr. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1933. Wray is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. She is regarded as Hollywood’s first “Scream Queen”

“Every time I’m in New York I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there.” – Fay Wray

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