Monday, August 9, 2004

The Late, Great Fay Wray

"Whatever happened to Fay Wray?
That delicate satin draped frame?"

("Fanfare/Don't Dream It" (Richard O'Brien, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show)

Fay Wray died yesterday in her Manhattan home at age 96. She was best known as the "beauty," Ann Darrow, with whom the "beast," Kong, fell in love in the classic 1933 feature film King Kong. King Kong was the mega-hit of 1933, topping the box office for that year. It also became a part of American pop culture, with the image of Kong grasping Wray atop the Empire State Building (just completed in 1931--it was only two years old at the time) etched into the minds of people across the world. So successful was the film single handedly that it saved RKO Studios from bankruptcy.

While Fay Wray would forever be identified with King Kong, she did have a fairly good career both before and after her paths crossed with the giant ape. Her film career began n 1923 with Gasoline Love. She would go onto appear in a number of major motion pictures, among them the 1929 version of The Four Feathers, Doctor X, The Vampire Bat, the 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game, and Mystery of the Wax Museum, before King Kong. After King Kong she would appear in such films as Viva Villa! and Bulldog Jack. Her career slowed down in 1950 after her then husband, Robert Riskin (writer of the Capra classic It Happened One Night) had a stroke. She appeared less in movies and more in television. She played the mother in the 1953 TV series Pride of the Family (on which Natalie Wood also had an early role) and appeared in many TV shows, among them Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, and Wagon Train. Her last feature film was Dragstrip Riot. Her last TV guest appearance was on Perry Mason in 1965. In 1980, after 15 years away from the screen, she made a final appearance in the TV film Gideon's Trumpet opposite Henry Fonda.

Perhaps because King Kong throws such a large shadow over her career, Fay Wray never was listed among the great actresses. And yet, I think she was very good when it came to acting. This can even be seen in her most famous film, King Kong. Wray's Ann Darrow is independent yet vulnerable. Although initally frightened by Kong, she eventually realises the giant ape means her no harm. Wray was convincing in other roles as well. She played an elegant Mexican aristocrat in Viva Villa!, the strong willed female lawyer in Ann Carver's Profession, and the temptress Louise Loring in Woman in the Dark.

I was always enamoured of Fay Wray. I think most young boys have been at one point or another. Petite, beautiful, and blonde, she became part of our pop culture. Indeed, tonight they are going to dim the lights of the Empire State Building in her honour. I think that's a fitting salue for a woman who helped make the skyscraper famous.

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