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Fay Wray's 100th Birthday
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Fay Wray Profile

Once, when Fay Wray met Hugh Hefner, he told her "I loved your film!" She replied "Which one?" Although the brunette Fay Wray made many films between the 1920s and 1980, she will forever be remembered by movie audiences as a screaming blonde being carried off in the hand of a giant ape named King Kong.

Vina Fay Wray was born on her parents' ranch in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on September 15, 1907. Her father, Joseph, had emigrated to Canada from England and her mother Elvina from the United States, where the family would return in 1911. A few years after her parents' divorce, fourteen-year-old Fay was sent to Los Angeles with her sister's fiancé so she could try to get into the movies. The fiancé, a photographer named William Mortensen, was actually in love with Fay and although no romance developed between them, he was helpful in getting the girl into bit parts at various studios.

She would be frustrated throughout her career because of her looks. In a town filled with attractive women, Fay Wray's beauty was a stand-out. Often she would be used as decoration, even in comedies, where she was told by a director, "Don't try to be funny. Just look pretty. Keep looking pretty!" As she would later write, "That was a letdown. It seemed odd to be in a comedy without having the opportunity to be funny. 'Just look pretty!'"

Briefly under contract at the Hal Roach Studios, she moved to Universal where she would appear in everything from dramas to Westerns. It was while she was still under contract to Universal that she was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926, selected by the press as one of a dozen starlets who were recognized for their potential. Also named a "Baby Star" the same year as Wray was Janet Gaynor (her good friend from the studio), and other future stars Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Dolores Costello, Marceline Day, and Dolores Del Rio, who would also become a close friend. That same year, Wray got her first important role when she was personally selected by famed director Erich von Stroheim to co-star with him in his film The Wedding March (1928). With help from a friend, she was able to get out of her contract at Universal and report for work at the independent Celebrity Pictures.

Shooting The Wedding March was an experience that left Wray both exhilarated and exhausted. "A scene at the table with Von Stroheim wasn't completed until the dawn was beginning to rob the setting of its moonlight. By that time, he was weary and had forgotten some of his lines. I was able to "cue" him by changing the lines without stopping the scene. He was happily excited about that. He called me a "pro". It was a good beginning. I felt a rapport with him that I would never lose. It was as though there were just the two of us, no cameras anywhere, so easy it was to believe in him and with him. In the early morning I drove home with my right hand on the wheel of the car, my left hand holding a heavy forehead. But I was richly happy and wanted to sleep "fast" so as to be back in the studio again. I would always want to be back in the studio. Being there was life, now."

Unfortunately it was not to last. Von Stroheim was famous for going over budget. When production was moved to the Selig Studios, Wray waited to be called back to work. "There was a period of a few days when I heard nothing from the company. I went to the Selig Studio one morning to find some members of the crew sitting together, very still, as though they had been playing the game of Statue and had come to the moment when the name of the game is called and all the players have to freeze in place and to remain that way until the music begins again. The music would not begin again. It was official. Production had been stopped." Control of the film had been given to Paramount Studios who would eventually get the director to edit the film down from 200,000 feet to 44,000, or roughly six hours. Von Stroheim wanted to break the film up and run it as two films, each three hours long. The studio eventually hired Josef von Sternberg to edit it down further and The Wedding March would be truncated, which was the case with most of Von Stroheim's films.

Now under contract to Paramount, Wray almost immediately went into the silent film The Legion of the Condemned (1928) co-starring Gary Cooper, the studio's hottest male property. Wray and Gary Cooper were labeled "Paramount's Glorious Young Lovers" by the publicity department and they were sent to the photographers to make stills. As Wray later wrote, "Half a day was set aside in the portrait studio, where Gene Ritchie photographed us embracing, looking deeply into each other's eyes, both of us realizing that no excitement or electricity was sweeping us away." The reason for the lack of chemistry, at least on Wray's part, was due to her being in love with John Monk Saunders, the screenwriter of Legion of the Condemned, who she would marry in 1929.

When the Great Depression began to affect the film industry in the early 1930s, Wray, like other stars, found herself out of work. She and her husband went to New York to produce a play he had written, Nikki, based on his screenplay of The Last Flight (1931). Her co-star in the play was Cary Grant. While the play was not a success, Wray and Grant found themselves attracted to each other, though they did not have an affair. Nonetheless, it was Grant she was thinking of when she returned to Los Angeles to make a new film to be called King Kong (1933).

"Merian Cooper asked me to go to his new offices at RKO. He showed me large drawings for a film he was planning: sketches of jungle scenes that were exotically beautiful and then, an astonishing one: the figure of a giant ape climbing up the side of the newly completed Empire State Building. "You're going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood," he said. And even while my thoughts were flying toward the hope that Cooper might be waiting for Cary's [Grant] arrival just as I was, Cooper went on to point at the giant ape and say, again, "The tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." Now my heart was pounding, not about the excitement it would have been to work with Cary but with apprehension. Such a huge animal! Cooper saw my dismay. "He won't be real. He'll be a small figure that will be created to look this big." His capacity to tease had played out long enough."

"Scenes in the hand of Kong were considered "technical". The big arm, about six feet long, was attached to a lever so it could be raised or lowered. I would stand on the floor while a grip (and that's not a pun by intention) would place the flexible fingers around my waist in a grip secure enough to allow me to be raised to a level in line with an elevated camera. There was a wind machine to give motion to my clothes, and I struggled to give the illusion that Kong was a fearsome forty feet tall. The more I struggled, the more the flexible fingers of Kong gave way, and when I felt that I was about to slip all the way through, I would call out to be lowered and re-secured. Actually, the fear about falling out of the hand was a match for the imagined fear it would have been to be looking up at Kong himself. These scenes were put together with the animated eighteen-inch Kong. I had seen a tiny wood doll that was carried by the miniature Kong, and when I went to the rushes with Cooper, I thought I was seeing the doll, until she began to kick. Me!" "I began to believe it was the rumored scariness of Kong that stimulated producers to offer other "scary" movie roles to me: Doctor X, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Most Dangerous Game and The Vampire Bat [all 1932]- all these in the same year as the making of King Kong.

After the mid-1930s, Wray's film career began to wind down. She had a daughter, Susan, with Saunders but the marriage was over at the end of the decade and he would commit suicide in 1940. Though her career had stalled, her personal life did not. She became happily married to another screenwriter, Robert Riskin (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936), from 1942 until his death in 1955. That marriage produced two more children.

Wray would make the occasional appearance in film, but from the 1950s through the mid 1960s she mostly appeared on television, guest starring on programs like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Wagon Train and Perry Mason. Her last appearance was on the 1980 television film Gideon's Trumpet with Henry Fonda and John Houseman. Her final marriage was to Dr. Sanford Rothenberg, from 1971 until his death in 1991. Rothenberg had been Robert Riskin's brain surgeon when he suffered strokes in the 1950s.

On a few occasions Wray attended screenings of King Kong at film societies. Still a beautiful woman in her late-eighties, she was approached to play the older Rose in James Cameron's film Titanic (1997) but turned it down. In the early 2000s, she met with director Peter Jackson and actress Naomi Watts when they were working on their remake of King Kong (2005). Jackson wanted Wray to speak the film's final line, but she died in her sleep at her home in New York City on August 8, 2004. She was 96 years old. Two days after her death, the lights on the Empire State Building were dimmed for fifteen minutes in her memory.

In her autobiography, On the Other Hand Wray wrote, "What does it matter that many people think King Kong was my only film? Again and again, I hear: "I saw your film." "Your movie was on television the other night." Kong does not erase the fact that I did many other films, but it is a fact that Kong is the most widely known, the most enduring. And considering the improvement in tape and laser, it is likely to go on shaping and enhancing the state of wonder in young people and old."

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
On the Other Hand by Fay Wray
The Internet Movie Database
Wikipedia.org
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