Friday, September 14, 2007

Twas Beauty Thrilled the Beast

The divine Fay in Michael Curtiz's DOCTOR X (1932).
It's hard to believe, even for one of my generation, but actress Fay Wray -- whose name remains synonymous with "heroine" and "damsel in distress" -- would have been 100 years old tomorrow. Born Vina Fay Wray in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on September 15, 1907, she spent part of her early childhood in Arizona with parents who divorced before she entered her teens. The dimple-chinned beauty won her first film role, a modest one, in 1923, but within five years she was playing the female lead in Erich von Stroheim's THE WEDDING MARCH (1928). She came to the attention of producer Merian C. Cooper, who cast her in his 1929 film THE FOUR FEATHERS and set his mind to mapping out her ultimate destiny. In the meantime, she became one of the first Technicolor stars in the memorable double-punch of 1932's DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, and she played female leads in THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (also for Cooper), after which she ascended forever more into the firmament of great stars as Ann Darrow in KING KONG (1933).

A fine actress, as articulate as she was ornamental, and one of the greatest screamers the movies have ever known, Fay Wray is the quintessential goddess of the 1930s fantastique. KONG was the sort of film no career could ably follow; she refused to appear in the hastily made sequel SON OF KONG, but went on to appear in Maurice Elvey's fantastical THE CLAIRVOYANT (aka THE EVIL MIND) and Roy William Neill's voodoo piece BLACK MOON in 1934. For the next decade she played scrappy, spirited independent women, often born of privilege but determined to prove themselves on equal turf. After appearing in 1942's NOT A LADIES' MAN, she temporarily retired from the screen to raise her three children, the first from a failed marriage to playwright John Monk Saunders, and to concentrate on a somewhat successful second career as a playwright.

When she returned to the screen in the early 1950s, she made the adjustment to playing married, staid women -- as in the MGM musical SMALL TOWN GIRL (1953) and Gerd Oswald's CRIME OF PASSION (1957). The great parts never returned, but she had already left an indelible mark. Appearing occasionally in guest slots on TV series like PERRY MASON and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, Wray remained remarkably youthful looking well into her sixties, which she ascribed in part to a sensible diet. Having turned down the TITANIC role that won Gloria Stuart her Oscar, Wray died in August 2004, just as Peter Jackson's colossal remake of KING KONG was entering production. The lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her memory.

You can read more about Fay Wray in Lorraine LoBianco's fine overview at the Turner Classic Movies website here, and make plans to spend some time watching TCM's Fay Wray centenary celebration -- six of her films, including the rarely screened BELOW THE SEA and DIRIGIBLE (a Frank Capra picture!) -- tomorrow night, beginning at 8:00pm eastern.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.