Film Studies: No one screamed like Fay Wray. But screaming was the least of her talents ...

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Fay Wray and I had something in common: we both possessed letters of apology from the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles.

Fay Wray and I had something in common: we both possessed letters of apology from the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles. With what ingenuity had we conspired to gain that distinction? Years ago, we had agreed on the telephone to meet at the restaurant for lunch. The restaurant is large, but it has an air of complete efficiency. So, in due course, we both checked in and told the staff that we were expecting each other. We were both despondent, and well into solitary meals, before the sheer emptying out of the place began to make meeting easier. Whereupon, this petite lady, already in her 80s, got up and approached me shyly with a boiler-house smile. "Should I have screamed earlier?" she wondered. Then came the laugh that matched the smile.

Fay Wray, dead now at 96, was a movie star: she was directed by von Stroheim, William Wellman, Mauritz Stiller, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Gregory La Cava, Karl Freund, Gregory Ratoff and so many others, but I never met a movie star who was more determined to be a human being. I was asking her about the old days and when she'd known the Selznicks, and don't worry, she had clear memories and sharp stories. But she wanted to know about "you and your children". And she kept in touch. So, out of the blue, the phone would ring and that resounding voice would announce itself: "Hallo, this is Fay Wray. I wondered how you are!" How was the voice so strong, so emotional, in an elderly lady? Well, I daresay a thorough training in screaming had helped. If you were so inclined, you could take away all the other movies she ever did and just make the point that Fay Wray was and is and ever shall be "the lovely Ann Darrow" in King Kong, the penniless girl who, with a large assist from eager script-writing, goes along on the trip to Skull Island with Carl Denham and the rest to find... suitable pause, please, with Max Steiner chords of alarm immediately after the name... Kong.

In 1933, Fay Wray was Ann Darrow, very patently "lovely" as the wisp and taffeta of her clothes floated away, in the paw of King Kong.

He looked at her. She looked at him. It's still the same old story. And she screamed! Of course, for those of us who know the film (and doesn't everyone know King Kong?), the real meeting is set up by the way movie producer Denham schools the lovely Ann in the right way to look up and open her mouth, the effective way to give vent. So you know what's coming, and it's camp and comic, but it always works. King Kong, directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, enormously empowered by the special effects of Willis O'Brien, is still a masterpiece of the naïve and the sophisticated, a silly adventure but a surreal tribute to amour fou. For many reasons - but not least for the absolute conviction with which Fay Wray played with an assemblage of special tricks and effects.

Thereafter, of course, she had to endure jokes and stories about screaming, in rather the way everyone still asks Janet Leigh whether she takes showers. Fay Wray told the best screaming stories herself, and took it in her stride that one screen moment was the hinge in her life. Of course, there was a strategy in all this, for while everyone was asking her to scream, or what she remembered about Kong, Fay could preserve her extensive memories of the romance in her life. For, in that sometimes dubious realm for screen stars, Fay Wray was very busy. Men adored her.

Her first husband was John Monk Saunders (1895-1940), a forgotten name now, perhaps, but one of those great desperate heroes of the years after the First World War. He could have been a Hemingway character, the flyer from the Army Air Corps who became a writer and who contributed the story for Wings (the very first Best Picture Oscar-winner in 1927). A year later, he and Fay were married. His life seemed ideal: he had a beautiful actress wife and many more screenplay assignments. But something was wrong: was his nerve shot? Was he a drug addict? Was he neurotic? Was he a little crazy? Well, he wasn't an easy man to be married to. He killed himself in the end, and he threatened Fay a few times along the way.

Recovering from that tragedy, she met and married Robert Riskin, one of the great Hollywood script-writers, the author of It Happened One Night (an Oscar winner), Mr Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You, Meet John Doe, and many others. They were happily married from 1942 until Riskin's death in 1955. And then later on, she married an eminent doctor, Sanford Rothenberg.

But there was someone else, from time to time. Fay was deeply attached to maybe the greatest neurotic writer ever to feel imprisoned in Hollywood - I mean Clifford Odets, the leading playwright with the Group Theatre in the Thirties, and then the man who could never work out in his own mind whether he had sold out by going to Hollywood, or whether he was just a talented hack looking for the best jobs (and the most attractive women) around. Odets lived from 1906 to 1963 in a ferment of work and dismay: he was comic, if seen from a certain distance; he was a living tragedy from his own point of view. He was also attractive, smart, a great talker and a lady-killer, and Fay was one of those who knew he was bad news until she came within the sound of his voice. Odets was married for a few years to the great actress Luise Rainer. There were many other affairs. He was the author of Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy and The Big Knife, but at the end of his life he was doctoring other people's scripts. The story goes that he did some of the best dialogue in Sweet Smell of Success, typing it up in a trailer while the actors waited for the pages.

And maybe there were secrets, too, that never got talked about: suppose one afternoon the great ape and the gorgeous girl found a way to kiss. Enough! Fay Wray had children and grandchildren of her own, and so many friends she kept up with. She had one film that may be as close to the epitome of the blithe nonsense and the profound psychic energies in Hollywood movies as anything ever made. She is in stills and posters all over the world: she is the idea of a girl in a desperate predicament, losing her last clothes and maybe her citadel of honour, but not her false eyelashes or her terrific good humour. And in that process she let the marvels of movie trickery join hands with myth, for she was the Beauty who had killed the Beast - and who was never the same again. She kept a soft spot thereafter for that hairy giant. And the Beverly Wilshire keeps a table for them both.