Best of DVDs...with M.V. Moorhead
Memories of Fay Wray: 1907-2004
“It was Beauty killed the Beast,” declares Robert Armstrong at the end of King Kong, as he stands over the great heartsick ape sprawled at the foot of the Empire State Building. But not just any ordinary beauty could kill such a beast—and no one who sees that film is likely to blame him for his infatuation with the radiant, soulful Fay Wray.
When people ask me to name my very favorite movie, King Kong is the title that comes to mind most often. Back in the ‘70s, when other boys were hanging up posters of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, it was a picture of the diaphanously-clad leading lady from that 40-odd-year-old film that I had on my wall. What Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor symbolize for many film buffs, Fay Wray symbolized for me and my old pal Kong: exquisite, unattainable beauty--beauty worth fighting monsters for, beauty worth climbing skyscrapers for.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Wray led an extraordinary life aside from the film for which she’s chiefly remembered.
I learned about that in the late ‘80s, when The Meadowlark, a semi-autobiographical play she had written, was being staged at a regional theatre near my hometown of Erie, Pa., and I got the opportunity to interview her in connection with this production.
I met her in the lobby of a hotel in Baltimore, where she was staying with the third of her three husbands, the brain surgeon Sanford Rothenberg. Poised and gracious, she patiently repeated her King Kong stories for me, including how producer Merian C. Cooper promised her, when he offered her the film, “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.”
She added that she eagerly thought it might be Cary Grant, with whom she’d just finished acting in a play in New York and who had just arrived in Hollywood.
Then Wray told me about the rest of her life—her sometimes difficult childhood in Alberta, Arizona and Utah, her early days in Hollywood silents and on the New York stage, and her first two turbulent marriages—to John Monk Saunders, the screenwriter of Wings, and later, after his suicide, to another screenwriter, Robert Riskin, of Meet John Doe and It Happened One Night.
She told me about her own aspirations as a writer—how she had written episodes of Ronald Colman’s radio show, and how she had collaborated on a play called Angela is Twenty-Two with none other than Sinclair Lewis, who in the late ‘30s had his own infatuation with Wray and with the theater, unrequited in both cases. She told me proudly of the many other films—more than ninety of them—and television shows in which she’d appeared, from 1923 to 1980.
She also mentioned that she was working on her autobiography and, plainly delighted with herself, told me the title she’d thought up: On the Other Hand. A year or two later, the tome appeared under that title, and it remains one of the best of all movie-star memoirs, written in a charmingly civilized yet unpretentious voice, and often quite touching.
After my conversation with Wray, I walked her out of the lobby to the elevators, and as we went down a short flight of steps, she took my arm. For a few seconds, the ultimate Damsel in Distress leaned on me.
Wray, who passed on at 96 earlier this week, was the recipient of an unusual posthumous honor—the lights of Kong’s Waterloo, the Empire State Building, were dimmed last Tuesday night.
A more lasting memorial still awaits: At this writing, there is no American DVD edition of King Kong, although it’s widely available in VHS.
If you’ve never seen it, you’ve missed out not just on a classic film but on one of the authentic 20th-Century myths, and Fay Wray is no small part of what makes it mythic.