It's a shame, says the author, that Wray is remembered largely for King Kong. The extent of her career will come as a surprise to many. She appeared in an impressive 77 features, 67 of them as leading lady.
Indeed, the extent of Fay Wray's career may come as somewhat of a surprise to many. A likeable, dependable and competent actress, she has been directed by talents as diverse as William A Wellman, Mauritz Stiller, Erich von Stroheim, Alan Crosland, Frank Capra, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Jack Conway, Karl Freund, Roy William Neill and Joseph von Sternberg. Her leading men have included Gary Cooper, Emil Jannings, William Powell, Richard Arlen, Clark Gable, Jack Holt, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Fredric March, Wallace Beery, Joel McCrea and Claude Rains.
Fay Wray (her real name) was born in Alberta, Canada on September 10, 1907 (note: this date is incorrect), on her father's farm. Her family moved to Los Angeles while she was very young, and after appearing in a few high school plays Fay began working in movies at the age of 16 in 1923. She did comedy shorts for Hal Roach, and in 1925 made her feature film debut in The Coast Patrol, a low-budget independent production. This was followed by a contract with Universal Pictures which placed her in a series of westerns with leading men like Art Acord, Jack Hoxie and Hoot Gibson. It looked as though her career wouldn't advance beyond this point when she landed the starring role in Erich von Stroheim's lavish production of The Wedding March. Only 19 at the time, her performance as Mitzi in this tale of the ill-fated romance between an aristocrat and a commoner in old Vienna was exceptional, and some of her scenes were quite touching. The Wedding March is (arguably) von Stroheim's best picture. Fay Wray's showcase role should have made her a major star and probably would have if the film hadn't taken so long to produce. By the time Paramount released the film in 1928, sound had already captured the public's interest and The Wedding March did not receive very wide distribution. Despite generally favorable reviews, relatively few people saw the picture. Filmed in two parts, the second half, The Honeymoon, was never released in this country due to von Stroheim's objections over the editing of the film.
Fay did win a Paramount contract as a result of The Wedding March, and although most of the pictures she appeared in at that studio were innocuous and generally forgettable, there were a few noteworthy exceptions. Besides appearing in Dirigible for Frank Capra, she turned in a good performance for Joseph von Sternberg in Thunderbolt. Her brief role in The Four Feathers introduced her to the producer-director team of Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, who would later have bigger things in store for her with King Kong.
In 1928, Fay met writer John Monk Saunders (Wings) on the set of Legion of the Condemned, in which she starred with Gary Cooper. She and Saunders were married later that same year. Decision-makers at Paramount tried several times to pair her with Gary Cooper in a series of films, only to be met with lukewarm boxoffice response. She was released from her Paramount contract in 1931 and free-lanced. Doctor X, released in late 1932, was the first of Fay's horror roles, and she looked especially attractive in the film's duo-tone Technicolor. Doctor X was followed by The Most Dangerous Game at RKO. The suspense thriller was directed by Ernest B Schoedsack (with Irving Pichel) and produced by Merian C Cooper, who was also preparing the film that would ultimately become King Kong. Fay and her Most Dangerous Game co-star Robert Armstrong were assigned the leads, and the rest is film history. The most energetic and visually striking adventure fantasy ever made, King Kong gave Fay first billing in what would prove to be the third most financially successful picture of the decade, but, paradoxically, the movie's great success had little effect on the course of her career.
King Kong did not typecast Fay Wray in horror films as is commonly believed. Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game and Mystery of the Wax Museum were all released before King Kong; only The Vampire Bat was released afterwards. Appearing in a total of 11 features in 1933, Fay continued to work steadily at the major studios (she was in the prestigious Viva Villa at M-G-M in 1934) until she travelled to England to perform in a quartet of features in 1935. Upon her return to Hollywood the next year, her career had lost momentum, and although there was no shortage of roles for her, from this point on she appeared almost exclusively in "B" pictures. Her non-exclusive contract with Columbia specified four movies a year and granted her the right to free-lance; she did films at RKO, Universal and Monogram, few of which were noteworthy. In 1939 she and John Monk Saunders, whose personal problems, particularly with alcohol, had grown insurmountable, were divorced shortly after the birth of their daughter Susan. Saunders died shortly thereafter. Fay tried playwriting in 1939, and collaborated with Sinclair Lewis on the play Angela is 21, which was later filmed by Universal as This Is the Life, but the effort was only marginally successful. Fay had starred in the Broadway plays Nikki and The Brown Danube in 1931, and appeared in the plays Golden Wings and Mr Big in 1941, but neither endeavor was a success. After a few more "B" pictures, she married screenwriter Robert Riskin (the union produced two children, Victoria and Robert, Jr.), and retired.
Her second marriage was a happy one, but Robert Riskin died tragically in 1955, as the result of a brain embolism. Fay returned to movies in supporting roles, often quite effectively, and continued to work in films until 1958, after which she appeared regularly in guest roles on television through the mid-sixties. Although she officially retired in 1965, she returned in support of Henry Fonda and John Houseman in the TV movie Gideon's Trumpet in 1980. Fay is married to neurosurgeon Sanford Rothenberg, whom she wed in 1971, and currently lives in Los Angeles. (note: this article written in 1987)
The breadth of Fay Wray's career is not readily apparent today, simply because many of her films are unavailable, for a variety of reasons. Some apparently do not exist in any form. With the fortunate exception of The Wedding March, virtually her entire silent output is lost, including her co-starring efforts with Gary Cooper, as well as some sound titles like RKO's The Big Brain. Others were remade, and as far as can be determined, are no longer available (The Countess of Monte Cristo, Madame Spy), or are available, but only on an extremely limited archival basis (One Sunday Afternoon). That Fay should be restricted only to King Kong and horror movie fame is unjust, and perhaps someday these other films will resurface.
Writing in his book The Making of King Kong (A S Barnes, 1975), author George Turner provided this analysis of Fay Wray's appeal: "... Never have the often contradictory qualities of sex appeal and virtue been blended more perfectly in one woman." Certainly her unique abilities in this regard explain why she has made such a lasting impression, especially in her horror films. Only Evelyn Ankers, in the 1940s, came close to equalling her.
Fay Wray's career is impressive, and she should have achieved major stardom; the reasons why she did not are difficult to grasp. Edward Bernds, who was the sound technician on Dirigible as well as several of her other Columbia features, offers one explanation: "She wasn't given the best of directors on her Columbia stuff - she could've been served better. Even a director like Roy William Neill (her director on Black Moon and Mills of the Gods) who was capable of better work, didn't have the prestige at Columbia to make a film better in spite of everything. What she needed was a good, strong director with enough prestige to make a truly fine picture - maybe that's why she never went upward an onward."
Fay Wray's co-workers certainly loved and respected her. Irving Lippman, a cameraman who shot publicity photos of her at Warners and Columbia in the 1930s when he was a still photographer remembers that she "...worked like a Trojan. She was a perfect lady, always a very gentle woman - I don't think she ever used one curse word."
Edward Bernds recalls her most vividly on the set of Dirigible as having "...all the good qualities. A beautiful girl, competent, thoroughly professional, and that, in my book, is high praise - to be professional."