• by Karen Cummings

Fay Wray, The Valley's King Kong Connection

Recalling King Kong’s First Love

She looked perfectly at home sitting poolside at the Tamworth Inn… It was hard to imagine this well-groomed and elegantly attired matron ever cavorted across the silver screen with a giant simian. She seemed much too genteel, too ethereal. But she wasn’t and she did.

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That’s how I described talking with Fay Wray more than 20 years ago when I had the opportunity to interview this icon of filmdom as a reporter for The Mountain Ear. That Mt. Washington Valley and The Ear are unique and always interesting comes through to me almost every day when I’m reminded of whom I’ve met and might have had the chance to interview as a result of working on and off for 15 years for the weekly in this relatively small region. In case you didn’t know, Fay Wray was a true original. She was the beauty who captured the love of the giant ape in the first “King Kong.”

“The idea of working with a huge gorilla figure didn’t appeal to me,” said Fay Wray, an actress who has appeared in more than 80 films , yet is primarily remembered for her 1933 performance as the screaming blonde in the classic “King Kong.”

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With the third remake of the movie, Universal’s “King Kong,” released last weekend and now making the country go, well, bananas, Fay Wray is back in the news. Even though she passed away at age 96 in August 2004, she can be seen often on entertainment shows these days when the first RKO movie and her role are highlighted. Each time, I smile to myself knowing that I had the treat of sitting with her for several hours and hearing first-hand about the original “King Kong,” her career, her family, and her very busy life. I got the interview because my co-workers at the time, Rob Burbank and Tom Eastman, didn’t know who she was – they were either too young or just not old movie buffs. I vividly remember our weekly editorial meeting that July 1985. Ear Founding Publisher Steve Eastman mentioned that George Cleveland of the Barnstormers in Tamworth had called to offer up an interview with Fay Wray, who was in town because her daughter, Susan Riskin, was starring in a play that Wray had written, “The Meadowlark.” His uncle, Francis Cleveland (and son of President Grover Cleveland, if you can believe it!) was presenting the premiere production of this story of Wray’s early childhood at the theater. There was complete silence from Rob and Tom following Steve’s offer. I looked around surprised – how could they not know who she was? I tentatively raised my hand and said, “I’d love to do it.”

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Semi-autobiographical, “The Meadowlark” covers two years of Fay Wray’s early childhood. The full story of Wray’s life reads like a Who’s Who in the motion picture industry. After more than 50 years as an entertainer, she has seen and experienced many of the changes that have taken place in films.

During the early part of the 20th century, young Fay was moved to a small mining town in Utah at a very impressionable age and under reduced circumstances … For Fay, however, there was one thing in Lark that made living there worthwhile. “There were lots of things that were difficult about that little town, but I really loved the movie house. Everyone loved the movies,” she said, closing her eyes and remembering. “What you saw around you every day was rough and hard, it wasn’t real at all, but, oh, what you saw up there, that was real.” Stars like Wallace Reed, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd fascinated the isolated child. “It was just marvelous,” she recalled, “and then I grew up and ended up working with them – it was a dream come true.”

George Cleveland, who met Wray many times, described her as “the most gracious woman on earth.” I would concur and it appears that Kong III’s director Peter Jackson might also. According to an article in the January 2006 Playboy, Jackson was “so enthralled” by the original movie and Wary that he wrote her a fan letter more than 30 years ago. And she replied. He held on to that letter and finally got to meet Wray just months before she died. According to Playboy writer Kathleen Sharp, “She gave her blessing to both Jackson and her new on-screen successor, [Naomi] Watts.”

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Wray appeared in “King Kong” for the pleasure of working with Merian C. Cooper, the ape’s creator. “He was a very winning human being and when he asked, ‘Do you want to do it?’” Wray explained, “all I could say was ‘Certainly.’ He did want a blonde, which I’m not, but we had had a good working rapport in other movies, so he decided to just throw a blonde wig on me. When he first started the whole concept,” she revealed, “he was actually considering a giant lizard – I’m certainly glad he didn’t do that.”

By the time I got to interview Wray in 1985, she was no longer involved with filmmaking. Though remembered primarily for “King Kong,” Wray appeared in nearly 100 movies opposite leading men like Gary Cooper, William Powell, Emil Jannings, Clive Book, Ronald Colman, Frederic March, Spencer Tracy, Joel McCrea, Ralph Richardson, and Claude Rains.

“I don’t know how many films I did, but I’m only remembered for ‘King Kong,’” she said.

Being at the right place at the right time helped Wray get her first full-fledged movie role. “For my first big picture, ‘Gasoline Love,’” she recalled, “I was just walking past the studio when the owner came out and recognized me as someone who did bit parts. He said something like, ‘Don’t I know you?’ and then asked me if I wanted to do a lead.” As one of the few stars able to successfully bridge the silent to talkie eras of motion pictures, Wray played in Erich von Stroheim’s “The Wedding March” in 1928 and made two- and four-reel Westerns opposite Art Acord, Jack Hoxie, and Hoot Gibson before starring in her first talking film, “Thunderbolt,” in 1929.

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As a biography of the actress on the Web says, Wray tells the story that she was offered a role opposite “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” and she hoped it was Clark Gable. While King Kong was the star of the 1933 movie, which was named one of the 100 greatest films of all time by the American Film Institute in 1998, it was her performance as the giant gorilla’s love interest, Ann Darrow, that made the story come alive and ring true. And, it made hers Hollywood’s most famous scream for decades. She told me in 1985 that she thought the heyday of the motion picture industry was over.

“There was a lot of individuality then,” she said. “The original qualities about people in the business just couldn’t be duplicated. There was no one just like Cary Grant, there was only Cary Grant. I don’t go to the movies very often now,” she added, smiling a bit sadly.

Well, maybe she might have liked to go to this “King Kong.” In 1985, she told me that she had been asked to play a part in the 1976 version with Jessica Lange, but she declined.

“I read the script,” she said, “but just felt they were so far from capturing any of the feeling the original had.”

Rumor has it that director Jackson had visions of Wray fittingly saying the closing line of his remake, “Twas beauty killed the beast.” Whether she demurred, as has been reported, or died before she had the chance, we’ll never know. It seems to me, however, after meeting her two decades ago that it “twas beauty made the beast.”

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