Volume 74, Number 22 | September 29 - October 5 , 2004



Whatever happened to Fay Wray? Siren didn’t fade away

By JERRY TALLMER

You can keep your “King Kong.” I mean, it’s an engraved-into-our-brain movie and all that — some addicts hold it to be the greatest movie ever made. But as I was sitting in the dark in the Film Forum this past Sunday morning, an arrow whipped through the jungle toward its human targets on the run, Bob Rainsford and Eve Trowbridge, and in that blinding instant I was swept back into the 63-minute experience that for me, once upon a long time ago, had opened up the very act of movie-going and movie-loving for an entire lifetime.

The event Sunday morning at Film Forum was a tribute to Fay Wray, who had taken her leave of us in her sleep on Aug. 8, five weeks short of her 97th birthday — or, if you like, 71 years after her screams in the grasp of poor bewildered King Kong atop the Empire State Building.

And Bob Rainsford and Eve Trowbridge? They were handsome Joel McRae and gorgeous, scantily clad Fay Wray, pursued through that jungle by the lunatic Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), whose sport on his off-the-charts island was to arrange shipwrecks and hunt down the survivors — his wits and skills against theirs.

The film was, and is, “The Most Dangerous Game,” co-directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack in 1932, the year before he co-directed “King Kong,” and if the clip was only an instant among a wide range of marvelous Fay Wray footage, it was enough for me.

And when Fay Wray in the creature’s clutch wriggled and screamed and screamed and screamed, several times throughout the morning, that was all right too.

As was an exquisite and totally contrasting passage, her apple-petal-framed-and-dappled love scene with a man twice her age (and looking much more than that) in Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent “The Wedding March.” In a slow-building May/December passionate clinch, von Stroheim seems to veritably engulf her with desire.

Victoria Riskin, daughter of Fay Wray and screenwriter Robert Riskin, told the 70 or so people assembled at Film Forum what had happened when 20-year-old Fay Wray went to apply to the fearsome, militaristic Von Stroheim for the role of Mitzi, the peasant girl who wins the tortured heart of Prince Nicki von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg.

A manager told the intrepid young woman: “You won’t do. You’re too tall and he wants a blonde.” But when, taking of her shoes, she got before Von Stroheim, he turned out to be not fearsome at all. They talked a while, then he offered his hand. “Well, goodbye, Mitzi,” he said, and that’s how she learned she had the part.

The clips — a small but telling portion of the 85 pictures she made throughout her long career — had been assembled and the whole quite moving, Sunday-morning tribute thought up by Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein.

To that theater on Houston St, Fay Wray had often come as a simple moviegoer in her later years. “We’d sneak in,” said her friend Rick McKay, maker of the heart-stopping documentary “Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There.”

One day, in her 90s, Fay Wray and Rick McKay sat watching some films starring Fay Wray. At the end, she leaned toward him and murmured: “She was beautiful, wasn’t she?” In front of them, as McKay tells it, “there was this guy in spikes and leather.” The guy turned around and said: “Yes, she was beautiful!”

McKay didn’t have the heart to tell him that the little old lady at McKay’s side was Fay Wray herself. Not — as the clips show — that she ever stopped being beautiful. But facelifting was not for her. “I once read that in Chinese culture,” she said, “the bags under your eyes represent your vocabulary.”

She liked words, she liked writers. Didn’t have much use for actors. “Gary Cooper once made a pass at me,” she told McKay. “But I didn’t listen to it, and it went away.”

The writer she married, and with whom had daughters Victoria and Susan — she outlived all three of her husbands — was Robert Riskin, whose screenplays touch greatness with “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “It Happened One Night,” “Broadway Bill,” “The Whole Town’s Talking,” “Platinum Blonde,” “Three Wise Girls” and on and on.

She was in none of those, but she was in one movie he wrote, years before she and Riskin ever met. That was “Ann Carver’s Profession” (1933), and the sequence shown Sunday morning at Film Forum could never be made today: too blatantly politically incorrect.

As a witness is still settling himself into his courtroom chair, lawyer Ann Carver greets him with: “Mr. Simmons, are you a blithering idiot?” Mr. Simmons has identified a suspect as “a white girl.” Lawyer Carver sets out to prove that the witness cannot tell “a white girl” from “a black girl” from “a colored girl.” Six chorus girls burst into the courtroom, three of them black (says Ann Carver), three of them white. They toss off all but bras and panties. So go ahead, says Fay Wray in a phony hot-potato accent. Tell us which is which.

The actress loved Ralph Waldo Emerson, we were told. Her stepdaughter Sandra Rothenberg and step-granddaughter Ashley Rothenberg read brief passages from Emerson. There was piano music by Steve Sterner and Peter Mintun, a spot of song by niece Willow Wray.

Victoria Riskin, speaking for herself and sister Susan and stepbrother Stephen, thanked the Empire State Building for going dark to honor the death of Fay Wray. Deborah Meschen, a young woman from Boston who had first met Fay Wray, she said, “in the cold winter that followed 9/11,” spoke of her “[becoming] for us an emblem of the resilience of New York City under pressure.”

Playwright John Pielmeier quoted his wife Irene as saying: “When I think of Fay, I think of an artesian well — as refreshing as a long, cold drink on a hot day.”

She wanted to live to be 100, then changed her mind and said that 113 would be better. She was joking. Or maybe not.

I’m not quite sure who that little old lady was, sitting next to me at Film Forum last Sunday morning.

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