Friday, December 16, 2005

KONG BLOGGING: The Films of Fay Wray by Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich

As part of my week-long Kong fest, I've been enhancing my film book library on the subject of the cinematic great ape. On Wednesday, I reviewed Ray Morton's colorful, vibrant history of the Kong character, but there's also another "giant" personality attached to the Kong "myth," and I wanted to post about her here, today. In part because I've always had a crush on her, since the first Thanksgiving when I watched King Kong (1933) on New York TV.

The late Fay Wray (1907-2004) was the first "beauty" to meet the giant "beast" of Skull Island. And what a beauty this talented actress was, both in terms of her gorgeous good looks, and in terms of personality. Authors Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich have just written a highly-detailed, thoroughly-researched book about this iconic talent, The Films of Fay Wray (McFarland and Company Inc., Publishers; $39.95)

The purpose of this scholarly text is not just to celebrate the career of Kong's first love, but to excavate Wray's other work, which Kong fans may not know so well. The authors set out the facts about Ms. Wray's career succinctly in the introduction: only five of her seventy-seven movie roles from 1925 to 1958 were in the horror genre; and in sixty-seven of those efforts, she was the leading lady.

"The extent of Wray's career," the authors write, "as documented in this book, may come as a surprise to many. A likeable, dependable and competent actress, she has been directed by talents as diverse as William A. Wellman, Maurtiz Stiller, Erich Von Stroheim, Alan Crosland, Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz, Jack Conway, Karl Freund, Roy William Neil and Josef von Sternberg. Her leading men have included Gary Cooper, Emil Jannings, William Powell, Richard Arlen, Jack Holt, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Frederic March, Wallace Beery, Joel McCrea, Claude Rains, and Richard Barthelmess."

In other words, Ms. Wray was much more than unlucky Ann Darrow, Kong's lady love. The book goes into great detail to describe (often with the late Ms. Wray's input...) a remarkably successful acting career in Hollywood...but one ultimately overshadowed by Skull Island's most well-known denizen. The book is filled with interesting revelations about the making of that 1933 classic, including Wray's concern that there was too much screaming in the film. She calls the screaming "overdone," which is interesting, since she became known as the greatest screamer (or Scream Queen) in Hollywood, at least until the dawn of Jamie Lee Curtis.

There's a really interesting comment on the times that this book makes plain through its illustrations: Fay Wray showed much more skin in the 1933 King Kong than Naomi Watts does in the 2005 version. Yes, we indeed live in conservative times. Drats!

Anyway, on pages 93 to 96 of this text, there are some beautiful black and white cheescake photos of Ms. Wray in very revealing "jungle wear," that helps, in no small way, to explain why so many young men grew up with Wray as a first love. In addition to her talent, she was one fine-looking, athletic sex symbol. But we do live in restrictive, PC times now and so in the new Kong (which I love, as you can tell from my review...) much of the sexual angle of the story has been deleted. I miss that. I'll never forget those shots from 1933 wherein Kong takes Wray up to his lair, and peels off her clothing a piece at a time and then smells his fingers...very animalistic, very sexual, and apparently too much for our censorious times.

I enjoyed reading The Films of Fay Wray, and learning much more about this accomplished actress. The book is separated into 3 parts: Silent Films, Sound Films and 1950s Feature Film Supporting Roles, and two appendices describe appearances in theatrical shorts and TV guest spots. If you've ever had a desire to learn more about Kong's first love, this is no doubt the book to own.

You can order The Films of Fay Wray at McFarland's web site, or through their order line, 800-253-2187.

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