I’m not a fan of actor Robert Wagner, but his book I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses (written with Scott Eyman) is fun and entertaining. It’s good lazy day reading.
A few things to know before we get started:
Although this post is part of the O Canada Blogathon (yay!), this is the first part of a series on Fay Wray that will continue here. Look for more entries over the coming weeks.
Yes, this is a (mostly) literary-themed blog. Fay Wray wrote an excellent autobiography, and was also a playwright. She considered writing her true calling.
As some of you may know, in the real world I also write about old movies and their stars. I’m in the process of creating a companion blog for that pursuit. When it is up, I’ll move the series over there. More on that later.
Fay Wray was an exceptionally gifted woman, as any in-depth viewing of her filmography will show. It is my hope that what you read here lights a spark that will start you on a journey of appreciation for (and personal interpretation of) her work.
Except for brief mentions, this mini-essay is a King Kong free zone. The big guy gets enough press. (We’ll cover him another day, anyway.)
A Brief Introduction: Some Random Thoughts on Fay Wray
Fay Wray was, in many ways, an ideal textbook movie star. Possessed of an unusual, immediately recognizable beauty, slim and elegant, she looked magnificent in any article of clothing. She exuded warmth, humor, and intelligence in every role. Her versatility was the kind that warmed the cockles of otherwise jaded movie executives’ hearts. As a leading lady who worked and excelled in multiple genres, she brought believability to her on-screen romances opposite a variety of actors. She was the first true scream queen, but, King Kong (1933) notwithstanding, she usually conveyed terror through her exceptionally expressive face or beautifully controlled gestures. In other words: girl could act. Oh, could she act!
She maintained her grounding presence even amidst the most absurd or fantastical plot twist. This ability to always seem realistically human was, perhaps, her greatest strength. Fay was not an artificially mannered actress; she did not have an arsenal, or even a pocketbook, full of rote gestures or winsome glances to which she defaulted when it was convenient. Naturalness, like comedy, takes great skill. Oh, and Fay did that well, too.
From her early days doing Hal Roach shorts in the 1920s to the strange horror films that marked much of her career in the next decade, her characters are, almost to a woman, ladies of exceptional wit, quick with a pithy lob or sly retort; funny, but never caricatures of a funny woman. Where the humor is not overt, one senses it living just below the surface. Whether imperiled in a jungle or lounging in the luxury of a drawing-room, her heroines are never humourless or dry.
The first two decades of Fay Wray’s genre-bending career would take her down unique and eccentric professional paths that only she could navigate with such assurance and success. How? Never fear! A Beginner’s Guide to Fay Wray will attempt to answer that question.
For now, let’s recap:
Fay brought a long list of superlatives to the screen. She was smart, elegant, witty, natural, unaffected, beautiful, stylish, and versatile. She always delivered what was required, and more, to excellent effect. As a performer, she was present in the role, the scene, the fictional world. Why, then, after a relatively long and successful career, does her star not shine higher in the Classic Hollywood sky? No, the enduring cult status of King Kong is not solely to blame. Fay lacks the incessant punches-you-in-the-face singularity that most currently revered actresses from the era had, or, more aptly put, that we, as modern viewers, insist on reducing them to, however unfairly. Her serial adaptability in mostly B films resists our obsession with pigeon-holing. She is not relentlessly mysterious (Garbo), disturbingly sexual (Dietrich), bawdy (West), brassy (Harlow), or haughty (Hepburn). She is some of those things some of the time, but none of them always. Whatever type she played, she played so well that it ceased to be a type at all.
She did her job too well.
In a Beginner’s Guide to Fay Wray, we’ll discuss how her quiet, under-appreciated realism made the filmscape of the 1920s-1940s a better, slightly more magical place.
Next up: Three of Fay Wray’s most likable onscreen couplings, and the films that created them.
Canadian Pedigree: Fay Wray was born in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on 15 September 1907 to an American mother and an English father. Fay was three years old when her family packed up and moved across the border to the United States. She was always proud to have been born Canadian.
You can read, read all about it in On the Other Hand, her fabulous autobiography.
…would be a shame!
Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on 5 November 1913.
She was a very, very fine actress of stage and screen. If you’ve only seen Gone with the Wind or A Streetcar Named Desire, you have missed some wonderful film performances. Her theatrical work has, of course, been lost to time. It’s a shame, because she was a serious and brilliant stage actress obsessively dedicated to her craft. Her film stardom was largely beside the point.-“I’m not a film star, I am an actress. Being a film star is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity.”-Vivien Leigh
She was married to this chap for two decades.
She died on 8 July 1967.
If I ever find a time machine, I will make dozens of stops just to see the magnetic and fiercely talented Vivien Leigh weave her magic across the world’s stages.
- Title: Silent Players A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses
- Author: Anthony Slide
- Year Published: 2002 (The University Press of Kentucky)
- Year Purchased: 2010
- Source: Half Price Books
- About: Most of the stars profiled in this book were forgotten within a few years of the end of the silent era; the rest-the lucky few- are mere by-words for Old Hollywood, names disconnected from faces. Leftovers from our great-Grandparents’ childhoods. Anthony Slide, over the course of a couple of decades, had the pleasure or the privilege to have met the majority of entertainers featured in this volume. Thus, Silent Players is not dry biography or weak conjecture, nor is it pure scholarship (although it has a foundation of extensive research); it is alive with personal experiences and revealing reminiscences. His passion for his subjects shines through his clear, yet keen writing. A must-have for anyone interested in silent cinema and those who graced it with their magic.
- Motivation: Many of my favourite film performers appeared in silent movies. I write on the subject. A lot. In fact, silent movies are one of my biggest passions!
- Times Read: 1
- Random Excerpt/Page 127: “The number of Hollywood extras is probably in the hundreds of thousands. As early as November 1934, Photoplay reported some 17, 541 individuals registered as extras with Central Casting. Among the number of small part and bit players available at that time were former stars, including Monte Blue, Betty Blythe, Mae Marsh, and Dorothy Phillips, and silent directors, including Francis Ford, Frank Reicher and George Melford. One-time stars might become extras, but the only extra to ever be accorded the celebrity and fame of stardom is Bess Flowers.”
- Happiness Scale: 10+++
- Title: Fast-Talking Dames
- Author: Maria DiBattista
- Year Published: 2001 (Yale University Press)
- Year Purchased: 2002/2003
- Source: Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller Company
- About: The best part of screwball comedies is, of course, the dialogue. The plots are usually superfluous and in soft-focus; the snappy writing and whirlwind performances are what make these staples of the 1930s and 1940s so entertaining and timeless. While the male performers were no slouches, the women killed it time and again, routinely giving some of the best comedy turns in film history. The actresses discussed include Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy and Barbara Stanwyck. Whew, what a list! Are you interested yet?
- Motivation: The title alone was allurement enough. Throw in the snazzy cover photo of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday (1940) and I was a goner. Oh, and then there is the subject itself.
- Times Read: 1
- Random Excerpt/Page 103: “Like Harlow, Carole Lombard is often impatient or unhappy with the way her life is going, but her comic response to her predicaments is more rambunctious than raffish. Her sexual morals are definitely higher, but she is also the more accomplished liar. Or should we say, in a more generous mood, that where Harlow makes candor her comic calling card, Lombard is the great pretender.”
- Happiness Scale: 8 1/2