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Ape's Main Squeeze Endures : Movies: 61 years later, Fay Wray is most remembered for 'King Kong' role. The classic kicked off an AFI salute to Hollywood's Golden Age in Washington.

March 29, 1994|RITA KEMPLEY | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — It's easy to see why King Kong fell for Fay Wray. Sixty-one years after the film's premiere, she's still a scrumptious, albeit slightly hard of hearing, little dumpling.

Although her life's accomplishments include 77 feature films, three marriages, two kids, an autobiography and a couple of plays, she'll always be remembered as the lovesick gorilla's main squeeze.

Does she resent it? Not one bit: "There were 500 films coming out each year in the '30s, so to be in one of perennial interest is kind of lovable. I'm liking it better now than I did at the beginning, when it seemed to me that it was not Shakespeare."

It was this most beloved of all monster movies that recently brought the pixilated 86-year-old to Washington, where the 1933 classic opened a monthlong salute to Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute.

One of 5,528 entries in AFI's new "Catalog of Feature Films 1931-1940," "King Kong" gets three pages and seven columns of teeny type that offer not only a complete cast list, but the names of Wray's and co-star Jack Armstrong's stunt doubles; not just the running time, but how many feet of film.

"It's a jolly good catalogue," opines Wray, who reveals therein that she was paid $10,000 for her 10-week stint--pretty good money for the Great Depression.

"The interesting thing about the decade was that it started out like an invalid," Wray says. "The (movie) business was in real trouble. 'King Kong' was such an immediate attraction that it really saved RKO, which was on the edge of bankruptcy."

Wray was surprised by the public and critical reaction--reviewers said she was brilliant. "I wanted to put my hands over my ears--there was too much of me screaming. . . . I yelled every time they said, 'Yell.' "

Before the film was edited, she also went into a sound studio, where she recorded a series of shrieks and moans that, as the AFI catalogue notes, were used in other RKO pictures into the '40s.

Wray "could scream beautifully," as film writer Anthony Ambrogio observed, "and the scream was a necessary ingredient of the emerging horror film."

Whether it was the screaming or the blond wig--Wray remains a redhead in real life--Kong went after her as if she were wearing banana perfume. Wray pooh-poohs the notion that she was the horror genre's first sex symbol: "I was not just a body, it seems to me. I had some more delicate thing about me. I was a proper little person. I think it made a difference to that film, I do."

She has clearly given this considerable thought.

"He just was attracted to a creature he had never seen before. Maybe he had never seen a blonde. She was like a flower, I felt, that he was fascinated with. I think that I had some quality that made this great animal think a little bit. When we see him on top of the Empire State Building, he becomes something more than a great ape. He becomes an individual of sensitivity. When it comes to the last scene, I still feel sorry for him. And that's kind of miraculous."

*

Wray turns her attention to the menu. "I'm glued to the swordfish," she says, "because it comes with celery root." It is a favorite of hers, a fondness she shared with her late third husband, Sandy Rothenberg.

Rothenberg was the brain surgeon of her late second husband, Robert Riskin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Lost Horizon." All three were directed by Frank Capra and are among the films featured in the AFI retrospective.

Wray credits her second husband with giving actresses something to say for a change. "I think women began to be interesting when Robert Riskin allowed them to have humor," she says. "He was just about the first one who did, because up to that point a man and a woman had romance but the comic relief came from another source. Then suddenly two people were saying amusing things. And that was his style."

She's also nostalgic for the days before women became empowered. In her era, she says, "they suffered better than they do today. Now they're trying not to suffer anymore. They tell people off and run the show. It's just not as dramatic."

Wray lives in a Los Angeles high-rise on what was the 20th Century Fox back lot. It overlooks the spot where she made "Shanghai Madness" with Spencer Tracy, one of 11 films she made in 1933. But she has no formal ties to the film industry today--her last theatrical release was "Dragstrip Riot" in 1958.

She spent her early years in Canada but made her way to California with her mother and became an extra in silent Westerns when she was only 14. "They were shorts, mostly two-reelers, but I got as high as a five-reeler once, with Hoot Gibson. He was almost like a somnambulist--he just kind of floated through."

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