Saturday, September 15, 2007

She never left the island


Had she lived, my favourite Hollywood actress Fay Wray would have been a hundred today. In fact, she was just a month shy of an impressive 97 when she passed away in 2004.

It struck me at the time that the reaction from the world’s press was curiously muted. She was not ignored, of course, and all the obituarists had nice things to say.
But nowhere did one sense the recognition that this really was pretty much the last one, the end of that most important generation of Hollywood stars who came to prominence in the early nineteen-thirties after apprenticing either in silents or on Broadway.
Facially somewhat reminiscent of Gloria Swanson, she was never a major star, never in the Davis or Crawford or Stanwyck league, mainly because she freelanced for most of her career and rarely stayed under contract to a single studio for more than a year or two.
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This meant that no studio head could be bothered to devote to her sufficient time and resources to cultivate the myths and mystique necessary for true golden age stardom. Neither was she a Hollywood animal; she preferred the company of writers to actors. Her husbands were screenwriters: angsty lost generationer John Monk Saunders and cheery Capra scribe Robert Riskin.
So she remained a jobbing actress rather than an icon, never treating her career as more than a job, never quite able to fully capitalise on the acclaim she received after Von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece The Wedding March (1928) or the immense popularity of King Kong (1933).
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Nonetheless, immortality can be won by accident, and as the girl in Kong’s paw (and as the talkies' foremost screamer: a spurious reputation if ever there was one) she has found her way into screen history after all – proof that posterity is always, ultimately, a lottery.

Wray is terrific in Kong, of course, just as she is as the satin-clad victim of inhuman passions in those three monuments of pre-code grotesque Dr X, Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Most Dangerous Game. But her other films are eminently worth tracking down too.
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She attempted most genres, and invariably pleased in a romantic lead. Her stint at Paramount in the early thirties catches the best of her; she’s young, incredibly beautiful and still flushed with confidence after her triumph with Stroheim.
As with all pre-Code cinema, these films are fascinating for the manner in which they capture now unfamiliar fads, fashions and sub-genres. Behind the Make-Up (1930) is a gloomy road to ruin saga with a sharply-etched vaudeville background and some prime hysterics as Fay squares up to love rival Kay Francis, pre-code’s premier man-eating sophisticate. Pointed Heels (1929) is a backstage Broadway drama with a Technicolor sequence and the delightful pairing of Fay and Helen Kane as sisters-in-law. (The title refers both to Fay's footwear and her resilience.)
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Cast against type as a femme fatale she plausibly dominates Gary Cooper in One Sunday Afternoon (1933), a fine example of thirties bucolic nostalgia. (Also one of her comparitively few 'bad girls'; her best bitch role of all is unquestionably Vida, the scheming, mercenary 'oil wife', in The Woman I Stole [1933].)
And the early thirties fad for South Sea exploration saw her menaced by cannibals in The Sea God (1930), possibly the first of the many films in which she ends up with her clothes hanging from her in shreds, and subject of this memorable review from Photoplay Magazine:
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If you don’t like this picture you’re just an old introvert or worse. For here is wild adventure, cannibals, pearl diving, sailing vessels, love, melodrama. Dick Arlen, just a bit of South Sea flotsam and jetsam, is charming, virile and utterly natural. There’s your old friend, Eugene Pallette, as the comic and Fay Wray being beautiful as the girl. Dialogue is grand. Lots of things to interest you. See it.
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The fact that few of her early thirties films were big box office hits is not reason enough to disregard them; she worked for Capra (in the excellent Dirigible [1931]) and Sternberg and Raoul Walsh, and audience reaction of the time is always a bad index of a film's qualities: let's face it, they could afford to be choosy back then.
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She was stunning in these years, her screen persona an odd, characteristically pre-code mix of elegance and exhibitionism. Though the films invariably cast her as a prim good girl, with quiet, precise diction and a fragile beauty, only those of Miriam Hopkins rival the casual regularity with which script contrivances conspire to get her down to her underwear.
When you return to her more famous horror films after a few of these, you realise how underused she was in them. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932), for instance, gives her hardly anything to do: she doesn’t appear at all for ages and does very little even then. The contrast with Glenda Farrell’s wisemouth reporter is striking and you wonder why they couldn’t have simply stuck the two roles together and made Wray’s character the journalist. The idea that such a delicate beauty was impossible casting as a hard-boiled journo at the time is contradicted by the evidence of Loretta Young in Platinum Blonde (1931), and for that matter Fay herself in The Finger Points (1931) or The Jury's Secret (1938).
Wax Museum’s companion piece Doctor X (1931, below) gives her more to go on, including greater relevance to the plot and some nice scenes with Lee Tracy. (Tracy specialised in reporter roles like this one, much in vogue for a few years; his career petered out after he was fired from the film Viva Villa! (1934) for standing naked on his hotel balcony and urinating on the crowd below.)
But her best horror role remains in Most Dangerous Game (1933). Rather than merely a menaced bystander she gets a full share of the action, and the film is notable for its use of King Kong sets, more shredded clothing, and eye-opening pre-code severed heads and sado-eroticism.
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The secret of her success in these roles is I think attributable to an odd streak of perversity that comes rushing to the fore whenever she is in distress, terror or the throes of passion. She pants loudly, whimpers, her chest heaves, and she throws herself back in complete submission, her arms flailing. In direct contrast with her cut-glass accent and mannered style, these sudden moments of eroticised abandon hint at strange depths to her personality. When threatened by lusting maniacs it is not her famous screams that make the deep impression so much as the instant capitulation, tinged with what really does seem like arousal, that comes swiftly in their wake.
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Her career stalled after Kong and it’s hard to say exactly why, though disinterest on her part surely was a factor. (She retired completely in 1942 but returned as character support in 1953; Joan Crawford, on behalf of the old guard, sent her a note saying "welcome back, we need you".) She doesn’t even appear in Son of Kong (1933, Helen Mack does), though she would have been relieved when this rushed production (released the same year as the original) proved a surprise flop.

A big mistake, career-wise, was her decision to take up a lucrative offer from British Gaumont in 1935; she considered herself resented by the British actors, and few Hollywood careers could have been sustained by imported appearances in Jack Hulbert movies. Still, it's nice to see her on the London Underground in Bulldog Jack (1935), and the holiday did result in one excellent film, The Clairvoyant (1935), a creepy thriller with Claude Rains, featuring Wray in a terrific stage outfit, working the audience in a mind reading act. (Watch this film here.)
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Back in the States she drifted into B-films, usually for Columbia (though she also turns up at Universal, where she had started in B-westerns in 1926, and even Monogram). Don't write these off either. After setting a giant octopus on her in Below the Sea (1933), Columbia got her mixed up with voodoo sacrifices in Black Moon (1934), a forgotten semi-horror from director Roy William Neill with an almost Val Lewtonesque feel, and a real find. Murder in Greenwich Village (1937) is a sparky comedy murder mystery, with dialogue and characterisation clearly inspired by It Happened One Night, as most romantic comedies were around this time. Fay is the spoiled heiress, obliged to pretend for the sake of an alibi that she is engaged to an oafish photographer; they have some good bantering dialogue and there are a number of funny scenes in which their heated rows are interrupted and they are forced to switch instantly to devoted cooing. The film is further notable for Fay’s first appearance, in which she climbs out of a skylight, jumps from one building to another and then shins down the fire escape in her underwear.
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Most of her films can be found on public domain DVD, and I’ve yet to find a one in which she, at least, is not worth the effort. Look out for They Met In a Taxi, The Lawyer's Secret, Woman in the Dark, Navy Secrets, The Vampire Bat, It Happened in Hollywood and especially The Richest Girl in the World, in which she more than holds her own in support of Miriam Hopkins. It's a charming romantic comedy, and early go through of the millionairess-swaps-places-with-her-secretary-in-pursuit-of-true-love scenario, and an obvious influence on Jane Russell's The French Line.
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Though in the public consciousness she remains tied to a post on Skull Island, Fay’s now seems one of Hollywood’s most interesting careers, albeit one all too rarely rewarded at the box-office or by posterity. It’s also one of the most useful careers for the film historian in that it encompasses the entire history of classical Hollywood, via ingénues in silents, romantic leads in the early thirties, character roles and television in the fifties.
For an instant retrospective to celebrate the centenary of this most elegant of stars, start with The Wedding March, then try Pointed Heels, then a horror (Dr X or Most Dangerous Game, perhaps, rather than Kong) then take your pick from The Finger Points, One Sunday Afternoon, The Unholy Garden (1931), Ann Carver's Profession (1933) or Madame Spy (1934). As a finale, I suppose playing Leslie Nielsen's mother in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) has novelty value, if nothing else.