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Fay Wray's underappreciated career as a genre queen

By Sara Century
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Fay Wray is remembered best for her role in the original King Kong as Ann Darrow, the woman who is kidnapped and carried about like a rag doll while Kong goes on his city-wide rampage. Yet she had a much longer career than just that one film, spanning several different genres and working for more than half a century. In her early years in Hollywood, she would have been better known for a series of westerns she had done in the silent era than anything else, but even at that, she’d also been in several comedies and romances. Wray was a working actor for most of her life, so her filmography is mostly all over the place.

Of course, we’re mostly here for Wray’s career as a Scream Queen. In the time leading up to what would become her definitive role, she starred in a series of low-budget horror movies that are now considered as much a part of classic horror canon as Frankenstein or The Mummy.

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The Early Days

There isn’t much in the way of information around Wray’s early life, and what we do know about her is usually centered around the roles she played and a handful of later-life interviews, long after she’d stopped appearing in horror films. She was born in 1907 and lived to the age of 94 before her passing. Though she eventually stopped acting, for the most part, her career spanned about 57 of those 94 years, and she played a wide variety of roles. She won a role in a local historical film and was named one of the Hollywood starlets most likely to achieve fame, and that kickstarted her long career.

Of course, it took several years in Hollywood for it to happen, but she was eventually cast in a little movie called King Kong. This is a film that has been written about, analyzed, rebooted, and reimagined so much that audiences are unlikely to forget the franchise anytime soon, but Wray was there at ground zero. It’s safe to say that this two-hour-long film has achieved about as epic a standing in Hollywood history as any movie could. In a time where horror was coming briefly to the forefront of cinema for U.S. audiences, King Kong will go down in history as one of the best-known genre movies of all time.

Yet it is far from the only classic horror film to be released in 1933. Alongside it came The Invisible Man, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, The Monkey’s Paw, and countless other premises that we now consider intrinsic to horror. Many other actors may have helped to form the heart and soul of the early years of horror, but Fay Wray was particularly omnipresent.

The Horror Career of Fay Wray

In 1932, Wray played the role of Joan Xavier in Doctor X, daughter of a professor at a medical institution. The film is told through the perspective of reporter Lee Tracy, who attempts to interview Doctor Xavier under the suspicion that he may be the gruesome murderer stalking the city streets at night and cannibalizing his victims. Though much of the plot rotates around the men of the film, Joan is an interesting character in her own right. Out of loyalty to her father, she completely rebuffs Tracy’s advances, which is one of the movie's more entertaining scenes. Tracy isn’t that cool, so we like her for that, though she does eventually come to see the good in him. She stands by her father, but some of the tensest moments of the film are when she is blithely posing as the victim in a reenactment of the murder, with Xavier looming over her while everyone else in the room is convinced that she’s about to be murdered. The early '30s horror boom was a beast at the box office, and Doctor X did well enough to provide Wray with more horror work.

The Most Dangerous Game is another film that has gone on to impact what we understand of horror, as it served as the essential plot of later films like Surviving the Game, the more recent Ready or Not, and, of course, countless parodies over the years. The plot follows a man named Bob who becomes the sole survivor of a shipwreck and swims to land, only to become the game for a group of rich hunting enthusiasts who are well aware that he will never be missed by a world that is unaware he survived to begin with. Surviving imminent death only to be hunted by a group of gun enthusiasts is possibly the worst possible turn a person's life could take, so this remains an unsettling film to this day — particularly when we come to understand that the men in question have already been hunting human beings that they considered disposable and keeping their heads on display in a private room.

Wray plays the role of Eve, who is only along for the vacation yet quickly finds herself on the run with Bob. The two of them have to work together to escape. Though Eve is told that she won’t be hunted because she is a "weak female," she will still be killed if they are caught regardless, and it is her guile that helps save both her and Bob’s lives.

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In early 1933, Wray appeared in The Vampire Bat, in which her role is unfortunately minor but remains the most entertaining part of the film when she deals with her increasingly nervous hypochondriac aunt, trying to calm her while people are truly dropped dead from blood deficiency left and right. Her third film with Lionel Atwill (of both Doctor X and The Vampire Bat), titled Mystery of the Wax Museum, soon followed.

In Wax Museum, Wray was not the only female lead; she actually played the roommate of the more prominent "brassy reporter," Florence Dempsey. The creator behind the prominent works in a local wax museum remarks to Wray’s character, Charlotte Duncan, that she “bears a striking resemblance” to a statue of Marie Antoinette, and right away you get the feeling that something might be a little off about the guy. Because it’s a horror film of the ‘30s, that suspicion is proved correct within about seven minutes of screentime. Florence attempts to get to the bottom of a series of murders but is humiliated when she only helps to bust a local bootlegger who hides his booze in mysterious crates. Meanwhile, Charlotte is neck-deep in the murder story as she is kidnapped and barely escapes the gruesome fate of being encased in wax. The films Wray did with Atwill as her co-star are early forays into comedic horror, and there's just as much emphasis on her ability to play the straight man while chaos goes down all around her as there is on her talents as a scream queen — yet, in each instance, a mortified Wray seems forever at the center of the killer's schemes.

In short, the early winter of 1933 was treating Fay pretty well, as she'd starred in at least two immensely successful horror films even in the early months of the year. Then, in March, King Kong came along and changed everything. Neither Fay's career nor the horror landscape would ever be the same.

Fay Wray is an example of an actor whose entire career is often pared down to a single film, but there was more to her than that. Because of her work in early horror, other actors were able to come in and build on what she had done — and in the years since, she certainly remains a definitive voice in the story of scream queens across the decades.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.