“Whatever happened to Fay Wray?….” Frank N. Furter asks us near the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) as he explains he wanted to be dressed in satin just like Fay before bursting into song once more.
Whether American-Canadian actress Fay Wray (1907-2004 in sleep) saw this tribute to her remains unknown but she was the first real sound scream queen of the early 1930s and appeared in several horror movies before the Production Code was enforced and took a slight edge off them.
The horror related films she made were the cannibal serial killer Doctor X (1932), which was in colour – albeit very greenly tinged – like Wray’s follow-up Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) from the same studio, there was also the man and woman as the hunted in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), the poverty row film The Vampire Bat (1933), the mega-hit King Kong (1933) in which she definitely screamed her quota, and the final of her ‘horrors’ which was the voodoo related Black Moon (1934).
In her first horror Doctor X, there is such a big cast of names that Wray hardly appears, but in it, Wray makes her first scream in a horror film. Perhaps she screamed before in one of the handful of sound movies she made before this, but I haven’t seen it. Anyway, the scream near the beginning of Doctor X is a red herring as nothing particularly scary has really happened.
But she proved she could scream all right as she later does again when she sees someone interfering with a corpse on a gurney. It’s really a low scream quota until she is almost molested by the serial killer at the end who says: “So, you think I went to Africa to study cannibalism!?” It was a taste of the full on screaming she would do in King Kong the following year.
I’m not sure of the order the films were made as along came The Most Dangerous Game in 1932, which was filmed at night time on the jungle sets used for King Kong during the day. In it, Leslie Banks (1890-1952 stroke) plays a crack shot with Wray and Joel McCrea (1905-90 pneumonia) as his prey on his isolated island.
If you can see a good copy instead of the bad public domain prints, this is a well-directed film which is good to look at and the fine grain print gives you a better chance of enjoying it. And it only runs just over an hour!
While I doubt it is Wray who dodges the alligator in the swamp as Banks’ great danes close in, it’s a believable stunt double.
“… Bring her here now,” demands Leslie Banks as he pounds away on his piano, thinking he has won her fair and square near the end and not knowing that he will soon “cheerfully admit defeat!”
For horror buffs, the film does provide one mild ‘gore’ effect in the form of a head in a jar. Apparently, there was a preview version of the film with more heads in jars and heads mounted on the wall in Banks’ home but the scenes scared audiences so much that they headed for the exit doors. So, these scenes were cut. By the way, since they probably knew Wray would scream so much in King Kong, they didn’t have her scream in this film.
The year of Wray’s greatest success though was 1933, with the release of King Kong, Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat.
Mystery of the Wax Museum is pure Pre-Code with actress Glenda Farrell (1901-71 lung cancer) asking a policeman reading Naughty Stories magazine: “How’s your sex life?” while an opium addicted “junkie guy” scores in a dark hallway and a suicide uses narcotics to kill herself perhaps accidentally. The junkie is played by Arthur Edmund Carewe (1887-1984 suicide by gunshot) who was also in Doctor X. This actor suffered a paralytic stroke in 1936 and severely depressed blew his brains out in a motel parking lot the following year.
It’s Farrell who lets out the first real scream in the movie, while Wray gasps at the sight of deaf and mute Igor who is “quite harmless” – yeah, right! She leaves her best screams for the film’s final reveal with the villain and also when she is strapped naked except for a white sheet to a gurney and about to be encased in wax. Scream quota: peaking!
King Kong is still a master work to watch in terms of its effects even though it is so old and primitive compared to say Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), as you’d expect. We know Kong in the 1933 version isn’t a man in a suit which helps and the action has almost every type of dinosaur attacking the cast on an island with a place named Skull Mountain… The effects used for the creatures are ‘stop motion’ a process which would be continued to be used until the 1970s and even as late as Clash of the Titans (1981). You’ll know it when you see it.
Although Wray isn’t in the sequel Son of Kong (1933), I thought I’d briefly look at this rushed production which gave effects master Willis O’Brien (1886-1962) only six months to cook up another ape and monsters before it would be given a Christmas release the same year as the original King Kong.
Son of Kong has Robert Armstrong (1890-1973 cancer) reprise his role as the entrepreneur Carl Denham who returns to the island with stowaway Helen Mack (1913-86 cancer). A couple of other characters also return in the film.
“Well, if it isn’t a little Kong,” says Armstrong in Son of Kong about the 12-foot high albino gorilla who is stuck in some quicksand.
“Don’t you think we ought to help him?,” asks Mack, who is in no way frightened by this sight and it is the other non-human inhabitants of the island which are various dinosaurs that are more dangerous and make up the bulk of the action of the film. It is the sight of one which provokes a slight distant scream from Mack and while it is said all the screams used in the movie were actually those of Wray, you’ll find that scream, which we barely hear, is the only scream in the film.
Producer of Son of Kong, Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973 cancer), who had helped make the original, felt dudded by RKO studios and lost interest in the project when he got told he had half the budget of the original and six months to get it into theatres. The finished product was always going to be a compromise and performed ordinarily at the box office while being treated lukewarmly by critics. It doesn’t help that the little Kong doesn’t appear until halfway through what is barely a seventy-minute film. Compare this to the epic of the first one which ran nearly 100 minutes.
Special effects director Willis described the film as “cheesy” in one report but it is surprising that Willis broke his silence on the original and this film as tragedy engulfed his life during the production of Son of Kong.
It was while the film was being made that his ex-wife murdered his two young sons with a gun and tried to kill herself. The woman, who was dying of tuberculosis, would live another year as the bullet drained her tubercular lung. The two boys, one blind already from tuberculosis, had visited their father on the special effects stage during the making of King Kong. So, as a result O’Brien never spoke of the making of these two films, so his comment of “cheesy” seems unlikely and even anachronistic.
It is also said that O’Brien also turned down an Oscar for King Kong because he wanted his whole effects team to get a statuette, something which further added to his reputation as an outsider in Hollywood. Many of his projects went unrealised throughout the years as a result and the failure of Son of Kong meant another gorilla picture by RKO using his effects entitled Mighty Joe Young wouldn’t be produced until 1949.
Thanks to Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), who carried on the stop motion tradition perfected by O’Brien, one of O’Brien’s projects was finally realised after his death – The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
But back to Wray’s career and along with the original Kong, where she peaked in terms of the amount of screaming she ever did on film, she made the The Vampire Bat (1933) which starred Lionel Atwill, who had appeared with her in Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. It must have been their success which prompted the casting.
Made by a poverty row production company called Majestic Pictures, The Vampire Bat looks better than most of its cheap brothers and cousins made at similar studios, because the producers leased the German backlot from James Whale’s (1889-1957 suicide by drowning) Frankenstein (1931) and the interiors from the same director’s The Old Dark House (1933). It also uses that low budget site that is still used today by filmmakers – Bronson Cavern and Canyon.
The Vampire Bat features that cult actor, for some, Dwight Frye (1899-1943 heart attack), a Christian Scientist who wouldn’t seek treatment for his heart ailment and who died while on a bus in Hollywood aged 44. For those who don’t know, he made an impression as Renfield in the original Dracula (1931) and was such an original actor that he was hard to cast.
Also, in The Vampire Bat, as Aunt Gussie, is Maude Eburne (1875-1960), who played many a neurotic screaming maid in her time including a favourite of mine The Bat Whispers (1930), which is an old dark house style murder mystery unrelated to The Vampire Bat.
The Bat Whispers was one of the first films to be shot in widescreen and directed by Roland West (1885-1952 complications of stroke) who was suspected of murdering his girlfriend actress Thelma Todd (1906-35 carbon monoxide poisoning) and that too is another tale altogether.
Frye is the best part of The Vampire Bat as the half-wit who says “bats good’ despite their reputation around the town to do with several deaths. Frye collects them and strokes them as he takes them home.
“Seems strange that a human being would want to play with bats,” says one suspicious villager before a mob of them go after Frye which ends with him plummeting into a pit in Bronson Cavern. They got the wrong guy!
For such a cheapie, the script is above average and the direction is good. The cast is impressive too and includes Melvyn Douglas (1901-81) who finished his career with the superior horrors The Changeling (1980) and Ghost Story (1981).
Fay doesn’t scream in this one but she threatens to at the beginning when surprised in her laboratory by Douglas and instead of a scream there is the sound of a slightly flat champagne cork as a rubber hose becomes unplugged from a test tube.
But what I’ve promised to look at is Wray in Black Moon, which isn’t a zombie movie although it does deal with voodoo. The Halperin Brothers had success with their film White Zombie the previous year which kicked off the voodoo/zombie cycle.
The male lead of Black Moon is Jack Holt (1888-1951 heart attack) and it is directed by Roy William Neill (1887-1946 heart attack) who worked on eleven of the Basil Rathbone (1892-1967 heart attack) Sherlock Holmes movies in the 1940s. Neill also directed The Ninth Guest (1934) the same year as Black Moon. That film was written by White Zombie’s Garnett Weston (1890-1980) who must have been on a roll as it is a clever little film in the mould of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But I digress…
Cited as Fay’s last horror film, Black Moon also has the distinction of being the last film released before the Hays Code was enforced. It’s beautiful to look at and we guess the island microcosm is supposed to be around Haiti way, as Holt visits his strange wife, whose love of voodoo drums where she grew up goes further than the beating of her husband’s heart. There is a five-year old daughter involved too.
The island in the film is called San or St. Christopher which although unrelated is another name for the tiny island nation of St. Kitts in the Caribbean where there was once slavery which was part of the influence in the formation of the voodoo religion. See the Halperin Brothers article for more information.
Like in St. Kitts, the natives of the island in Black Moon speak Creole and they are “restless” with Holt’s wife part of their obsession as she is drawn back to the island. She is played by Dorothy Burgess (1907-61) who was charged with manslaughter a couple of years earlier for a car accident in San Francisco which killed a teenage girl in another car. This happened a couple of nights before Christmas 1932 so I guess a few celebratory drinks were involved. It appears the charges were dropped after Burgess went into a sanitorium for “shock”.
Anyway, Burgess is relegated to playing the bad girl as her character is part of the island’s voodoo cult whether she likes it or not and she and her young daughter are in danger of being enveloped by the superstitious natives.
Much of the atmosphere of Black Moon and the voodoo cult stem from those drums beating in the distance plus the eerie silence when they are not…along with the singing of the natives themselves. Similar drums played a part in I Walked with a Zombie (1943) many years later with similar mild chills.
There is a link between this movie and White Zombie and that is black actor Clarence Muse (1889-1979) who appeared uncredited in White Zombie as a coach driver. Here in Black Moon he has a meatier part and I remember seeing him as a kid in The Black Stallion (1979) and being amazed that at his age he was still acting at what was the now less remarkable age of ninety.
“Do you realise that I saw my wife…,” says Holt later who is interrupted before he can tell all the gory details of a ritual which involves Burgess cavorting with the natives and dancing and gyrating around wildly much to their wild adoration. You could allude she was half naked as that sort of thing was allowed before The Code! Anyway, Holt can’t get over it and I guess nor would you… and he has killed the high priest at the ritual, which was about to end with murder, leading to further unrest on the island…
The radio at the mansion where Holt’s family and others gather for safety is smashed…. And it doesn’t look good for Holt and his young daughter, oh, and did I mention Fay Wray? She has tagged along with Holt to the island as his secretary who holds an unrequited love for her boss. It’s not the best role in her horrors and, as you’d suspect, she’s the good girl.
Meanwhile there’s going to be a proper human sacrifice with no interruptions this time and it just maybe the young child chosen as the victim as the mansion is surrounded by natives… Paranoia? It’s certainly the ultimate in what is possibly not a great depiction of black natives in the 1930s, who worship a white goddess in the form of Burgess. I guess it’s not surprising that Burgess’s name is Juanita which means God’s gift or gift from God. It’s just that Burgess’s Juanita realises too late that her real gift from God is her five-year-old daughter Nancy who is taken away from her much to the delight of the natives… and then returned, leaving Juanita a shivering wreck. As the child is about to get her throat cut… But that would be spoiling these events which only happen on a Black Moon! Wray scream quota: zero.
Fay Wray will forever be linked to King Kong in a role she said in her biography was originally meant for Jean Harlow (1911-37 kidney failure). As the first real scream queen, she seemed to face them all including various beasts, great white hunters, serial killers, vampires and voodoo cults. She gave up on horror when it was about to be diluted by the Production Code… and as her roles appeared to weaken. But, on occasion, could she scream!