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“Whatever happened to Fay Wray?” were the immortal words sung by actor Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter in the all-time cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

That’s what I think of anytime I read an article tagging Jamie Lee Curtis with the title of “Original Scream Queen”. However, Curtis didn’t make her indelible mark on the horror genre until her starring appearance in 1978’s Halloween. It should also be noted that scream queens were around decades before Jamie Lee Curtis first started running from the maniac Michael Myers. In fact, scream queens go back to the earliest talkies, when viewers could finally hear the screams themselves.

“Scream Queen” was not a flattering term, and not one that a well-rounded actor like Jamie Lee Curtis would aspire to, anyway. It was generally a term given to female actors who play characters who cannot escape the danger themselves, so they must scream for the handsome hero to come save them.

According to Slate, the term was first ascribed to Fay Wray in the 1930s for her iconic role as Ann Darrow in the famed monster movie King Kong. The magazine notes that the role of a scream queen has changed over the years, and it had felt cliché by the time Curtis took on the title in the 1970s. Actors like Curtis actually ushered in that more modern term, “last lady” and, in fact, “scream queen” was becoming a tag of mockery far earlier than even Slate notes.

Would you believe it was a term or derision as early as the days of Abbott & Costello’s horror parodies? It’s true. The comedy team parodied scream queens in their first horror spoof. No, I am not talking about Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948, but rather Hold That Ghost in 1941. In it, Joan Davis plays a character named Camille Brewster, who has an acting job screaming for radio programs. But even she could do more than scream for the camera, as she proves by going line-for-line and toe-to-toe with the legendary comic Lou Costello. Her timing with Costello is impeccable, and their dance routine in Hold That Ghost is hilarious. It’s worth the time to see the film for that scene alone.

But perhaps the reason Curtis has become synonymous with the title of “original scream queen” is because Fay Wray has been so closely attached to King Kong and not her other roles? Most modern audiences associate Wray with that movie to the point it sometimes feels like she was a one-hit wonder.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. According to the IMDb, Fay Wray has 124 credits to her name, dating all the back to the silent era when she was acting full time as a teenager. Much of her early work in silents was in westerns, including working with the genre’s stars of the era like Hoot Gibson.

When the talkies came around, Wray was already a leading lady, co-starring with such stars as Gary Cooper and Ronald Coleman. But she was never a one-hit-wonder. Her overall body of work, even in the horror genre alone, covers far more material than just the legendary King Kong. With that in mind, let’s consider that body of work:

King Kong – Let’s start with the obvious film that she is best remembered for. Her part in this one is legendary. When informed of this project, she was simply told that she would be playing alongside “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” She thought they meant Cary Grant. Playing alongside the giant ape instead, she still put on a memorable, iconic performance. She belts out several screams in many scenes, practically defining the term “scream queen.”

But beyond the screams, Wray brings a delicate finesse to the role of Ann Darrow, one that perhaps she should be better remembered for than her impressive pair of lungs screeching from the screen.

She was an old-school actor who used that unique Hollywood accent developed during that time. Yes, Hollywood really did create its own accent, which was supposed to be a combination of British and American English.

The Most Dangerous Game – This jungle adventure film works well with the above classic. The story involves shipwrecked passengers stranded on an island where the only permanent resident hunts the humans who often get stuck there. Wray plays Eve who runs around the jungles with her leading man, Bob, played by Joel McRea. The hunter is Count Zaroff, played by Leslie Banks. The idea comes from a short story of the same name by Richard Connell, and if the plot sounds familiar, it should. Not only has it been remade several times, including a 2020 series on the Roku channel, the plot was also used in numerous television shows from the 1970s and 1980s, such as The Incredible Hulk and Heart to Heart.

This version of the film has many connections to Kong, including a big chase taking place in some mighty familiar sets from Kong, including the famous giant log. And there are similar cast members, such as Robert Armstrong, who plays Wray’s brother here, and Noble Johnson, the Skull Island native chief in Kong who plays Zaroff’s servant, Ivan, here.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum – After Kong, this was Wray’s next biggest hit in the horror genre playing Charlotte Duncan, the leading lady in this little masterpiece. It was directed by the great Michael Curtiz, who also directed the much-celebrated Casablanca.

Wray plays opposite Lionel Atwill, whom you will read about a lot in this list. Although this film is often overshowed by its remake, House of Wax, starring Vincent Price, this version stands out as quite the classic in its own right. It was filmed in early 2-strip technicolor, which would be replaced by the superior process of 3-strip technicolor a few years later.

Without giving away any spoilers, I will simply say that the film’s climax is literally Fay Wray belting out one of the very blood-curdling screams that made her famous.

Doctor X – This film makes for a perfect co-feature to Mystery of the Wax Museum for several reasons.

Although there’s a heavy dose of science fiction here, this movie, too, is filmed in 2-strip technicolor, it’s directed by Michael “Casablanca” Curtiz, and it co-stars Lionel Atwill as the title character, Doctor Dr. Jerald Xavier.

Wray plays his daughter, Joanne, and the love interest to Lee Taylor (played by Lee Tracy).

The plot depicts mad scientist, Dr. Xavier, trying to oust a serial killer called the Moon Killer, even though Dr. Xavier is a suspect himself.

Related Content:

The Rise and Fall of Lionel Atwill

The Sons of Zaroff: The Most Dangerous Game and Real Murder

Death Masks: Dissecting the Three Wax Museum Movies

The Vampire Bat – I told you we would see a lot of Lionel Atwill on this list. Here he returns as the lead mad scientist once again, Dr. Otto Von Niemann. But he is not the only star of the era to appear in this one. It also features Melvyn Douglas as Wray’s love interest, Karl Brettschneider, and the indelible Dwight Frye as Herman Gleib.

In it, people are mysteriously dying from blood loss in a small backward village, and Gleib is the poor developmentally disabled sap who gets blamed while Douglas is the investigator trying to solve the crime.

While the villagers believe a vampire is to blame, Douglas believes in a more natural cause.

The Clairvoyant – You probably should have seen this one coming (ba-dum-dum). But seriously, this somewhat obscure film is a little slow but not bad if you can follow it.

It features Wray alongside Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), who plays the title role. At first, Rains’ character’s clairvoyance is only a stage trick, while his wife and assistant, Rene (played by Wray), provides cues. But one night, Rene ends up locked out of the theater during the performance, and Rains’ character discovers he has true clairvoyance.

Can their marriage survive the pressures that ensue from such powers? You will have to watch to find out.

Black Moon – Let’s finish where we started, with another jungle-set action flick, the likes of which were so popular in the 1930s. World Imperialism was still going strong at this time, although most could see cracks forming in that geopolitical approach by then and knew it would soon fall. This film takes an interesting look at that imperialism and the attitudes thereof.

It is the story of a white girl who was born in Africa and wishes to return there, even though there are threats of voodoo curses. One should be warned that this film does include some stereotypes of native Africans believing in and practicing voodoo. On the other hand, at times it also depicts some of the cruelty whites imposed on their foreign colonies. Provocative stuff.

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