Fay Wray spent the first three years of her life in Alberta, Canada, where her father ran a sawmill. The family came to America in 1911 and settled first in Arizona, then moved to Utah, following a reversal of family fortune. In 1923, she was brought to Los Angeles by a family friend who introduced her to people working in the still-fledgling film industry of Hollywood.
Her first job was as an extra at the Century Comedy Studio, where she made her debut appearance in the movies as a Charleston-dancing clown. By 1926, she had become a contract player at Universal Pictures, where she was featured mostly in westerns, including Lazy Lightning directed by William Wyler, and she was named to the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers “WAMPAS Baby Stars” list of up-and-coming starlets, along with Joan Crawford, Dolores Del Rio, and Mary Astor.
Erich Oswald Stroheim was born in Vienna in 1885 and emigrated to America in 1909, altering his name to Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim. He entered pictures in 1914 as an actor and assistant to D.W. Griffith, whom he always claimed as his mentor, and, in 1919, he directed and played the lead in his first film, Blind Husbands. His keen attention to detail, composition, gesture, and character quickly earned him a reputation for producing the most sophisticated adult dramas on the American screen. Fay Wray has said that if there was an aura of quality at Universal at the time she worked there, it was left over from the films Stroheim had made there a few years earlier.
Stroheim’s quest for perfection led to extravagance in every detail of his productions, putting him in constant conflict with his budget-minded producers. Studio heads did not share Stroheim’s penchant for shooting extensive footage, which he saw as necessary to ensure complete artistic control during the editing process, nor were they enthused by his desire to make films that were much longer than the commercial norm, in order to explore the psychology of his characters in greater depth.
The critical and popular success of The Merry Widow (1925), enabled Stroheim to attract an independent producer, Pat Powers, to his next project, a melancholic homage to Hapsburg Vienna, which was to be the culmination of themes he had explored in many of his films against a backdrop of pre-World War I European society. Filming started in June of 1926, with Stroheim assembling the cast from his stock company of players: Maude George from The Devil’s Passkey and Foolish Wives, ZaSu Pitts from Greed, George Fawcett from The Merry Widow, and Dale Fuller and Cesare Gravina from nearly all his films.
For the crucial role of Mitzi, Stroheim felt a new face was needed, a girl with the right combination of innocence and sensuality. Among the numerous applicants was a 19-year-old named Fay Wray, who remembered the meeting in Stroheim’s office years later, calling it “a really tremendous experience for me. He paced up and down telling the story, and I simply listened. Finally he said to me, `Do you think you could play Mitzi?’ and I said `I know I can!’ He extended his hand and said, `Good-bye, Mitzi.’” Overcome at having won the part, Wray spontaneously burst into tears, which Stroheim responded to with joy (“Oh! Oh! I can work with her!”). He signed her without a test.
Stroheim had originally envisioned his project as two films, with The Wedding March serving as part one. Part two, The Honeymoon, was only partially completed when Pat Powers had to abandon the financing, and the entire production was turned over to Paramount. Further shooting was cancelled, and Stroheim spent the next seven months assembling the footage into a six-hour film, which was then taken away from him and edited down to two hours. Paramount chose to release The Wedding March by itself in United States, and an 81-minute version of The Honeymoon was distributed briefly in Europe. The sole surviving print of The Honeymoon was destroyed in a fire at the Cinémathèque Française in 1957, five days after Stroheim’s death.
The Wedding March made Fay Wray a star, and she went on to become a prominent leading lady in the 1930s. Though she occupies a very special place in film history as the heroine in King Kong (1933) and the imperiled “Scream Queen” of such films as The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Doctor X (1932), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), she also delivered memorable performances in The Unholy Garden (1931), One Sunday Afternoon (1933), The Affairs of Cellini (1934), and Viva Villa (1934), among many others. She retired from the movies in the late 1950s to devote herself to writing, and her aptly-named autobiography On the Other Hand appeared in 1989.
In 1997, Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions undertook a restoration of The Wedding March, inspired by Fay Wray’s vivid account of the production. Working with the Library of Congress, they have produced a print that matches the re-edited version created by Erich von Stroheim at the Cinémathèque Française in 1954.
Presented at SFSFF 2000 with live music by Chris Elliott on the Mighty Wurlitzer