The Daughter of Fay Wray Explains the Grip of 'King Kong' on Cinema

We talk with Victoria Riskin about her mother's experience on 'King Kong' and how the film permeated their lives and ours.

King Kong Fay Wray
RKO Pictures

Movies are not the product of the gods. Movies are made by people. The confusion occurs when a film plunges into your heart and seems to fill your entire being. We find so much of ourselves in the movies that it feels like our connection with them is holy. And it is! Cinema is spiritual. The art binds us to the rest of us. Through them, we begin to understand the world outside the theater and break down the walls that divide. We praise them. We worship them. We venerate the individuals involved.

We call Fay Wray the first “scream queen.” In the original King Kong, clutched tightly in the grip of the eighth wonder of the world, the actress belted in horror like no other that came before her. In her terror, we found our own, recoiling as Kong dragged her through the jungles of Skull Island, across bottomless chasms, and battered dinosaurs lifeless. At the same time, she was a luminous beauty, and the great ape’s infatuation with her was understandable.

In 1933, King Kong was a gargantuan hit, which was no small feat as the country was in the middle of the Great Depression. Tickets ranged from 25 cents to 75 cents, and they sold by the truckload. From morning till night, seats were filled, and they stayed that way for months so folks could see the beauty topple the beast. Fay Wray entered into legend in the palm of Kong, and her name will never fade from the lips of movie maniacs.

King Kong, however, was just one of over a hundred credits to Fay Wray’s name. In fact, she made so many movies that Wikipedia can’t even be bothered to list them all. She worked with dozens of creators, in every type of movie and every kind of genre. Her face adorns our walls, and we’ll keep her name in lights until the Earth blinks out of existence, but she got there by doing everything she could to keep her family well-fed and happy.

Her daughter, Victoria Riskin, adores King Kong, but she also wants you to know that the woman that helped bring the ape into the spotlight was more than the scream queen dangling from the top of the Empire State Building. She was a worker and a loving mother. She was tremendously proud of her career and delighted in telling fans the secrets bubbling within the sauce of cinema. Fay Wray kept us happy, and in doing so, she stood guard for her family.

King Kong returns to cinemas on March 15th courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events. The film is nearly 90 years old and has been remade several times and will see some form of re-imagining this year when Kong goes up against Godzilla. I spoke to Risken over the phone, and we discussed her earliest memories of Kong, how her mother felt about the eighth wonder, why the big gorilla still resonates with audiences, and why you should see the original on the biggest screen possible. Here is our conversation in full:

What is your first memory of King Kong and hearing about your mother’s work in that film?

Well, there are two very vivid memories. I vaguely knew that she had been in a movie called King Kong, and one day when I was at my elementary school, a little boy came up to me and said, “Hey, is your father an ape?” I did not like that at all! So, I was kind of shy about even discussing the fact that my mother had been in this movie with King Kong.

Then, about that time, the movie was showing on television. I don’t know if it was Million Dollar Movie or just one of those Saturday morning shows. She said, “Do you want to watch it? Or do you feel you would like to see the film?” Then she said, “I think you’re old enough that you could see it.” And just her saying, “I think you’re old enough,” that’s all you have to say to a child. Well, of course, I’m old enough, I can see that movie.

She put me in front of the television set and I got engrossed in the story. She was a little worried about me, so she came into the room two or three times, sort of pretending she was going from the bedroom to the kitchen. Finally, towards the end of the film, she came in and I was sobbing. I was absolutely crushed, sobbing. And she said, “Oh my gosh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. Was it upsetting to you to see your mother in such distress?” And I said, “No, I felt so bad for King Kong because he just liked you, and everybody didn’t understand that.”

I completely identified with Kong, and then I didn’t speak to her for at least two hours, because I thought she had been part of this terrible conspiracy. It touches on what I think is the genius of the original film. By the end, you have sympathy for this beast who’s been taken out of his element. He runs amuck and all because he’s in search of this little person whom he loves.

King Kong Empire State Building Screenshot

From there, obviously, your relationship with the film evolved.

No question that it evolved. Ultimately, I realized that it was a remarkable film and an American classic. I appreciated it the more I learned about the two men who made the film, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Their backgrounds? What adventurers they were! Then there is the role that the film played in terms of saving RKO from bankruptcy. The whole history around that film makes it so much more fun and so remarkable.

But even in my own personal life, there’s a little sidebar story. Do you mind?

No, go ahead, please.

In 1978, I went to China, when China was still very closed. It was difficult to get in. I went with a group of people hosted by Norman Lear, who was then the top guy in television. Mary Tyler Moore was in our group and a lot of notables — Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, and so on.

The Chinese had not ever seen any of these television stars. They didn’t know who they were. And Norman is going around the room introducing them saying, “This is Mary Tyler Moore, and she’s the most famous television star in America.” And the Chinese are looking at her like they have no interest because they don’t know anything about her.

The meeting isn’t going all that well because everyone looks kind of dead-faced. Finally, he comes to me and says, “You might know Vicky because her mother was the star of King Kong.” And they started to pound their chest and laugh. They knew King Kong! It was this great icebreaker for our trip into what was then completely closed communist China.

So, King Kong has been kind of a family friend for a little bit. If you need to influence the maître d’ at a really great restaurant, sometimes knowing King Kong can help to open those doors.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.