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

Incredible. What is it about the film that connects to so many generations and so many different cultures?

Such a good question, because there is something. Look at Peter Jackson, who fell in love with movies through the love of this film. Even today, young people will come up to me and say, “I’ve seen that old King Kong movie and I loved your mother.” There is something about it. I think it’s a sense of adventure, of going off. The mystery of finding something unimaginable.

Little by little, through the course of the film, the beast is no longer a beast. He becomes this sympathetic character. Probably because of the way it was done with the technology of stop-motion photography. Each little movement of Kong has been completed with a single photographic image then added to the next single photograph image. The hair on the body has been glued on. There’s a kind of almost natural feeling to the Kong character versus the hyper digitized version.

But it’s really a love story, and it’s a tragedy that I just think touches people’s hearts at the end of it.

I was just doing a review for a book about Max Steiner, the film’s composer. The last time I saw the film, I watched it only paying attention to the music, and I realized that that was as equally important to the entire emotional journey as the Kong character or my mother’s character. The film music is brilliant and so evocative. It sets the stage. How to underscore the emotional moments, when to have silence, when to have intensity, you know? When to bring the gong in! Study film composers and you study film itself.

I’ve seen that film probably a dozen times, if not more, but only once before on the big screen. How important is it to you that the film is brought out for these repertory screenings?

Well, I just think it’s thrilling that Fathom Events is doing this, and that people will see the film on the big screen, and a restored version of it. There was a time when King Kong played someplace every day around the world, and then it kind of faded and went into DVD, and it went into the little screen. There’s nothing like seeing a beautiful print of a film on a big screen.

King Kong Empire State Building Screenshot

Yeah, agreed. Big and loud, it’s a movie that demands it.

Yes. There’s actually a musical introduction to the film. Max Steiner did an overture. It elevated the concept. An overture elevates the film into something more than a movie. Here is a great drama that’s about to unfold.

What does it mean for you to talk to folks like me about this film and about your mom?

Well, I love talking about this film and my mom. Last year, I finished a biography on both of my parents. I spent time with Kong and the history of Kong, and my mother, and what life was like for her when she was making the movie. It was the middle of the Depression. The same year that she was filming King Kong, she made 10 other movies in which she starred. Everybody was working as hard as they possibly could. She had reached that point in her career, not only was she in demand, but she had her family to support, and her husband’s family to support. She felt it was her responsibility to work as much as she could.

Also, to help the industry, because the industry was very much in an endangered period where people stopped going to movies. They just couldn’t afford the 25 cents or whatever it cost then. That was another contribution that this film made. People were so excited to see it. They started to come back to the movies again. It helped sort of spur on the motion picture industry at a time that it was really in free fall. There is a lot of history there. Not only in terms of film history but also American history.

As you got older and you would talk to your mom about her experiences in Hollywood, how did she reflect back on it?

I think when she made the film, she hardly thought it would be the big hit that it would become. And she thought, “Oh my goodness, I screamed too much in the movie.” Because they actually recorded her screaming and then they looped it, so it probably seemed like it was an awful lot.

She made over a hundred films. I think she wished there were some others that people would remember. But in time, she became really wonderful friends with King Kong and appreciated it. She lived in New York for the last part of her life. She would say, “Every time I walk by the Empire State Building, I look up and say a little prayer because a good friend of mine died up there.” She had a kind of playful approach to the film.

In her own autobiography [On the Other Hand], she wrote a letter to Kong, and she said, “I’m addressing this to you at Skull Island. I don’t have the zip code, so I hope it reaches you. Do you understand what you have meant in my life?” And she goes on to talk about how Kong was an important character to her. She says, “I just hope I meant something to you.”

So, she turned Kong into this lovely friend. She pictured him sitting, say in rocking chair, being a little elderly and tame, and kind of sweet and eating too many bananas. She had this whole inventive, magical way of engaging with Kong that she expressed.

She loved to talk to audiences about the film and remember her great friends, particularly with Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack. Until the end of their lives, they all stayed good friends.

King Kong Fay Wray Scream Screenshot

What were the films she wished others would talk about besides King Kong?

Well, first of all, she made The Most Dangerous Game at the same time she made King Kong.

Right, sure. Another great movie. 

With the same team and on the same sets. So, you can imagine her life was pretty busy then.

Yeah, absolutely. As you were saying.

However, her first big breakthrough film was a silent film called The Wedding March, which was directed by Erich von Stroheim, and she starred opposite him. He was a master filmmaker. I think as a young actress who finally got a big role at age 19 with the great von Stroheim, that was probably the most powerful filmmaking experience for her. Mainly because it was her first, but also because it had complexity. He was so excited for her to work with him even though the film was taken away from him before it was finished, because he had overspent.

The final version is now two hours where originally it was four hours, but the second part was lost in a fire in France. It screens now at silent film festivals. It’s wonderful to see, and it’s been restored by Paramount.

All of this film restoration is so exciting to me because we think of these as an entertainment form, and then who cares? We say that, but now when you realize how marvelous it is to see these films restored, how beautiful they look, what their original richness and qualities were, and how they are film history, it’s just quite thrilling.

When you talk to folks about your mom, is there an aspect that people don’t inquire about, whether it’s about King Kong or her career that you wish people would focus on?

I guess what she was like as a mother.

Oh yeah?

She as a wonderful mother. She was whimsical, smart, caring, loving, playful. If I had any fault with her as a mother, it’s that she never criticized her children. She was very, very caring and supportive. You might say to a fault. There were times when I thought I shouldn’t get away with that.

We often think of film stars as these iconic figures who we see on the screen, but behind the scenes, there’s a family, there are relationships, and she managed life. She came from what I call pioneer stock. She was born in Canada, but really from a pioneer Mormon family. Then they left the Mormon family, but that pioneer’s strengths saw her through quite a bit.

The more I think about her, and reflect on her and try to write about her, I realize what a resilient person she was, but she was resilient with kindness and warmth and humor, which is not to say her life was easy. I think it’s good for people to know about the difficulties she faced because I think we all face difficulties and work our way through and she’s a good role model in that sense.

King Kong has captured the imagination of many people. It seems to get remade every few decades. We’ve got another King Kong movie coming up later this year. How do you feel about these revisions of your mother’s film?

Well, it’s hard for me not to be a little biased on behalf of the original, but the fact that it gets remade tells you that the story has resonance across time.

The one that I felt particularly appreciative of was the Peter Jackson remake because he so adored my mother, so how could I not appreciate that. I went to meet with him. He wanted her to do a little cameo in the film. She was over 90 at the time. Actually, I didn’t think that was a good idea, because I think everybody should remember her as the young Ann Darrow, but that wasn’t my decision. It was hers and she chose not to do it. I think he paid tribute to her in a lovely way. In the end, he dedicated the film to her saying, “This is for the incomparable Fay Wray.” Of course, I also thought Naomi Watts was wonderful.

Do I think it holds up to the original? It’s almost too perfect. It’s almost too perfect. So, I appreciate it very much. And I loved that Peter loved the original and wanted to do it, but I’m sticking with the first one.


King Kong returns to theaters on March 15th. Yout can purchase tickets HERE.

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