One night while watching an exquisite double feature on TCM (Creature From the Black Lagoon and Tarantula), I was able to put aside, for a moment, the fashion questions posed by these flicks (Julie Adams’ stunning white bathing suit – white always being the sensible choice for swimming in the Amazon – and Mala Powers’ inexplicable white gloves in a crusty desert town with dirt roads), and consider the respective screaming techniques of those actors. Ms. Powers’ pitiful squeak came out a poor second to Ms. Adams’ flawed, but lusty bellow. Ms. Adams’ technique was probably better suited for the stage than the camera. She paused, registered the menace (as implausible as it was), took a deep breath, and cut loose with a face-shattering, but perfectly coifed shriek. Not bad. I’d give it an eight (the bathing suit, brooking no discussion, gets a solid ten).
The female star/victims of these cinematic expressions of the 19th-century penny dreadfuls are often referred to as “scream queens”, but how often do we really evaluate their screaming abilities? We (or at least I) revere Barbara Steele, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Adrienne Barbeau, Judy Geeson, Evelyn Ankers, and so many others for their contributions to the horror genre. However, their contributions are usually visual; big eyes, big hair, big…? (I believe the traditional euphemism for this moment is “charms.”) The exception in this group would be Ms. Geeson. Her screaming in the sublimely crude It Happened in Nightmare Inn (imagine a Spanish Motel Hell) was spot on.
As fine a shrieker as Ms. Geeson is though, there’s one old yeller that’s truly the queen.
My first play on the Guignol stage at the University of Kentucky was “Playboy of the Western World”, directed by Charles Dickens (yes, that was his real name) in September, 1969. One evening in rehearsal Professor Dickens coached me in a reactive moment to let forth a “Fay Wray” scream. I had to confess my complete ignorance as to who Fay Wray might be. Charles muttered “dull…flat…literal undergraduate students…” and moved on to presumably more literate and direct-able cast members.
However, I took this admonition to heart and later in the year I had a chance to see Ms. Wray’s performance opposite the title character on top of a New York skyscraper in King Kong. Keep in mind this was before Netflix, TCM, Youtube, cable television, Tivo, streaming, dvr’s, and vcr’s. I didn’t even own a television set! I had to be on TV Guide* alert to learn when a local channel (two channels – count ‘em – two!) would be showing the movie and then impose on some classmate (probably Chuck Pogue) to let me come to their place watch it. Watch it I did, and to this day for me, no one screams like Fay Wray. It’s spontaneous. It’s instant. It’s totally committed to the moment.
The next fall, I was cast in the Guignol’s production of “Billy Budd”. This jolly little play takes place on a British ship in the 1800’s. Why a college theatre department comprised of about a dozen active male actors and about five dozen active female actors would choose to do a play with a cast of 26 males and no females is beyond my pay grade, but schedule it they did, and the predictable result was that there were a few guys in the cast that had seriously limited experience on stage…like…none. There’s a big moment in the first act of the play in which a sailor falls (offstage) from the heights of the ship’s rigging to his death. His screams are the audience’s only connection to the tragedy of the moment. Unfortunately, this part was being played by an English major whose previous stage experience consisted of accepting his high school diploma. The director (Ray Smith) held auditions for offstage screamers to create the moment.
Guess who got the part…and killed it.
Fay Wray will always be the ultimate scream queen to this grateful geezer.
- TV Guide was an indispensable weekly digest-sized magazine that listed the program schedules of the two local channels and included jaunty puff-piece articles about the programs and actors. You had to pay for this. Ah…the good ol’ days. How did we survive?