Happy 106th birthday, Fay Wray!

The great Fay Wray was born 106 years ago in Cardston, Alberta.

Here’s the story of our one personal encounter with Ms. Wray. She was a patron and paying member of Film Forum here in NYC, and every now and then she would attend a screening there.

We were waiting in the lobby one evening when one of her movies was on the bill—it might have been King Kong, we can’t be sure—and as the credits rolled on the previous screening, we heard a round of applause from within the auditorium. That’s not unusual at Film Forum; old-movie fans often show their appreciation at the end of a picture they’ve enjoyed.

But perhaps thirty seconds later, there was another, more boisterous round of applause. Why would they be clapping again?, we wondered. But then it occurred to us that there was likely an actor in the house who was being introduced to the audience, and we guessed—correctly, as it turned out—that it must be Ms. Wray.

The funny thing was, no one else waiting in line in the lobby was paying attention to these rounds of applause. They were in pairs and threes and were chatting among themselves, so we were, seemingly, the only ones aware that Ms. Wray might be on the premises. And when she left the auditorium, we were the only ones who took any notice whatsoever of the elderly lady making her way through the lobby.

“Hello, Ms. Wray,” we said as she drew near, and she, still on an emotional high from the ovation she’d just received in the theatre, said, “God bless you!”

“God bless you, too, Ms. Wray,” we replied, and she was off.

Happy birthday, Fay Wray, wherever you may be!

Fay Wray

Cinematic slang: Joint

It can be fascinating to note the language in old pictures. Many of the usages are familiar, if musty, but occasionally one is surprised to hear a word or phrase one would have guessed was a more recent coinage.

Take the term “joint,” as in the phrase, “A Spike Lee Joint.” Like us, you may have assumed that usage was fairly contemporary.

However, we came across it some months back in a 1932 picture, The Finger Points.

In the film, Richard Barthelmess portrays a serious, gentlemanly reporter from the South who’s new to the big city. He quickly makes his mark at the major daily at which he’s been hired by covering the gangster beat. Regis Toomey is the office cut-up. He’s a reporter, too, but he’s not terribly diligent or motivated. He even warns Barthelmess against sticking his neck by going after the mob too hard.

Fay Wray‘s a reporter for the same paper, and both men are sweet on her, natch. (Clark Gable‘s in the picture, too, but not in this scene.)

Barthelmess wins her heart, but Toomey keeps pitching and when Barthelmess disappoints Wray by becoming a little too close to the gangsters he’s covering (he appears to be on the take with them), she tells Toomey in a weak moment that if he’ll get serious about his career, if he’ll do some legitimate, hard-hitting reporting, she’ll reconsider his offer of marriage.

Toomey does just that, and when he rushes over to Wray’s apartment to show her the blockbuster, front-page story he’s written, he finds Barthelmess there. Barthelmess is sympathetic, but explains to Toomey that he and Wray are about to go away together, that they intend to be married.

“I’m sorry,” Barthelmess says. “I really am. She’s a great girl.”

“You telling me?” Toomey responds, despondent. “Here’s my story all over the front page — swellest joint I ever wrote! — and now it doesn’t mean a thing.”

We somehow like the idea of Spike Lee using classic lingo, a term that’s been around for decades, rather than recently coined slang (though we wonder if Lee was aware of the term’s history).

A friend of ours is the North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (one thing we really love about life in NYC is that we occasionally get to make the acquaintance of such prominent, accomplished, and knowledgable individuals as this friend). He’s very generous with his estimable knowledge and expertise, and we, in turn, very occasionally share these little “discoveries” of ours with him.

We definitely get the better end of that deal, but we feel quite proud when we do pass on a usage that’s considered “news,” as was the use of “joint” in The Finger Points. We’ve not heard the final verdict, but our pal said at the time that the appearance of the term “joint” in a 1932 picture “could be really important.”

Here’s hoping.