Fay Wray died last week at 96. Her career started in the days of the silents; she starred in Erich von Stroheim‘s great (if not universally acknowledged by her contemporaries) The Wedding March. But it was for three decades worth of B-movies that made her famous. Wray starred in Doctor X (not the Humphrey Bogart-starring sequel or some other Frankensteinian mad scientist flick), Dragstrip Riot, The Most Dangerous Game, Hell on Frisco Bay. And it was one B-movie, perhaps the greatest movie at all, that made eulogies for a 92-year-old actress who hadn’t been in the movies in over twenty years and whose period of greatest fame was seventy years behind her. But what a B-movie it was: King Kong. Kong, the first and greatest of screen giants, was inspired by naturalist Douglas Burden’s 1926 discovery of the Komodo dragon, which proved the existance of the gigantic lizards, long presumed extinct. Producer Merian Cooper had done work on nature films — King Kong is basically a nature film writ large — and he reimagined Burden’s giant lizard as an even more giant ape. Skull Island is the lost world of the picture; the first time one sees the movie, it’s almost shocking how much of the film is spent watching Kong battle the denizens of Skull Island rather than travelling to New York. Animation pioneer Willis O’Brien created a masterpiece, a stop-motion ape who seemed to be genuinely acting, genuinely interacting with with the other characters (thanks in no small part to Cooper’s novel improvements to the rear projection technique used to superimpose actors on previously filmed footage). And then, of course, there were the Manhattan sequences, setting the standard for rampaging urban monsters for all time. All it took for cinema immortality for Vina Fay Wray, a ranch girl from Alberta who took drama classes at Hollywood High, was one great ape’s fist, one iconic Art Deco skyscraper, and one mighty scream. They are forever linked. For fifteen minutes last week, the Empire State Building dimmed its lights, paying tribute to the most famous woman ever to make it to the top floor the hard way.