Despite the fact that Wray had no previous screen credits, Lewton hired her to rework the story of I Walked with a Zombie with only two months to go before shooting was due to start. Wray amply repaid Lewton’s trust, turning in a haunting and atmospheric rewrite that became one of Lewton’s most critically acclaimed productions.
* * *
During the wartime years of the 1940s, RKO Pictures produced a series of low-budget B-movie chillers that have since become classics of the genre, celebrated for their subtlety and intelligence despite the lurid titles imposed by the studio. Produced by Russian émigré Val Lewton, the films effectively kick-started the careers of venerated directors Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise. Other well-known industry names such as writer DeWitt Bodeen also found fame as a result of their association with Lewton’s B unit, affectionately nicknamed “The Snake Pit.”
However, Ardel Wray, whose credits include I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and Isle of the Dead, remains largely unrecognized, despite contributing to more Lewton projects than any other single writer and despite being the only female writer on his team. In addition, she co-wrote what is arguably the best of the RKO “Falcon” thriller series, and wrote the original screenplay for the unproduced Boris Karloff/Val Lewton historical mystery Blackbeard the Pirate. At the time of her association with Lewton’s unit, Wray was one of only a handful of female screenwriters (along with forerunners such as Ruth Rose, Lillie Hayward, and Irene Kuhn) ever to write acclaimed screenplays for the horror and thriller genres during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. Further screenwriting assignments followed at Paramount, but, tragically, Wray would fall foul of the anticommunist hysteria that swept through Hollywood in the late 1940s.
Ardel Wray was born Ardel Mockbee on October 28, 1907, in Spokane, Washington. She was the only daughter of stage, film, and TV actress Virginia Brissac and stage actor Eugene Mockbee. Her parents separated while she was still a young child, and she was taken to live with her grandparents in San Francisco while her mother continued her acting career. She was raised primarily by her grandfather, B. F. Brissac, “an old-fashioned, Enlightenment-inspired progressive, who lived by a personal code and who raised his granddaughter to do the same.”1 He doted on Wray and was probably the first person she ever truly loved. Nevertheless, her presence in the household resulted in tension with her grandmother. As a result, Wray spent much of her childhood moving between her grandparents’ house and boarding school. Her mother remarried in 1915, to film director John Griffith Wray, and in 1921 Wray joined them in Los Angeles, eventually taking her stepfather’s name.
Wray attended Los Angeles High School, and it’s apparent that she had a passion for writing even then. She was assistant editor of the school’s Greek paper, The Symposium, and a hauntingly beautiful poem she wrote, “Hymn Triumphant of Youth,” was published in the 1924 school yearbook. After graduation, she briefly attended UCLA, worked as a model for Hollywood fashion designer Howard Greer, and lived for a while at The Rehearsal Club in New York where she considered becoming an actress. Ultimately, she rejected the idea. During the decade following high school she had two short-lived marriages, to Henry D. Maxwell and Don Mansfield Caldwell, both California artists.
Wray’s career in the film industry began around 1930. The US Census, dated April of that year, places her in Los Angeles living with her mother in Hollywood, and lists her occupation as a motion picture reader. Details of the earliest years of her film career remain vague, but an entry in the The Film Daily on April 13, 1931, names her as one of twenty-three writers at Universal Pictures readying scripts for the studio’s reopening on April 20. Universal head Carl Laemmle Jr. knew Wray’s family socially – her stepfather had made two short films for Laemmle Sr. in 1913 – and this first writing opportunity likely came from those connections. Wray’s cohorts on the published list included Francis Edward Faragoh, who, within weeks, would be writing the screenplay for Frankenstein; and Karl Freund, who would go on to direct The Mummy the following year. There are no details of the script Wray was working on – beyond the fact that it was an original screenplay – and its fate remains unknown.
Wray’s next documented position was at Warner Bros. in 1933, where she was engaged as a reader. By 1934, according to voter registration records, she’d been promoted to Assistant Story Editor. During this period, Wray became part of a circle of friends that included soon-to-be-acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and Mark Robson, who would go on to edit and direct films for the Lewton unit. Trumbo was also working at Warners at the time, and Wray was one of a number of writers there and elsewhere who contributed to Trumbo’s acclaimed novel Johnny Got His Gun. Amongst the papers still in the possession of the Wray estate are several chapter outlines and a draft of the novel with Wray’s margin notes, along with an acknowledgment page, drafted in longhand and signed by Trumbo but never published, thanking all of them for their contributions.
An item in Variety on October 2, 1935, announced that Wray was to become the personal story editor to Carl Laemmle Jr. at Universal, though it’s not known if she actually took the position. If so, her stay would have been brief, not least because Laemmle would soon be ousted from Universal. Wray’s estate shows no record of her having worked for Laemmle Jr., and there is anecdotal evidence in her family history to suggest that the news item may have been “planted” in Variety, with Laemmle’s help, to facilitate Wray leaving her job at Warners in order to extricate herself from an awkward romantic situation with Dalton Trumbo.
Subsequently, in January 1936, Wray took up a position at 20th Century-Fox, then joined RKO’s story department in 1938. She was promoted to a writing post in June 1941, and one of her first assignments was an adaptation of A. A. Milne’s The Dover Road, which she developed to treatment stage. Soon after, in October 1941, she was assigned to the newly formed Junior Writing Department (also known informally as the Young Writers’ Project) “handling practical story assignments for the studio.”2
Within months, Wray came to Val Lewton’s attention, perhaps as a result of a recommendation by her friend Mark Robson, who worked as Lewton’s editor on Cat People, or perhaps via her work for the Junior Writing Department. Either way, Wray was enthusiastic, extremely well-read, and she could deliver high-quality work quickly, all of which made her an ideal candidate for Lewton’s unit. After twelve years of working at the coalface of motion picture story development, Wray was about to get her first big break.
Beginning in the summer of 1942, while Lewton’s first film, Cat People, was still in production, Wray’s first assignment for the Snake Pit was to research Haitian culture for Lewton’s second project, I Walked with a Zombie, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Based on a nonfiction magazine article of the same name by Inez Wallace, Lewton envisioned the story as an ambiguous, voodoo-based variation of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, about a young nurse who is employed by a plantation owner on a Caribbean island to care for his catatonic wife, who may or may not be a zombie.
During her research, Wray worked briefly with African American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston,3 whose 1938 book Tell My Horse focused on the voodoo religion in Haiti and Jamaica. Additional information was drawn from The Magic Island by W. B. Seaboook, and the December 13, 1937, edition of Life magazine. The first draft of the script for I Walked with a Zombie was written by established horror screenwriter Curt Siodmak, hired by Lewton’s bosses following the box-office success of Siodmak’s The Wolf Man the previous year. RKO executives were keen to emulate Universal’s lucrative horror formula, of which The Wolf Man was only the latest example, and their B horror unit would indeed go on to strike box-office gold – but not quite the way RKO expected. Lewton had his own ideas about the best way to frighten audiences, and Siodmak’s brand of horror was definitely not what Lewton was looking for. As a result, he assigned Wray to rewrite Siodmak’s script.
In context, it was an astonishing display of faith in Wray’s abilities as a writer. Lewton had formed his unit only five months previously, and the subtle and literate approach to horror he was pioneering in Cat People was still untested. Yet, despite the fact that Wray had no previous screen credits, Lewton hired her to rework the story with only two months to go before shooting was due to start. Wray amply repaid Lewton’s trust, turning in a haunting and atmospheric rewrite that became one of Lewton’s most critically acclaimed productions.
Wray brought to Zombie not only a distinctly feminine perspective that it might otherwise have lacked, but also an immensely literate and poetic sensibility that was entirely in tune with Lewton’s own. The film has also been praised for its sensitive handling of its Afro Caribbean characters, at a time when grotesque Hollywood caricatures of people of color were the norm. (Wray would later demonstrate similar sensitivity in her portrayal of Hispanic characters in The Leopard Man, all of whom came across as utterly real and empathetic). The Zombie script had been reworked considerably from Siodmak’s pedestrian first draft, and echoed certain aspects of Selznick’s production of Rebecca (which Lewton had worked on) as well as Jane Eyre. Joel E. Siegel, in his book Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, describes Zombie as “one of those exceedingly rare movies which manage to summarize everything that is artistically valid about a Hollywood genre and then go on to transcend the genre itself.” With her very first screenplay assignment, Wray had helped to create what Siegel designated as Lewton’s “masterpiece.”
De Witt Bodeen wrote of Wray in his book More from Hollywood: “Although Val found it difficult to work with female writers, Ardel’s easy-going and adaptable nature and her capable work made her an exception.” Similarly, quoted in John Brosnan’s The Horror People, Bodeen said, “Ardel was marvelous, loads of fun and very talented.”
Wray herself reminisced about her time working on the Lewton unit in Siegel’s book: “I don’t think I can explain the particular kind of togetherness (a concept not dear to me) that Val managed then. You can’t call it team work, because that implies a kind of hearty I’ll-be-quiet-while-you-talk-and-then-you’ll-be-quiet-while-I-talk situation – all wrong. It wasn’t cozy. . . . And it wasn’t a meeting of the minds, in the sense that everyone agreed about everything. There were some pretty rugged disagreements. But it was togetherness, all right – really ideally, in a work sense . . . more like theatre. It was a small, close unit, comparable to today’s independent.”4
Following directly on the heels of Cat People’s staggering success, I Walked with a Zombie cemented the reputation of Lewton’s RKO unit as the first serious threat to Universal’s hegemony over cinematic horror, whilst simultaneously redefining the entire genre.
Zombie had begun shooting two days before Wray’s thirty-fifth birthday, and, almost immediately, she was assigned the job of adapting Cornel Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi as the basis for Lewton’s third production. Woolrich’s thriller describes a series of gruesome killings in a Mexican town, seemingly the work of an escaped leopard but in reality committed by a psychopath. Wray’s first task was to travel to Santa Fe in New Mexico, to get the feel of the location and to take photographic reference for the set designers.
Wray recounted the trip in a letter to Siegel:
Val handed over to me his very good camera and sent me to Santa Fe to take pictures of whatever exteriors I thought might be useful to use, set-wise. This, although he knew that I had never taken any pictures more elaborate than Brownie camera snapshots and had no other qualifications either for the job. I don’t know why he trusted me with this – faith and desperation, I guess. I was in mortal terror of the camera. First day there I took pictures frantically, of anything and everything, and took them to a shop for development, then waited a couple of days, as I recall, to see if I had gotten anything at all, let alone something useful. Miraculously, probably because it was a nearly foolproof camera, it was all right. From the pictures I took there, we worked out the sets. Another instance of Val’s genius for improvisation.
On her return from Santa Fe, Wray immediately began work on the script. The Black Alibi adaptation – filmed as The Leopard Man and again directed by Tourneur – was Wray’s first solo screenplay. She was given a good deal of freedom and retained fond memories of the experience. It was Lewton’s first non-supernatural thriller, though a subtle mystical element relating to pre-destination was layered beneath the serial-killer narrative. It’s a strikingly innovative film that predates by decades the similarly structured but down-market “stalk-and-slash” genre of horror films that became popular in the 1970s – none of which managed to elicit the same degree of tragic empathy for the characters. An interesting analysis of the film’s unique qualities, by author Scott Preston, can be found in Cineaction issue 71 (2007).
Wray received solo screenwriting credit on The Leopard Man, with writer Edward Dein receiving an “additional dialogue” credit, most likely for last-minute, on-set adjustments to the dialogue as was the custom at the time. Decades later, Dein claimed that he’d done more on the script than his screen credit implied, though curiously he declined to elaborate.5 In light of other declarations he made elsewhere (such as a dubious claim to have worked uncredited on Cat People, the most thoroughly documented of all of Lewton’s productions), his comment must be taken with a grain of salt. Lewton was extremely fair and generous in the credits he gave to his writers and would have had no reason to deny Dein his due. Sadly, many filmmakers have tried to claim credit for work on highly acclaimed or successful films, after the fact. An unhealthy dose of sexism was possibly also in play. This was certainly the case with Curt Siodmak, who later made the flippant but nevertheless outrageous claim that Wray was given the rewrite of I Walked with a Zombie because she was “a girlfriend of Lewton’s.”6
Wray completed the script for The Leopard Man in January 1943, following which she wrote the original story and screenplay for The Falcon on the Co-eds. Starring Tom Conway as The Falcon – who’d taken over the role from his brother George Sanders in 1942 – Co-Eds was the seventh in RKO’s popular mystery series. Into the usual mix of murder, humor, and adventure, Wray added a subtle touch of supernatural ambiguity that would later lead some (on the Classic Horror Film Board) to speculate that the film had actually begun life as a Lewton production. It hadn’t; it was merely Wray injecting her own long-standing interest in narrative mysticism into a murder mystery story of her own devising. Because the film was part of a series, Gerald Geraghty, brother of Falcon producer Maurice Geraghty, followed up with a continuity pass on Wray’s script. Author Doug McClelland noted that the screenplay was “extraordinarily polished”7, and John Pym wrote that the script is “beautifully characterized and has some vividly eerie touches. . . . It’s one of the best of the series.”8
In May 1943, RKO announced that Wray would write the screenplay adaptation of Enid Bagnold’s story “The Amorous Ghost,” proposed as a Lewton double bill with The Screaming Skull, but both ultimately fell by the wayside, as did several of Lewton’s proposed projects.
Nevertheless, Wray returned to the Lewton unit in time to contribute “additional dialogue” for Youth Runs Wild, a sober and unusual study of wartime juvenile delinquency. Unfortunately for all concerned, the studio tampered with the film both during and after production, and Lewton effectively disowned it.
While Wray was still engaged on Youth Runs Wild, RKO had optioned the rights to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire tale Carmilla, with the intention that writer Josef Mischel would adapt the story as a future Lewton chiller. Subsequently, when RKO managed to tempt Boris Karloff into signing a two-picture deal with the studio in May 1944, it was announced that Carmilla would be Karloff’s first production.
Within a matter of days however, on May 19, 1944, the Los Angeles Times ran an unusually candid item stating that “Carmilla couldn’t be brought gruesomely and excitingly enough to life,” and that The Island of the Dead, an original story, would take its place. Subsequently, the Brooklyn Eagle ran a belated item on June 23 announcing that Ardel Wray would be collaborating with Joseph Mischel on the screenplay. In fact, Wray had already been working on the script for several weeks, and the first draft of the renamed Isle of the Dead, dated June 19, had been sent to the Production Code Administration run by Joseph Breen, with the intention of starting production in the first week of July.9
Wray and Mischel’s first-draft screenplay differed substantially from the final screen version of the story. Several components of its direct forerunner, Carmilla, were incorporated into the script: an aging father and his grown-up daughter as central characters, a (suspected) female vampire, and an isolated setting that is threatened by some kind of plague. However, an entirely new, original story had been built around those basic components and the setting was openly inspired by the Arnold Böcklin painting of the same name, which had long been one of Lewton’s favorite works of art.
The first-draft Wray/Mischel screenplay had cleverly woven together a thematically complex story about a group of isolated characters riven by fear and suspicion that one amongst them may be a vorvolaka – a form of vampire from Greek folklore – in a narrative that was essentially a battle between superstition and enlightenment.
Breen, however, was not impressed. He rejected the first draft as being in violation of the Production Code, and also rejected the subsequent draft dated June 28. Production was delayed, and in a hurried telephone conversation, RKO assured Breen that the problems with the overly horrific script would be taken care of.
Curiously, between June 29 and delivery of the next draft on July 11, the story and characters were significantly altered – not just the horror elements. Most notably, a key character, Cathy, who was to have been played by actress Heather Angel – a fact only recently unearthed during research for this article – was removed entirely. Nevertheless, the changes satisfied Breen, despite several of his original objections remaining unaddressed at this stage. He subsequently approved the draft and allowed production to go ahead, albeit behind schedule.
Lewton himself was disappointed with the finished film, crediting the earlier version of the Wray/Mischel script as being “a rather poetic and quite beautiful story of how people fleeing from the battles of the Greek War of 1912 are caught on this island by plague and through their sufferings come to an acceptance of death as being good – the fitting end – Shakespeare’s “little sleep.”10 Lewton blamed his “stupid supervisor,” executive producer Jack Gross, without specifying exactly what Gross had done to undermine the script. Nor has any record yet come to light to explain the reason for the story changes that were made above and beyond the alterations demanded by Breen. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that Cathy diverted too much attention away from the story’s central character, General Pherides, played by Karloff.
Isle of the Dead was beset by other problems. Eight days into the July shoot, Karloff’s long-standing back problem flared up to such an extent that production was halted while he had an urgent operation on his spine. Wray, who was present on the set, recalled in Siegel’s book that Karloff has been in considerable pain even before he broke down. “Between shots, he was in a wheelchair, but he made no complaint. He managed to be wryly humorous about it – not falsely in that obnoxious see-how-brave-I’m-being way. Everyone liked and respected him.”
Isle subsequently completed shooting in December 1944. However, the unavailability of actress Rose Hobart (and to a lesser extent, Skelton Knaggs), many of whose scenes had already been shot, necessitated an extensive reshoot of material already covered back in July. Some of the performances were inevitably uneven as a result. Nevertheless, the film was cited by director Martin Scorsese in 2013 as one of the eleven scariest films ever made.11
Whilst Isle was nearing completion, Wray’s stock at RKO was in the ascendancy. In the November 1944 edition of Box Office Barometer, it was announced that Wray would write the original screenplay for The Adventures of Sinbad, a lavish Technicolor adventure story. One month later, on Dec 16, 1944, Wray was listed in The Showmen’s Trade Review as the writer of Lady not Alone, to star Paulette Goddard in a screen story adapted from the Katharine Brush novelette. Wray had clearly demonstrated that she was able to turn her hand to whatever assignments came her way.
Unfortunately, Lady Not Alone was never made. The Adventures of Sinbad eventually reached the screen in January 1947 (retitled Sinbad the Sailor and starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), but Wray never got to write the screenplay. She’d recently married a third time, to Norman Nervig, and in the late summer of 1944 she had become pregnant. With her husband now overseas in the armed forces, and working in an era before maternity leave had become an option, Wray would soon be forced to quit her job.
Wray continued working for the Lewton unit through the early months of 1945, undertaking research on Lewton’s last film for RKO, Bedlam, then resigned her position. She gave birth to her daughter, Stefani, on May 20 and did not return to screenwriting until the end of the year, when Lewton called on her to write the screenplay for Blackbeard the Pirate.
The full story of Lewton’s unproduced film Blackbeard the Pirate, intended as a vehicle for Boris Karloff, was covered by this author in an article in The Dark Side (September 2018, issue 195). The Blackbeard project was initially discussed amongst the Lewton unit during the early months of 1944, but it wasn’t until after the critical and commercial success of Lewton’s The Body Snatcher, which opened in February 1945, that the project gained traction. Karloff had signed a new three-picture contract with RKO in January. Bedlam was the first scheduled production under this contract, and Blackbeard the Pirate was planned as the second. Director Mark Robson was listed initially as writer-director, but in the November edition of Box Office Barometer, it was announced that Wray would write the “original screenplay.”
That same month, workaholic Lewton’s health finally failed. He suffered his first heart attack and was laid off work from RKO for the remainder of the year. As a result, Wray tackled the heavy lifting of the screenplay alone, working from home and caring for her baby at the same time. Her completed draft was subsequently being revised by Lewton when, in February 1946, Lewton’s primary supporter at RKO, head of production Charles Koerner, died. Lewton’s standing at the studio declined rapidly, and he soon accepted an offer to work at Paramount. Blackbeard effectively died with Lewton’s departure, and his group disbanded.
Wray would not write again for two years.
By late 1947, Lewton, now at Paramount, once again found himself at odds with studio executives. In need of people he trusted and with whom he could work, he reached out to writers in the old Lewton group for help. As Wray explained it to Joel Siegel: “Before he fell prey to his ill-fated intrigues at Paramount, Val had influenced producers he knew there to take on his friends as writers, among them Josef Mischel and me.”
Mischel would work on three scripts at Paramount, including Lewton’s ill-fated My Own True Love. Wray’s first assignment at the studio was a rewrite of a script titled A Mask for Lucrezia (released in 1949 as Bride of Vengeance), a project based on the life of Lucrezia Borgia.
The production of A Mask for Lucrezia appears to have been troubled from beginning to end, and unpacking the sequence of events is hampered by a dearth of documented evidence in both the trade magazines and the Paramount archive, but also by a number of misconceptions that were initially promoted by Siegel in his otherwise compelling Lewton study.
The story of what happened to A Mask for Lucrezia reads like an account of Renaissance politics. At first, the project was tabled because of the indifferent quality of the Mischel-Wray screenplay. Then Lewton requested and got permission to work on the script himself for a few months.
Edmund Bansak’s book Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career went further:
This was a project (Lewton) had become excited about, having already commissioned Josef Mischel and Ardel Wray to write the screenplay. . . . By midfall 1946 (sic), however, the Mischel/Wray script did not appeal to the front office, and the project was shelved.
Neither author provided citations to indicate where they obtained this information, though Bansak almost certainly used Siegel as the source for his version of the events. Both accounts have since proven to be wildly inaccurate.
First, the Wray/Mischel script never existed, and Mischel had nothing whatsoever to do with the project. (Indeed, at exactly the same time Wray was working on the Mask script, Mischel was elsewhere on the lot, co-writing Paramount’s Isn’t It Romantic?). Far from being part of the problem, as Siegel and Bansak imply, Wray was actually hired by Lewton in an attempt to rescue a project that had already gone off the rails.12
A Mask for Lucrezia was originated by Lewton and writer Michael Hogan in 1947. Hogan’s first draft of the script, based on his own story, was dated May 21. The project had been announced in the trade magazines a short time earlier, in both Box Office and the Motion Picture Herald on April 26, 1947. However, it then appears to have languished for several months. If there’s any period in the film’s timeline in which it’s likely it was “tabled,” it is during this latter half of 1947, long before Wray had even entered the picture.
The next appearance of the project in the Paramount archives is a draft dated January 19, 1948. The script is still credited to Hogan, but, crucially, it had been “revised by the producer.” This is Lewton’s direct fingerprint on the draft – even though he’s not directly named – and it’s logical to assume that this is the draft that Lewton had worked on “for a few months,” as per Siegel’s claims. This assumption is bolstered by a letter from Lewton to his mother and sister in the very same month, in which he wrote: “A Mask for Lucrezia is beginning to become a really great story, with more depth and real meaning than I had ever expected. . . . I’m quite excited and very pleased with the way the story is going.”13
Only now, two weeks after the delivery of the Hogan/Lewton draft, does Wray enter the story. On February 2, 1948, Wray, brought in at Lewton’s behest, signed a Paramount general writing agreement. During February and March she completed two successive rewrites of A Mask for Lucrezia. By this time, however, Lewton’s contract at Paramount was due to expire, and soon after, he accepted an offer for his services from MGM. The Mask project was reassigned to producer Richard Maibaum.
Wray’s contract option was picked up, and she was immediately reassigned to work on an Alan Ladd feature about government postal inspectors, eventually filmed as Appointment with Danger. Wray’s first task was to travel to Washington, D.C. as a guest of the US Post Office Department. She spent two weeks in D.C., researching the methodologies and case histories supplied by the postal inspectors, and subsequently worked on several different scenarios for the project. In June, she was joined by writer Robert L. Richards.
However, her stint at Paramount was about to come to a sudden and unexpected end. That summer, with the Ladd project and A Mask for Lucrezia both in pre-production, Wray was quietly called into the Paramount business office one day, presented with a list of names, and asked to point out the “communist sympathizers.” This was the start of Paramount’s response to the “Waldorf Statement,” which committed the studios to purging all communist influence in Hollywood – the so-called “witch-hunts” inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy that lasted for many years, destroying careers indiscriminately.
Wray never spoke of the meeting except in private. As she explained it to her daughter years later, the meeting had something to do with Dalton Trumbo’s troubles and with Paulette Goddard. But she did not elaborate, and exactly what those names had to do with her being summoned to the Paramount business office remains a mystery.
Trumbo and his fellow members of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” had been convicted of contempt of Congress the previous year for refusing to cooperate with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Goddard and husband Burgess Meredith had been members of the Committee for the First Amendment who had supported the Ten, and Goddard was under contract to Paramount at the time, set to play the lead in A Mask for Lucrezia. Wray had known and worked with both of them, along with dozens of others who had been swept up in the hysteria of the second red scare, including Lewton and Robson, who were under investigation by the FBI at the time;14 Lester Cole’s writing partner Sydney Boehm (who was supervising editor on the Ladd project); and Josef Mischel and Robert L. Richards, who would both be blacklisted in the early 1950s.
Wray never told her daughter who was on the list, saying only that it was “everyone” she knew at Paramount and many that she didn’t. But she did describe her exchange with her “obviously embarrassed” interrogator. When she politely demurred, he tried to reassure her by explaining: “They’ve already been named, dear, you won’t be hurting anyone.”15 When she declined a second time, he grew agitated and urged her to “just wave a finger in the direction” of a name or two. She didn’t, and the meeting was over.
Her refusal would have devastating consequences. Within days, she was removed from the Appointment with Danger project, her credit on the Borgia film was removed, and her contract terminated. Her agent, Rosalie Stewart, also severed their relationship. Two weeks later, after Wray had left the lot, all her scripts and work papers were returned to her via the US Mail. Her career as a film screenwriter was over. She had become one of the non-cooperators consigned to the silent retribution of the “graylist.”
Following the termination of her Paramount contract, Wray was to struggle for many years. Along with the loss of income, she would feel the loss of a profession that she loved, and the friendships that went with it. But despite her immense talent, a screenwriting career had never been her primary driving force; being deprived of it meant less to her than it did to some, and she survived. Thanks to the friends and industry contacts she had made over the years she found other employment in the studios.
Ironically, the first of these was back at RKO, the studio where her screenwriting career had begun a decade earlier. She worked there as a reader from 1950 to 1953, a period that would bring the Lewton era to an end. In 1951, Josef Mischel was blacklisted, and in the following year Howard Hughes removed his name from RKO’s re-release prints of Isle of the Dead, leaving Wray with sole screen credit. Lewton died on March 14, 1951, at the age of forty-six. A final postscript to this period in Wray’s life would come two decades later, when her name was added to the official record of the American Film Institute as a “contributing writer” on Bride of Vengeance.
A number of changes happened between 1954 and 1955. Wray separated from her husband, bought a car and learned how to drive, and she and her daughter moved into an apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Around the same time, she was able to secure a new position, as a reader at MGM. Records held by the Story Analysts Guild 854 (now IATSE Local 700) indicate that Wray applied to join in August 1954. (It’s apparent that she worked intermittently during these years, since she was forced to reapply for membership in January 1958, having been unable to maintain her dues as an active member).16 During her stint at MGM, Wray supplemented her income by writing serializations of MGM movies such as Ransom (for the Herald Tribune) and The Blackboard Jungle (for the Ladies Home Journal). However, money was constantly in short supply.
In 1957, Wray moved back to Warners, again as a reader. However, after a decade of blacklists and purges, the industry was now slowly, painfully changing for the better. Over the next few years, two producers in particular would be instrumental in resurrecting Wray’s writing career, albeit in television.
Prolific writer-producer Roy Huggins, creator of Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files, was the first to give Wray a break, when she was loaned out to his unit to work on scripts for Cheyenne. Although the work was uncredited, it signaled the end of Wray’s enforced exile from screenwriting. Huggins left the studio at the end of 1960, but Wray continued her TV writing, on producer Boris Ingster’s The Roaring 20s, for which she contributed two episodes and received due screen credit.
During this period, Wray was encouraged by her colleagues to attempt a return to feature film screenwriting, but the previous decade had taken its toll and she had little inclination to gamble again in such a high-stakes game. Wray once wrote that having a child had been “the only thing that really got me moving,” and it seems likely that she did not want to give her own daughter an experience that was similar in any way to the one she’d had as a child.
Instead, Wray continued working with Ingster on the Huggins-created 77 Sunset Strip, and followed him to MGM to work as both writer and story editor on The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. In 1965, Wray also worked as Ingster’s assistant on the MGM feature film Guns of Diablo. However, just as her writing career appeared to be on the rise again, fate would once more deal her a blow.
Now age fifty-eight, Wray found her eyesight failing gradually due to cataracts. To avoid the long commute from her home in the valley to the MGM lot in Culver City – a drive that was particularly onerous at night – she took a job once more at Warners, closer to home. Her remaining active years were spent as a story analyst there, and subsequently at the nearby Disney studio. It’s possible she also worked briefly at Universal during this same period, though details remain sketchy. She eventually retired in 1970, due to the continued degeneration of her eyesight, and moved with her daughter to Santa Fe, New Mexico – the place she had visited nearly thirty years earlier while working on The Leopard Man. There she underwent her second cataract surgery, gradually learned to adjust to life with special glasses, and continued to look after her mother who, now in her nineties, had moved into an assisted-living facility in Santa Fe shortly after Wray moved there. In 1980, after her mother passed away, Wray moved back to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter, who had returned there a few years earlier.
Wray was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983, and passed away the same year, on October 14, two weeks short of her seventy-sixth birthday. As she’d wished, her ashes were scattered at sea. A belated obituary appeared in Variety on January 26, 1984, most likely placed by the Local 854.
Ardel Wray’s screen credits, while few in number, are formidable; I Walked with a Zombie alone is frequently cited as one of the finest horror films ever produced. Yet, like many others whose careers were derailed during the McCarthy period, she is largely forgotten. Wray is due far more appreciation than she has hitherto been afforded, and her influence on Lewton’s body of work is deserving of further study.
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I must express my profound thanks to Ardel Wray’s daughter, Stefani Warren, both for her kindness and for the unprecedented insight into her mother’s life and career that she patiently shared over a period of several months. Sincere thanks must also go to author Andre Solnikkar, researcher Brook Darnell in Virginia, and researcher Amy Schireson in Los Angeles. You each have my gratitude.
I Walked with a Zombie – 1943, writer, co-screenplay
The Leopard Man – 1943, writer, screenplay
The Falcon and the Co-Eds – 1943, original story and co-screenplay
Youth Runs Wild – 1944, writer, additional dialogue
Isle of the Dead – 1945, writer (with Josef Mischel)
Bride of Vengeance – 1949, contributing writer
Guns of Diablo – 1965, assistant to the producer
Ritual – 2002, based on the 1943 screenplay, I Walked with a Zombie
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from DVDs or Blu-rays of the films.
- Wray family history, courtesy of Stefani Warren, executor of the Estate of Ardel Wray. [↩]
- The Motion Picture Herald, October 25, 1941. [↩]
- Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, by Catherine A. Stewart, University of North Carolina Press 2016. [↩]
- Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, by Joel E. Siegel, Secker and Warburg, London, 1972. [↩]
- “Edward Dein Interviewed” by Tom Weaver and Michael Brunas, Midnight Marquee issue 33, Fall 1984. [↩]
- “Curt Siodmak Interview, Written By” (Journal of the WGA), December 1999. [↩]
- The Golden Age of B Movies, by Doug McClelland, Ottenheimer Publishers, 1981. [↩]
- The Time Out Film Guide, edited by John Pym, Penguin Books, London, 2003. [↩]
- Isle of the Dead MPAA Production Code Administration records, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles. [↩]
- Siegel, op. cit. [↩]
- “Martin Scorsese Names His Scariest Films of All Time,” by Andrew Pulver, The Guardian November 12, 2013. [↩]
- Paramount Pictures production records, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles. [↩]
- Siegel, op. cit. [↩]
- “How the FBI Tried to Label Val Lewton a Communist,” by Michael E. Lee, Filmfax issue 133, Spring 2013. [↩]
- Wray family history, op. cit. [↩]
- Records, IATSE Local 700 (formerly Story Analysts Guild 854), Los Angeles. [↩]