This costume design for Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in the famous screen test/'Scream' scene on the boat to Skull Island in King Kong, 1933 is significant on several counts. Although historians generally agree that it is the only costume specifically 'designed' for the film, the others being hired from Western Costume, it has, until now, been wrongly attributed to Walter Plunkett, who became head of RKO wardrobe department in September 1932 three months after shooting of the film's live action scenes had begun. Bison Archives' discovery of Visart's design, signed by the artist and approved by the director Merian C. Cooper, has therefore set this record straight.
The fact that this scene was the only one in the whole film to merit a customized design indicates its importance. Cooper used it to firmly establish the film's 'Beauty and the Beast' theme. Executive producer David O'Selznick had apparently wanted to cut the scene from the film, but Cooper stood firm. Cooper knew that by dressing Wray in the medieval-style costume of a fairy princess, he could emphasize her innocence and illustrate the freshness of her beauty. After all, for most of the subsequent film Wray as Ann was to appear dishevelled, distraught and filthy having been dragged through the jungle or forced to scale the skyline of New York.
The 'old Arabian proverb' shown at the film's outset reads: And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead... According to the story, prior to the screen-test scene on the ship, fictional film director Carl Denham keeps the leading lady's purpose deliberately vague. The suspense and drama is taken up several notches however when Denham puts Ann in front of a camera for the first time and she appears on deck dressed in what she describes as: "the prettiest" of the 'Beauty and Beast' costumes. Denham directs Ann, who appears as a shimmering innocent from another era, to look up and to imagine she's seen something terrible that she can't get away from, he tells her: "Scream Ann, Scream for your life!". The stage is then set for the film's key theme. The giant ape falls under the spell of Ann's innocent golden looks, an infatuation which in the words of Closeup Magazine, causes him to battle for her ....through dangers that Man can only dream about today...confronting... man-eating dinosaurs... primeval swamps...three-horned monsters that should have died ten million years ago...then in the man-made mountains of New York... Kong exposes his vulnerability and ...finds his dramatic end... giving rise to Denham's closing words:"it was Beauty that killed the Beast"...
Relatively little has been written about costume designer Natalie Visart, and none of the accounts of her career appear to associate her with the film King Kong. Fay Wray herself however in her autobiography in 1989, disputed the Walter Plunkett costume credit for this film, stating that her costumes were made by:"...a young woman from New York, I regret that I do not remember her name because there was a rightness to everything she did..." Although Visart was born on the East coast and raised in Chicago, it's possible that Wray who fifty-six years later couldn't recall her name, also confused the two cities. It's also true that Visart spent most of her life in New York.
Visart, born in 1909, was sent to Hollywood School for Girls in 1920 where she became great friends with Katherine DeMille, adopted daughter of Cecil B. DeMille, and subsequently spent a lot of time with the DeMille family who were apparently very fond of her. In 1929, Visart met designer Mitchell Leisen who was working for DeMille at this point and they became romantically involved. Visart became Leisen's protégée working behind the scenes at Paramount studios with her mentor Leisen some time before she was credited for doing so. It appears that Leisen groomed her to take his place as he started to direct his own films and began to extract himself from DeMille's unit.
In 1932, Leisen was frantically busy with the production of The Sign of the Cross designing costumes and sets with Travis Banton and acting as assistant director. During this production, Leisen apparently asked Visart to design a number of costumes under his and Banton's supervision. In Natalie's own words:"...DeMille had to hire about ten people to cover all things Mitchell did by himself..." Bison Archives in their extensive research into this subject have identified stylistic similarities between designs they've identified in Visart's hand for this biblical and other historical dramas and the 'Beauty' costume in King Kong. [Bison Archives three-page research document available on request].
It's also interesting to note that during this period in Hollywood there was considerable collaboration between various neighbouring film studios. RKO and Paramount often exchanged needed facilities and specialists. For example the sacrifice scenes and great gates on Skull Island were shot at the RKO/Pathé Studios in Culver City using old temple sets used by Cecil B. DeMille in his film The King of Kings, 1927. It seems natural also that with the exchange of personnel and sets there would have been a cross-fertilization of influences in design. It seems likely that Mitchell Leisen was asked by RKO for help with the costume design for King Kong but due to the pressure he was under with The Sign of the Cross sent his prot/aeg/aee Natalie Visart instead. Visart's work on DeMille's religious melodrama at this time also meant that she would have fully understood Cooper's desire for his heroine's costume to symbolize her purity and beauty.
After Sign of the Cross Visart collaborated with Banton again for DeMille on Cleopatra, 1934 and The Crusades, 1935, although accounts of her career rarely credit her involvement with these three important titles. In 1936 at the age of twenty-seven Natalie Visart was appointed Head Costume Designer for Cecil B. DeMille.