Lovers of '30s films enjoy pointing out their favorite obscure character actors and identifying them by name. One such actor, Philadelphia-born John Wray, is almost instantly recognizable for his grim countenance, piggish eyes, and chunky frame. He was one of the many Broadway actors to descend on Hollywood in the aftermath of the sound revolution, and as such, made an indelible impression on moviegoers. Though seldom playing anything more than a bit or minor role, Wray was lucky enough to have several indelible screen performances to his credit. In 1930, he played Himmelstoss, the meek postman who becomes a cruel Army drill instructor in the opening scenes of All Quiet on the Western Front; restored prints of this Oscar-winning classic have revealed that Wray's part was originally much larger, including a colorful "mad scene" when the sadistic Himmelstoss finds himself under enemy fire for the first time.
Wray also played the Arnold Rothstein-like gangster in The Czar of Broadway (1930); and the contortionist the Frog in the remake of The Miracle Man (1932). Wray's portrayals of proletarian nastiness grew increasingly smaller as the decade progressed but he was very visible as the starving farmer threatening to kill Gary Cooper for throwing his money away in mid-Depression in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (a scene that ends with Wray breaking down sobbing apologetically, inspiring Deeds to set up a financial incentive program to put down-and-outers back on their feet). Avid cinephiles may also remember Wray's portrayal of the warden in Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937). This Wray is not to be confused with the American silent film director and playwright John Griffith Wray of the 1920s.