Authors: Joe DeVito
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This book is dedicated to the memory of Merian C. Cooper, the father of King Kong.
“Have you ever heard ofÂ â¦ Kong?” asked Carl Denham of Englehorn, captain of the ship taking the adventurer-moviemaker, and his cast and crew, nearer to Skull Island, in uncharted regions of the Indian Ocean. “Why, yes,” was Englehorn's measured reply, as if rousing long-dormant memories of the native legends he had heard on his countless voyages in the area. Since the release of
in March 1933, very few who have inhabited Planet Earth would need more than a second to respond in the affirmative.
has become entrenched in movie lore and culture not only in America, but around the world as well.
The question that, in contrast, remains baffling to many people in the twenty-first century is: Have you ever heard of Merian C. Cooper? What may be surprising to a majority of those who are told about him is that Merian Coldwell Cooper, in addition to
is directly connected to the following: world exploration, many of the classic films directed by John Ford, Technicolor and the increased use of color in motion pictures, the birth of widescreen movies with Cinerama, the development of commercial aviation, and distinguished service in America's air force in two world wars.
I vividly recall reading the newspaper obituaries, published side-by-side, of Merian Cooper and Robert Armstrong, the man Cooper had chosen, over forty years earlier, to play Carl Denham in
. Cooper died on April 21, 1973, and Armstrong the day before. The death of one following so closely on the other reinforced even more to me the degree to which Cooper was the character of Denham. This mingling of Merian C. Cooper into his creations was a trademark of this passionate jack-of-all-trades. Readers of
Merian C. Cooper's King Kong
will discover that Cooper and Denham, in so many respects, are one and the same.
A life that, by ordinary expectations of achievement, would logically be credited to five or six individuals, is, in the case of Cooper, confined to one human being whom famed journalist and broadcaster Lowell Thomas described as “not just a remarkable man, he was incredible.” With all of his accomplishments, there is little doubt that it is for the creation of
that Merian C. Cooper will be most fondly remembered.
was also an outgrowth of the motto that Cooper and filmmaking partner Ernest B. Schoedsack adopted as a litmus test for their future film projects. It was that locations and story elements must incorporate aspects of the distant, difficult, and dangerous.
Cooper was a man with seven-league boots, imbued with the romanticism of exploration, discovery, adventure, and danger more typical of a bygone era. Yet his love of twentieth-century aviation, technology, high finance, and the motion picture industry would, on the surface, seem irreconcilable to his passion for the primitive. Perhaps the most enduring creation resulting from this unique amalgamation of disparate worlds was
Cooper himself indicated that the elements that became the motion picture
began to come together in his mind in 1929, when he was thirty-six years old. The seed was most likely planted, however, at the tender age of six, when an uncle gave him a copy of
Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa
by Pierre Du Chaillu. That, according to Cooper, was when he decided to become an explorer.
In his wanderings, Cooper was in search of adventure in cultures both primitive and modern, while all the time defining his own limits. The arc that brought Cooper to Kong, as chronicled by Mark Cotta Vaz in
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong,
began with his birth in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1893. An appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy ended in Cooper's embarrassing dismissal before graduation. In his early twenties, Cooper resolved to atone for his apparent casual view of life by losing himself in a cause and “living dangerously.” His life-long code of honor crystalized at this crucial time. Cooper became a crack pilot in the U.S. Aero Squadron in Europe during World War I, where he was shot down over Germany and declared dead in 1918, only to resurface in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Following the armistice, Cooper remained abroad, involving himself in humanitarian relief in Poland, then under siege by the Bolshevik Red Russians. There he helped found the Kosciuszko Squadron, a band of freedom-fighters composed mostly of American and English aviators who were brothers-in-arms during the Great War. Cooper became one of Poland's heroes. He was shot down again, this time over Moscow, and escaped a Russian prisoner-of-war camp only to make a perilous trek on foot to freedom, all the way to the Latvian border.
Back in the United States, after stints as a reporter and feature writer on several newspapers, Cooper's wanderlust took him on a round-the-world voyage with Captain Edward Salisbury on the yacht
a journey chronicled in
The Sea Gypsy,
coauthored by Salisbury and Cooper. During the voyage, he was reunited with cameraman Schoedsack, whom he had met briefly in Poland when Schoedsack was covering the Russo-Polish War. That adventure ended abruptly in Italy when the
was consumed by fire. From the ashes of that fire, the partnership of Cooper-Schoedsack was formed and the pair made two landmark drama-documentaries:
(1925) followed the Bakhtiari tribe in its treacherous semiannual trek over the passes near Zardeh Kuh in the Zagros Mountains to their winter pasture in western Persia, now Iran; and
(1927), about a family in the jungle of Siam (Thailand) eking out an existence against the everpresent threat of predatory man-eating tigers. Both films were box office hits distributed by Paramount Pictures.
In 1929, following his and Schoedsack's making of
The Four Feathers
at Paramount under the supervision of producer David O. Selznick, Cooper became a New York City businessman and a central figure in the formation of Pan American Airways. Cooper assisted the talented Selznick in becoming head of production at RKO Radio Pictures, and, in the fall of 1931, Selznick brought Cooper into the organization as his assistant. Two years later, Cooper became production head at RKO when Selznick left for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. During his tenure at RKO, Cooper paired up Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers, brought Katharine Hepburn to Hollywood, and began his long association with director John Ford, whom he brought to RKO to make
The Lost Patrol
. Cooper's stint at RKO also brought him in contact with technical wizard Willis O'Brien, then working on a secret, and ultimately unproduced, project called
involving the stop-motion animation of models of prehistoric beasts. O'Brien would prove invaluable in bringing Kong to the screen.
The final link in what would become
came out of discussions Cooper had with explorer W. Douglas Burden. Inspired by
Burden led a filmmaking expedition to the island of Komodo and brought back two of its indigenous giant lizards for exhibition at the Bronx Zoo. That they eventually became ill and died was an element that found its way into Cooper's beauty-and-the-beast story of a giant gorilla. The final story was classic Cooper, combining elements both primitive and contemporary, and whose premise involved difficulty, distance, and, most certainly, danger.
Popular British novelist Edgar Wallace was brought into the project in December 1932, but died suddenly of pneumonia just over two months later, after turning out a draft script of Cooper's story. The script was more fully developed, under Cooper's supervision, into its final form by James Creelman and Ruth Rose. Cooper, nevertheless, kept Wallace's name on the film and in publicity connected to
both because of his promise to Wallace and for its publicity value.
At nearly fifty, Cooper, with a wife and three children to care for, could easily have remained safely at home during World War II. However, his innate patriotism compelled him to sign up, as he had done nearly three decades earlier, to serve his country. In China, Cooper was chief of staff to General Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers, and flew numerous bombing missions with his younger subordinates. Later, in the South Pacific, he was chief of staff to General Edward Kenney, masterminding air operations. At war's end, he was among those on board the U.S.S.
in Tokyo Bay at the ceremony formalizing Japan's surrender.
Following the war, Cooper and John Ford formed Argosy Pictures Corporation, and together were responsible for some of that era's best films, including
Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
The Quiet Man,
as well as revisiting the giant gorilla theme with
Mighty Joe Young
. Ever on the cutting edge, Cooper was a major force in the development, along with Lowell Thomas, of Cinerama, the first commercially successful widescreen movie process, which revolutionized the motion picture industry.
I never met Merian C. Cooper. Photographs of him often show a broad smile of Cinerama proportions. Surviving audio recordings revealed his expansive Southern drawl, and a passion for what he was doing at the moment. My early interest in movies was bolstered by frequent viewings of
on Los Angeles television during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its effect was singularly impressive: the human qualities of Kong; Max Steiner's powerful score, laced with themes for each character; and the derring-do, man-on-the-make Depression-era elan of Carl Denham. At the time, the only accessible publication on Cooper was an excellent article by movie historian Rudy Behlmer in the January 1966 issue of
Films in Review