The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
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Vol 1, Issue #4
"Stand By For Mars!"
April 2006

Non-Fiction Book Reviews
by Ryan Brennan

Living Dangerously:
The Adventurous Life of Merian C. Cooper

Mark Cotta Vaz

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Mark Cotta Vaz's book, Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong certainly delivers on its title. Cooper, as the subtitle makes explicit, is best known as the producer of the 1933 King Kong, an accomplishment of such importance that it has overshadowed "Coop's" other achievements both in and out of the film industry. This book redresses this oversight of film history.

It seems the motto followed by him and his frequent partner Ernest B. Schoedsack -- difficulty, danger, distant -- was also the guiding force in Cooper's personal life as well. From an early age the future film producer was fascinated with manned flight. It was a preoccupation that would eventually lead him to help found the first commercial airline, Pan American Airlines. And it would result in distinguished service fighting the enemy over Europe in WWI.

Cooper was born to affluence in Florida of a family with a military history. At Annapolis Cooper either washed out or quit, depending on whose word is taken. He said he quit because he saw the future in airpower. He turned to journalism but soon joined the Georgia National Guard and followed General Pershing to Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. Soon after, Cooper enlisted and found himself over enemy lines bombing German military installations. It was during this time that he was shot down and officially declared deceased. From this moment on Cooper felt he was living on bonus time.

After the war, Cooper moved on to Poland as that country fought a war with Russia to maintain its independence and recover lost lands and cities. He formed the Flying Yankees and ran bombing missions for the Polish military. Again, he was shot down and this time taken prisoner. With a price on his head as the leader of the Flying Yankees, Cooper managed to evade torture and execution by pretending to be someone else. For the second time, he was reported MIA and listed as a war casualty while being moved from one prison camp to another in and around Moscow. Eventually, he and other prisoners escaped and returned to Poland where he fell in love and fathered an illegitimate son.

Back in America, Cooper spent another short stint as a newspaper journalist before being hired to document an expedition that took him to many exotic ports and which resulted in the book The Sea Gypsy. It was here that the team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack was formed when the latter came on board as official cameraman. Through these travels, the two adventurers saw the wonders of the world and were inspired to capture these sights on film.

It wasn't long before they were off to shoot their first film, a journey that would eventually yield the film Grass (1925), the extraordinary cinematic account of an annual tribal migration, part of it over and through the dangerous Karun mountain pass. Neither filmmaker was particularly pleased with the resul,t despite the faith of Paramount in releasing the film to wide acclaim ,and the offer to finance another picture. Braving the perils of the jungle, monsoons, and man-eating tigers, this adventure would result in Chang (1927), a film in which both men took pride, particularly its spectacular elephant stampede. This picture also went on to box office success and critical acclaim. At the first Academy Awards presentation, Chang was nominated for the "Unique and Artistic Picture" award that finally went to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

This success allowed the team to produce The Four Feathers (1929). Once more, they were off for parts almost unknown to shoot exciting location action. This time a hippo stampede and battle scenes featuring thousands of real warriors were meant as centerpieces. Around this same time Cooper began work on the enterprise that became Pan American Airlines, the nation's first commercial airline, jotted down notes that would eventually become King Kong, and, still seeking adventure, took a ride on the German Graf Zeppelin.

Cooper had dreams of future "natural drama" films but these were not in the cards. Instead, his involvement with David O. Selznick lead to a position at RKO where he first saw the work of special effects genius and stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien. Seeing O'Brien's model dinosaurs made Cooper realize he could shoot his giant gorilla story, King Kong.

Around this same time Cooper began work on the enterprise that became Pan American Airlines, the nation's first commercial airline, jotted down notes that would eventually become King Kong, and, still seeking adventure, took a ride on the German Graf Zeppelin.

Author Vaz wisely devotes ample coverage to the development, production, and history of Kong. One point of particular interest to Kong fans concerns the fabled lost spider pit sequence. Arguments have waged for decades over whether this scene was ever even shot. Vaz, through the papers of Cooper, says "yes," it was shot but cut because it hurt the pacing of the film and took audiences out of the film due to its horrific nature. Other film historians, despite testimony by eyewitnesses like author Ray Bradbury, say that Cooper was prone to exaggeration and discount his unequivocal claim.

King Kong (1933) took the movie going public by storm. It was a true phenomenon and a film for which the term "blockbuster" was perfect. It ran simultaneously at the two largest theaters in NYC and helped pull RKO out of a box office slump. The film has since achieved mythic status with Kong as a rather singular icon. A quickie sequel, Son of Kong (1933), failed to generate the same excitement. Also of interest are the years Vaz recounts in which Cooper attempted to sort out the legal aspects of his ownership in Kong, details which bear on the Japanese Toho studio production King Kong vs. Godzilla, the Dino DeLaurentiis remake of 1976, and Peter Jackson's 2005 remake.

With Grass, Chang, The Four Feathers, The Most Dangerous Game, She and King Kong, Cooper's film career would be impressive enough. However, his contributions exceed these six films. Cooper was responsible for Katherine Hepburn's entry into film. He paired Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire. As the visionary that he was, Cooper was an active proponent of color cinematography. He produced the first 3-strip Technicolor feature film, Becky Sharp (1935), and was instrumental in its acceptance by Hollywood, most notably converting Selznick whose greatest film Gone With The Wind (1939) benefited creatively and financially by the decision to shoot in color.

Incredibly, Cooper returned to military service during WWII. Headquartering out of China, Cooper wielded unusual control over military operations, particularly when it came to aerial missions. Cooper made important tactical and strategic contributions to the war effort and was figured, "a key figure in the destruction of Japanese air power." For his efforts, Cooper was made a Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force.

Cooper enjoyed a multi-picture relationship with John Ford, producing some of Ford's greatest westerns: Stagecoach, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow River, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. He and Schoedsack teamed up again for Mighty Joe Young (1949) which won an Oscar for Willis O'Brien and gave stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen his first feature film break. Cooper was also instrumental in getting Cinerama off the ground, the super wide and tall three-panel film system responsible for igniting the widescreen movie craze of the 1950s.

Cooper had many projects that never reached fruition. In addition to the missed opportunities to shoot more "natural dramas," Cooper was unable to secure the rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan." A spectacular special effects extravaganza, War Eagles, was to feature more of Willis O'Brien's work and was to be shot in color. The idea behind "African Cowboy" might have found partial _expression through Mighty Joe Young with similarities found in O'Brien's failed project Valley of Gwangi that was resurrected by former protege Ray Harryhausen. Africa, Texas Style (1967) sounds as if it might have been inspired by Cooper's concept. Cooper's last years were spent trying to perfect 3-D color television broadcasting.

Cooper was also a man of firm principles and followed a code of honor. He had friends in high places and in high society and they seemed to hold him in the highest esteem as a man of bravery and very large deeds. Cooper's determination in the face of all odds endeared him to many and produced a number of successes for him. Cooper puts me in mind of a Cecil B. DeMille, but beyond being a master showman, he was a man who changed the film industry and contributed greatly to the cause of humankind in other endeavors.

Vaz has managed no mean feat by keeping the entire book at a high interest level. Often, biographies fail to absorb the reader when dealing with the subject's childhood or when focusing on events outside the subject's arena of fame. Here that is not true, at least in part because Cooper's exploits are so multi-varied and are of truly heroic proportions. This is a book that film historians and fans of King Kong should want on their shelf to fill the considerable gap that has existed there until now.

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