Merian C. Cooper: A Biography
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The notion that a single life can crackle with the page-turning verve of the best adventure fiction is a sentiment applicable to only a few—but such a one was Merian Coldwell Cooper. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1893, Cooper is remembered as a filmmaker whose greatest creation was the 1933 RKO release, King Kong. Less known is that classic fantasy adventure (brought to the screen with his long-time partner, Ernest Schoedsack) was inspired by Cooper’s own true-life encounters with danger, death, and the fantastic.

On the latter point, a sea voyage in 1922 on the Wisdom II, a ship whose goal was to seek out adventure and document it in print and film, would carry Cooper and his fellow seafarers to places where head hunters appeased angry spirits with human sacrifices, to an African kingdom ruled by the reputed descendant of King Solomon, to a jungle-covered plateau isolated by smoldering volcanoes, and to encounters with stormy seas and cut-throat pirates. But it was on one remote island during the wanderings of the Wisdom that Cooper and a landing party discovered hundreds of gigantic lizard creatures, a real-life encounter with a primordial lost world which would grow in his imagination into the giant gorilla Kong and the prehistoric creatures populating Skull Island.


The character of Carl Denham, the movie producer in King Kong who leads the Venture on the film-making expedition to Skull Island, was largely patterned after Cooper himself. In the film’s opening, a night watchman where the Ventureis docked says of Denham: “They say he ain’t scared of nuthin.’ If he wants a picture of a lion he goes up to him and tells him to look pleasant!” Such was Cooper who, with Ernest Schoedsack, had plunged into the jungles of Siam where man-eating tigers prowled to capture some hardy specimens for their adventure story Chang, the 1927 release that would actually become famed for the stampeding herd of wild elephants Cooper and Schoedsack orchestrated for their film. Before Chang had been the adventure of Grass, a 1925 release and one of the pioneering documentary films that saw Cooper, Schoedsack, and an heiress and former spy named Marguerite Harrison join the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe on an arduous seasonal journey across a raging icy river and over a towering, ice-capped mountain range to a distant, verdant land. A trilogy of Cooper-Schoedsack movie expeditions was capped by the 1929 fictional drama The Four Feathers, a swash-buckling adaptation of the A.E.W. Mason novel that included location shooting in Africa that was duplicated on California sets—the first time a far-flung location was so matched by Hollywood illusionists.



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MERIAN C. COOPER

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What else did Merian Cooper bring to Kong? Before the movie expeditions and Wisdom voyage was the hard school of war. In World War I, Cooper was one of the pioneer warriors of the air, flying the infamous De-Haviland 4 planes that earned the dubious nickname “flaming coffins.” In one raging dogfight, Cooper was shot down in flames but survived through his steady nerve and skill as a pilot. After recovering while a German prisoner-of-war, Cooper was charged with leading American humanitarian missions in Poland before he left to help form the Kosciuszko Squadron, a group of all-American, battle-hardened pilots who thirsted for adventure and the cause of fighting the Bolsheviks who were invading Poland. After flying dozens of dangerous combat raids, Cooper’s luck ran out and he was again shot down and captured by the enemy. Only an assumed name prevented his being executed outright—as a leader of the Kosciuszko Squadron he had a price on his head. Cooper endured hellish months in Soviet prison camps, surviving through his own steely will and the help of his later movie partner, Marguerite Harrison. Finally, fearing his imminent execution, Cooper made a great escape with two Polish prisoners to the barbed-wire frontier border of Latvia and freedom.


Back home, where he settled in New York, Cooper’s love of flying eventually led him to become a pioneering executive in the nascent field of commercial aviation, including being an elected director of Pan-American Airways. In addition to being a major player among New York’s business elite, Cooper became a confidant of movie producer David O. Selznick. In 1931, when Selznick became executive vice-president in charge of production at RKO, he invited Cooper to join him and installed Cooper as one of his trusted executive assistants. It was there that Cooper had the power and the backing to make the film which had become his obsession, the story he had been fleshing out since the late 1920s while a restless New York business executive whose memories of adventure were taking the form of the ultimate movie expedition.


Merian Cooper’s story doesn’t end with the triumphant release of King Kong. When his mentor Selznick left for MGM, Cooper was installed in his place as head of production at RKO and during a brief but eventful tenure he teamed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, arranged for a screen test for a Broadway actress named Katharine Hepburn, and produced such classic films as Little Women. Cooper would become one of the leaders who pushed the film industry to adopt color filmmaking—one of his converts was David O. Selznick, whose Technicolor triumph, Gone With the Wind, ushered in color to stay. Cooper would eventually partner with director John Ford to produce most of Ford’s most famous films, he would champion the wide-screen breakthrough of Cinerama in the 1950s, and be honored in 1952 with an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “for his many innovations and contributions to the art of motion pictures.”
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MERIAN C. COOPER

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But Cooper’s greatest title was his promotion in the 1950s as Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve. Cooper lived by a patriotic code of honor and when World War II loomed he had put his film making career and business interests on hold to re-enlist. Before Pearl Harbor he was ordered on a number of top-secret intelligence missions, including visiting London to report back on the Nazi blitzkrieg of the beleaguered city. With America’s entry into the war, Cooper’s exploits included pioneering the aerial supply and transport route over the “Hump” of the Himalayas and serving in China as the first chief-of-staff to General Claire Chennault, famed leader of the Flying Tigers.

Merian Cooper died in 1973. Ever the showman, he followed within a few hours the passing of actor Robert Armstrong, who had played Cooper’s cinematic alter ego, Carl Denham.

In 1991, King Kong was awarded preservation priority status as one of 25 classic movies added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and in 1998 King Kong was named one of the top 100 American films by the American Film Institute (#43 on the list). That Kong endures is a testament to the vision of Merian Cooper who in a magical act of motion picture alchemy combined his wildest imagining with the memories of true-life adventure, leaving the world a great legacy of the imagination.


By Mark Cotta Vaz
Author of LIVING DANGEROUSLY: THE ADVENTURES OF MERIAN C. COOPER
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