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Cooper by Cooper

The recent publication of LIVING DANGEROUSLY: THE ADVENTURES OF MERIAN C. COOPER by Mark Cotta Vaz represents a long-overdue look at the amazing life of a man who, if he had died before ever having stepped foot in Hollywood, would still be considered a legitimate legend. If you haven’t yet purchased a copy, do so immediately.


A quick summary of Cooper’s amazing life and accomplishments is impossible, but let’s make this clear: the rather grandiose subtitle of the book is entirely accurate. A book subtitled “The Adventures Of John Michlig,” for instance, would have to be considered fairly ironic (though I once had a run-in with a wasp nest that qualifies); in the case of Cooper, the word choice is entirely appropriate. Cooper lived a life that was full-to-bursting. He was a force of nature, seemingly without fear, who made his mark over and over again.


Here’s a career overview, before any giant apes entered his life:


Hunted Pancho Villa with the National Guard.


Shot down in flames as a World War One aviator, then recuperated as a POW.


Didn’t return home after the war; instead, formed the Kosciuszko Squadron in Poland.


Shot down again, captured, and sentenced to hard labor, which he endured for months before escaping.


Finally returned to the United States after four years away, only to leave once again on an expedition to Ethiopia.


Made two highly regarded silent documentaries in Persia and Siam with partner Ernest Schoedsack.


Produced one of the last big silent films in Hollywood, The Four Feathers.


Pioneered civil aviation as one of the first investors in early airlines.


And he created King Kong, which, ironically, has overshadowed his other feats before and after. Indeed, the “sub-sub title” of this book, whose ostensible mission is to illuminate the incredibly varied life and pursuits of a man who soared to legendary heights in battle, exploration, entertainment, and business, is “Creator of King Kong,” a fairly reductive tag in relationship to his other accomplishments. A bit like calling Albert Einstein “popularizer of knit sweaters,” or describing Ronald Reagan as “star of Hellcats of the Navy.” And we still haven’t mentioned that Cooper was a member of the Flying Tigers in China and stood aboard the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered.


Still, to understand King Kong, you need to know Merian Coldwell Cooper. Nearly every story element of the original film is reflective of some aspect of Cooper’s life leading up to his creation of the iconic movie. His passions—aviation, exploration, adventure filmmaking—are all incorporated into King Kong. You can argue about the extent to which the final screenplay evolved through contributions by Edgar Wallace, James Creelman, Ruth Rose, as well as a host of uncredited RKO scribes, but it’s clear that virtually everything in Kong got there by way of Cooper. (There’s a great memo from James Creelman to Cooper, in fact, where the overworked scribe—he was also writing The Most Dangerous Game—laments that Cooper’s suggested addition of a giant wall, island tribe and sacrificial rites were just too much for the plot to handle. Cooper “relieved” him soon after.)


Kong´s effects, music, sound; none of these aspects of the film were the direct work of his hands, but Cooper’s force of personality, bullheadedness and sheer refusal to take no for an answer ultimately made Skull Island a real place in the minds of film lovers across multiple generations.


A disclaimer: I cannot claim to be an impartial voice when it comes to Cooper. I was introduced to his son, Col. Richard Cooper, by Joe DeVito when we were working on “Kong: King of Skull Island.” Having done a great deal of research on Merian Cooper up to that point, I was in awe of Col. Cooper’s father and got along very well with Richard himself. I advised them on certain product and branding issues as I set up “Kong: King of Skull Island” at Dark Horse. Those in search of an unbiased viewpoint will have to look elsewhere.


That said, Vaz’s fast-paced book does a wonderful job of conveying the indomitable spirit of the man called “old indestructible” by his much quieter partner, Ernest Schoedsack. While there’s very little new information presented here, and some provocative stones are very definitely left unturned (more on that in the next column), “Living Dangerously” succeeds as a fast paced and consciously non-critical retelling of Cooper’s life and will undoubtedly make many people wonder why they hadn’t heard more about him before.


As someone who has seen (and heard, via interview tapes) a great deal of the source material for this book, it’s fascinating to me how Coop shaped this biography from beyond the grave much as he constructed his own life epic while he was alive. “Living Dangerously” is, in many ways, “Cooper by Cooper.”


And what do I mean by that? As eventful as his crowded life was, Cooper was at heart a showman and could not resist adding a “twist” somewhat outside the realm of fact in order to further entertain his audience—he was, after all, the model for Carl Denham. We’re not talking about Baron Munchausen-level boasting here; Cooper was no fraud, and his central (and astounding) exploits are absolute fact and indisputable. What it amounts to is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest barefoot, and then claiming to have done a double backflip at the peak as if scaling the mountain itself weren’t enough. The goal is not self-aggrandizement, but rather a more colorful tale for the masses (or the lone interviewer whose tape captures the tale for posterity). It’s the same storytelling sense that made King Kong more than just the story of an island inhabited by a giant ape.


In “Living Dangerously,” some of these fairly outlandish details are related without quotes or a “Cooper claims…” preamble; the cool, authoritative voice of third-person narrative combined with nearly paragraph-by-paragraph numbered references impart an air of historical certainty that encourages the reader to drop his or her guard.


A personal digression; as an avid reader of nonfiction, I’m no fan of the placement of “Notes” at the tail end of these kinds of books. They are simply not useful there. In many cases—and particularly in the case of “Living Dangerously”—the source of a quote, anecdote or “fact” is at least as informative as the actual passage. Of course, the alternative is an unattractive array of footnotes on each page, so one can hardly blame authors and publishers for perpetuating the “endnote” trend.

Still, very few people bother to carefully read a “Notes” section, where a surprising amount of additional information lurks. Too many books (though not “Living Dangerously”) seem to make it as hard as possible to quickly bounce back and forth between the reference notes and the body text, as if they’re hiding something there. Sometimes notes will be divided by Roman numeral designations for chapters, for instance, while the book itself uses only unnumbered titles to identify chapters. I’m a fan of the footnote and margin note; in fact, I would use footnotes in these columns if it weren’t such an HTML nightmare. This and the preceding paragraph would have made a nice footnote.


Much of what Vaz writes (or any of us writes, for that matter) about Cooper comes from Cooper’s own mouth or his own sources. This is from Rudy Behlmer’s foreword to “The Girl in the Hairy Paw”;

Fortunately for me, Cooper never did anything halfway. Once he decided to grant me what was to be at first one interview, and he realized that I wanted to dig into all aspects of his amazing career, he helped me in every way possible. I have always been a stickler for accuracy, and at last I met someone who was my match and then some. Cooper's recall was precise and backed up by all kinds of correspondence, letters of agreement, memos, old newspaper accounts and excerpts from one thing or another. He was a saver who believed in photocopying (before the days of Xerox), following up a meeting with written confirmation, and generally organized procedure.


To this impressive documentation, Cooper added his own colorful anecdotes and tales, filling in the blanks with a slightly Southern accent (which, in the case of this tightly disciplined man, could not be called a “drawl”). As most of these interviews were done later in Cooper’s life, the opportunity to strengthen his position as “King Kong’s creator” was both irresistible and potentially beneficial (both Cooper and his son, Colonel Richard Cooper, tried unsuccessfully to assert legal ownership of the property). Keep that in mind when you read the following in “Living Dangerously,” regarding an incident that supposedly preceded Cooper’s arrival at RKO and development of Kong:


The urge [to explore a gorilla scenario] might have been spurred on an unfortunate bit of housecleaning, when a too tidy maid inexplicably decided to toss into the fire Cooper’s only copy of the massive, handwritten eight-hundred-page monograph on baboons he had begun during the Four Feathers expedition, and was still working on in New York.


It sounds a bit like a tall tale or exaggeration, but, because it comes from the “God’s eye” narrator, we are to accept it as fact right down to the page count of the lost document. The above passage—unaccountably not marked with a reference, incidentally—is similar to items I’d previously read in a 1977 article from “American Film” magazine by Ron Haver (“a 85,000 word treatise on baboons”), and in Rudy Behlmer’s foreword to “The Girl in the Hairy Paw.” This story most likely came from an anecdote related directly to an interviewer (perhaps Kevin Brownlow or Rudy Behlmer) by Cooper himself.


Consider this story, also surely from Cooper’s own recollection: while in Siam filming Chang, Cooper needed tigers to film and learned one had been trapped in a nearby village. By the time he’d arrived there, the tiger had somehow escaped. Furious, he slapped the village chief. Assuming that tale is true (more on that in Part Two), what fate must the poor maid have suffered for tossing the sole copy of a “massive, eight-hundred page monograph”? Also, how does that square with Behlmer’s description of Cooper as “a saver who believed in photocopying (before the days of Xerox), following up a meeting with written confirmation, and generally organized procedure”?


The late author Ron Haver would enjoy remarkable access to Cooper while gathering material for his book, “David O. Selznik’s Hollywood,” and it creates a very interesting view of the making of King Kong. Haver used the same “God’s eye” voice to relate Cooper’s fairly imaginative tales of pantomiming the precise movements of Kong in front of O’Brien and his staff, standing back as “the animators” manipulated their models and photographed the action, then acting out another portion of the scene once they’d finished the previous bit. Cooper also recalls the week when he had to personally handle stop motion animation because Willis O’Brien was out sick. Read this and see if it seems a bit “off”:


At one point, O’Brien’s hand became infected from working with the moldy hides and chemicals and he developed gangrene. While recovering from that, during the fall, he came down with the flu, so Cooper was forced to work on much of the animation himself. [Emphasis mine]


That little tidbit didn’t make it into “Living Dangerously,” fortunately, though I still wish some of the less credible tales that did make the cut for the book had been rendered as long-form quotes. At the same time, Cooper’s embellishments are incredibly instructive regarding his personality and the attitudes prevalent in less enlightened times. That’ll be our topic in Part II—giving you time to buy a copy of Vaz’s excellent book and get some required reading done.

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