Merian C. Cooper: Mercenary of the Movies

I’ve always felt that one of the most curious things about the 1933 horror classic King Kong (besides an island populated with prehistoric creatures and a giant ape attacking New York) is the premise at its center: a crew of people are traveling to a wild, unexplored location to shoot a FICTION film using documentary techniques. By the time King Kong was made, during the sound era, this was no longer being done, but it was commonplace in silent movie days. In the early days especially, comedies and westerns were made this way a lot of the time. One of those kind of guerilla filmmakers was King King’s producer-director Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973).

Back in the day, there were many paths to moviemaking, but none more unique than Cooper’s. His biography is like some kind of combination of Jack London, Hemingway, and Teddy Roosevelt. A Florida native, Cooper attended the U.S. Naval Academy, Atlanta’s Military Aeronatics School as well as a couple of French flight schools, and was a reporter for the Minneapolis Daily-News, the Desmoines Register-Leader, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the El Paso Herald, and The New York Times. He rode with the Georgia National Guard against Pancho Villa in 1916, then flew as a pilot with the U.S. Army Air Service during World War One, and then with the all-volunteer Kościuszko Squadron during the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921) — which may shed some light on the famous climax to King Kong.

This was a man who craved action. After the war, Cooper became involved with the American Geographical Society and the Explorer’s Club. Initially he began writing about his travel experiences, then he began filming them. With collaborator Ernest Schoedsack, he made Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) among the tribesmen of Persia. This was followed by Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), made in Nan, China. He and Schoedsack were cameramen for Capt. E.A. Salisbury’s films Gow:The Headhunter (1928), Captain Salisbury’s Ra-Mu (1929) and Gow the Killer (1931) shot in the South Seas. Then came the classic The Four Feathers (1929), set (and partially shot) in The Sudan, and featuring William Powell, Richard Arlen, and Fay Wray. This led quite naturally to King Kong, the plot of which came to to Cooper in a dream.

Cooper was a bigwig at RKO through a good chunk of the ’30s. He personally directed The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), but most of his other credits (dozens of them) he worked in a producer capacity, and certain of the films, like The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and She (1935) bore his obvious touch. At the same time, he was VP of Production at Pioneer Pictures, notably producing the first three-strip Technicolor film Becky Sharp (1935).

During World War Two, Cooper served in the U.S. Army Air Force in India, China, and the Southwest Pacific, rising from Colonel to Brigadier General. He was a personal witness to Japan’s surrender.

In 1946 Cooper co-founded Argosy Pictures with John Ford (who’d been an admiral during the war), helping to produce several of Ford’s classic pictures of the post-war years, as well as his own Mighty Joe Young (1949). Another big project was the creation of the wisescreen process known as Cinerama, unveiled in 1952. His last picture as producer was John Ford’s The Searchers.

There’s a lot to admire about Merian C. Cooper, though it probably won’t surprise you to learn that he was a pretty right wing guy, to put it mildly, supporting the likes of Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater. A reminder, perhaps, that America has produced MANY versions of King Kong.