With Kong: Skull Island coming March 2017 and the awesome trailer just released we give you the man behind the creature, Merian Cooper.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Article from the Kong Of Skull Island website by Mark Cotta Vaz.