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CooperArticle - Penn State Annexes lLLiad TN 842629...

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Unformatted text preview: Penn State Annexes lLLiad TN: 842629 Illllllllllllllll|||||||||||l||||||l|||| COPY: Delivered to Web Journal Title: American Film Volume: 2 Issue: 3 Month/Year: 1977 Pages: 14-23 Article Author: Haver, Ron Article Title: 'Merian C. Cooper: First King of Kong' Imprint: MLA Bib. Notes: LOAN: Delivered to Greater Allegheny Title: Author: Due Date: Pieces: 3/11/2008 Call #: PN1993 .A617 Location: aa 900000006784 Item #: ILLiad TN #: 842629 Note: Customer Information: ctm10 Clifford Manlove 4000 University Drive Penn State Greater Allegheny McKeesport, PA 15132 Campus: Greater Allegheny Pick-Up Location: Greater Allegheny Notes: The story of the man and his work in creating the world’s most famous monster. Ron Haver The time has finally arrived for Dino De Laurentiis and Paramount Pic— tures to unveil their $24 million testa- ment to the mythmaking power of movies—King Kong. An inch-thick press packet will tell you that the film has been in production eight months, moving men and equipment halfway around the world and employing thousands of extras, and that the star attraction is a forty-foot tall, six-and- a-half-ton mechanical ape costing $1 million who can do everything except cook breakfast. The credits list al- most a hundred names, from pro- ducer De Laurentiis and director John Guillerminthrough screen- writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr., down to the assistant auditor. And yet without Merian C. Cooper, there wouldn’t have been the eight-month shooting schedule, or the forty-foot ape, and the $24 mil- lion could have been spent on five or maybe six other films, none of which would have had the built-in commer- cial appeal of King Kong. For it was Cooper who originally conceived, produced, co-wrote, codirected, and acted out this twentieth-century ver- sion of the myth of Beauty and the Beast and the destructive powers of both love and civilization. He did it at the midpoint in his life, a life which, up to that point, had been as roman- tic, extravagant, and adventuresome as the monster he devised and called “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” A flying hero in World War 1, ex- 14 ¥ plorer, writer, innovative filmmaker, student of literature and art, military theorist, and friend of world-famous figures, Cooper’s life was his own best creation, and bits and pieces of it are strewn throughout the more than twenty-five films he produced, which include influential documentaries (Grass, Chang), classic adventure films (King Kong, Son of Kong, She), and a dozen collaborations with John Ford (The Long Voyage Home and The Searchers, among others). Cooper’s contribution to film history goes beyond his productions. He was among the first to see the possibilities of Technicolor, and he helped to pi- oneer the Cinerama process. Cooper was no faceless studio ex- ecutive or colorless technical innova- tor. His personality was distinct, a blend of the culture and traditions of the South, where he was born and Merian C. Cooper with miniatures of some of the monsters of King Kong. raised; the more aggressive and Drag. matic North,'where he was educated; his reading of romantic writer‘s1 18-13};- as Kipling, Harte, London, an eare gard; and the works of ShakeSP cry and the Bible, a book heread 6:59, day. Muscular, short, With §Pa he: sandy hair, and an outthrustjaw,He had a blunt, forthright manner.11 h would size up a person thicz) ugl d crackling brown eyes which 36 d freeze to ice when he was disPIea or an r . Hi5 3iages, when they occurreliié were as towering as anythiliiagving dreamed up forKong. In 1932, t king purchased his first car, he was adan, his fiancée, actress Dorothy JO:1 de- for a drive. The car stalled, anot w spite Cooper’s efforts, would nh or- start. Frustrated and furious, can d dered his wife-to-be out of the car ith shoved it over the cliff, watching W ’—\r grea ' ' ' E rippédsfiglzgaction as It bounced and 0m ' ‘ ay to the rocks below. Octobe in Jacksonville, Florida, in SCendedrf 1893, Cooper was de- f SOuther mm a long line of wealthy ' inculcatndplantation owners. He was i Southe‘e from an early age with the honor aFndtraditions of chivalry When’h (:1 belief in God and country: book callwgs SIX, an uncle gave him a lures in E6 Explorations and Adven~ 1862 by Pquatortal Africa, written in first to aul Du Chaillu, one of the i nent,” Y(filiplore “the Dark Conti— nation of thug Cooper read with fasci- SUPPOSedl e tribes of giant apes that lages; and Yhterrorized native vil- Won derades: read with wide-eyed apes Carryin rlption of one of these Oman int g off a screaming native found (it the Jungle. King Kong had found hs seedling, and Cooper . 1s first vocation: explor- From The Most Dangerous Game, with Joel M cCrea and Fay Wray, produced by Cooper. The same set was used in King Kong. ing. To meet the challenge, he took up boxing and wrestling, and suc- ceeded in swimming the St. John’s River in Florida. Cooper was appointed in 1911 to Annapolis, where he developed a life- long love affair, not with ships, but with planes and flying and began ad- vocating the use of air power. He was thrown out four years later, blaming high spii‘itagand high jinks rather than his deficiency in navigation. He soon joined the Merchant Marine, and when the Germans sank the Lusi- tania, Cooper, convinced war was imminent and wanting to get in on it, literally jumped ship in London. He injured himself, and, with no pass- port, he was shipped back to the United States in steerage. Odd jobs followed, including a stint as a re- porter. When Woodrow Wilson called out the National Guard in 1916, Cooper enlisted, hoping that would lead eventually to action in Eu- rope. Instead, he found himself in a unit fighting U.S. border skirmishes against raiding Mexican bandits. Still hopeful, Cooper volunteered for flight training and became a pri- vate in the aviation section of the Sig— nal Corps. He finally got his wings near the end of the war, was sent overseas in September 1918, and was quickly shot down after bringing down two enemy planes. He spent the final weeks of the war as a pris- oner of the Germans. Cooper was soon to become a prisoner again, this time of the Bolsheviks in Russia. He had been assigned, after the Armistice, to an American relief of- fice in Poland, where he came into contact with refugees from the civil war raging in Russia. Seeing signs of an eventual Communist threat to the 15 i i i I world, he quit the army, and joined the Polish Service, then fighting against the Bolsheviks. He flew a fighter plane and resourcefully devel- oped a method of low-level bombard- ment with crude bombs. But he was shot down by the Bolsheviks, and sent to a work camp deep inside Siberia. He escaped, crossing the frozen wastes in twenty-six days to Latvia, only to be imprisoned as a suspected Communist. An American relief mission found him and he re- turned, much decorated, to New York in 1921. Cooper found work writing of his war-time experiences for the New York Daily News and then the New York Times. Now twenty-six, he still longed to be an explorer, and while holding down a newspaper job began studying at the American Geographi- cal Society, where he learned map- making and survival techniques. When he saw an ad for someone with writing and navigating ability to join an expedition to uncharted regions of the South Seas, he applied, was ac- cepted, and joined the ship, The Wis- dom II, in Singapore. The expedi- tion, organized by a man named Sal- isbury, hoped to gather material for magazine articles, films, and, possi- bly, a book. The cameraman who had been hired for the trip had dropped out after a frightening typhoon, and Cooper suggested a replacement, a young combat photographer he had met in Poland. His name was Ernest B. Schoedsack. Six-foot-five, called “Shorty” by his friends (except Cooper, who called him “Monty” from his middle name, Beaumont), Schoedsack had been trained as a cameraman at Mack Sennett’s Key- stone studios. When war broke out he enlisted and was assigned to the newly formed photographic section of the Signal Corps. Cooper wired Schoedsack in Paris, and he agreed to join the expe- dition, shooting all the footage that might later be turned into a trave- logue. As it happened, the only kind of film both Schoedsack and Cooper liked was travelogues, though most of what they saw they regarded as only collections of pretty pictures. By the time the expedition was over, they had decided to strike off on their own and make a travelogue unlike anything ever seen before. _ Cooper, in his studies at the Amer- ican Geographical Society, had read of the nomadic Persian tribes called the Bakhtiari, who were forced to mi- grate over the virtually impassable mountains of central Persia in search of grass to keep their flocks of ani— mals alive. Primitive, fierce, and sus- picious of strangers, their customs and ways were largely unknown to the Western world. After discussing the subject, the two men decided that if it could be photographed, a film of this epic migration would be a sensa- tion. Cooper went off to New York to raise money, and came up with $10,000,twenty thousand feetof 35mm film, and a woman named Marguerite Harrison, who had put up part of the money on condition that she could be the third partner. Cooper had met Harrison a few years before. In one of his newspaper pieces, he had de- scribed how she had saved his life, when he was a prisoner in Russia, by smuggling him food. When the news- paper pieces appeared in book form, he got a letter from Harrison warning" him that the book’s distribution would endanger her life. She was en- gaged, she said, in undercover work for the anti-Bolshevik allies. Cooper quickly bought up all unsold copies of his book. Schoedsack was less than enthu- siastic about having a woman along on what promised to be a dangerous expedition, but faced with the actual- ity of the arrangement, he reluctantly agreed and the three were off to Per- sia. Traveling by horse and on foot, they arrived at their jumping-0ff place: Shustar, capital of Arabistan, The uses of a Hollywoodset: left, the back lot ofRKO Pathé in 1931; the tall structure is a temple left over from Klng . of Kings. Below, the wall and gate of i the temple as used infilming ng where it had been arranged for them to meet the khans of the tribes. After explaining what they wanted, they re- ceived the hesitant permission of the khans to accompany the tribes on their impending trek. With warnings ringing in their ears about the hard- ships and dangers involved, they set off with one of the tribes, living their lives, eating what they ate, sleeping as they slept, and traveling the wild country. The trek lasted twenty-six days. Fifty thousand people and a half-million animals took part in this vast undertaking, fording rivers, fighting off other hostile tribes, scal- ing unbelievably steep, snow-covered peaks, until they at last reached the valleys of grass on the other side of the Zagros mountain ranges. Cooper and Schoedsack photographed their struggles with Schoedsack’s Debrie camera on its heavy tripod. In spite of the hardships and difficulties in- volved, Harrison was able to keep up with them. Cooper took the completed film, called Grass, on the highly lucrative lecture circuit in the mid-twenties, while Schoedsack joined an expedi- tion t9 the Galapagos Islands headed by William Beebe. Grass was a great success on the lecture trail, and it came to the attention 'of Jesse Lasky, head of Paramount. He immediately offered to release it. The picture cre- ated a sensation, receiving excellent reviews and grossing several times its cost. The film, along with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, made four years earlier, set the style and standard for a completely new kind of film, the documentary-nature film-travelogue, which opened up un- tapped avenues for the motion pic- ture to explore. Lasky offered the men carte blanche for their next film. This time, the two focused on the jungles of Siam. In Chang, they told a fictitious story of one man’s efforts to protect his family from the dangers and en- croachment of the savage jungle. Marauding tigers and other wild ani- mals provided the danger, but the drama was mainly offscreen in the arduous and hazardous filming. Schoedsack was attacked by a tiger. Cooper, enraged at something a na- tive Chieftain had done, slapped his face in front of the tribe. That night, at dinner, the chief’s wife served Cooper a chicken stew which, un- known to him, was laced with tiny bamboo barbs. A missionary doctor saved his life. The film opened at New York’s Criterion Theater in April 1927, with a special musical score by Hugo Re- isenfeld, the musical director of the The set used again for a palace gate in She ( 1935 ), a Cooper film. theater. The musicians included twenty men behind the screen pound- ing six-foot native tom—toms during the climactic elephant stampede. As an added bit of Showmanship, Cooper used Paramount’s new Mag- nascope process, which opened the screen to about twice its normal size for the stampede. The film drew glowing reviews from the critics and standing-room—only crowds. Chang was one of the biggest hits on Broad- way that year and was awarded one of the first Academy Awards for “most artistic quality of production. ” The team’s next film, The Four Feathers, is noteworthy on several levels. It was the first Hollywood film to make extensive use of carefully matched jungle and desert exteriors, with interiors shot in a Hollywood studio. It was also the first time that Cooper and Schoedsack would come into contact with Fay Wray, who had been picked to play the female lead; David O. Selznick, who was as- signed by Paramount as production supervisor; and the Hollywood stu— dio method of moviemaking. During the filming in Africa, Cooper became fascinated by a col- ony of baboons living in a dry river bed. He began studying their habits, their movements, and social patterns. Conjured up in him was the child- As part ofAtlanta, the wall (center) is burned down in Gone With the Wind (1939). 17 An original sketchfor Kong by Mario Larrinaga. This controversial scene was cutfor thefilm’s 1938 reissue and not restored until 1969. hood image of the ape carrying the screaming woman into the jungle, and he. began making inquiries into the exrstence of these giant apes learning that the largest apes were down 1n West Africa. The Four Feath- t‘l‘d‘ was finished just as the sound era boomed into Hollywood, and the pic- ture was not the success the two men hoped it would be. Cooper washed his hands of filmmaking and turned to his other main interest. airplanes. He invested heavily in the young civil avration industry, becoming one of the founding stockholders of both Western Airlines and Pan American Airways. In his spare time, he wrote an 8§,000eword treatise on baboons but it went unpublished. A cleanin’ woSnilan accidentally threw it out g nce sett ing in N . Cooper had become cloes‘: fi‘Yigtftlf, wrth Douglas Burden, an exploresr 18 and naturalist, and was fascinated by Burden’s account of the prehistoric island of Komodo in what was then the Dutch East Indies and the dragon lizards that inhabited it. One phrase in Burden’s published account of his travels stuck in Cooper’s memory: “I would like to bring my whole family here and be King of Komodo.” Cooper liked the sound of the words and, in several conversations with Bu'rden during the winter of 1929- 1930, outlined an idea he had for a movie about a giant gorilla. Cooper thought that one of these gorillas could be trapped in Spanish West Af- rica and transported to Komodo Is- land. His first idea was to have one of these big gorillas fight a real twelve— foot dragon lizard and enlarge them by a variation of the M agnasco e process. Over a period of sorrpie weeks, he developed a story which involved makin the ' hundred feet till. Cgorllla fifty to a with the name “Kon ” f ' ' gorilla, telling B g or hls giant [of it reminded h' y a gong: deep, reverberat' magic, and mysterious. mg, dra- ooper, in his small New Y ork apartment, spent the winter writing e first treatment of “Kong ” but wast. unsatisfied. It was only after Wainfig the 01d Arabian Proverb ” re aic( Oénens the story, that he knew a an magnified) gorilla was out of 11. He realized that he had to have a subtle, poetic quality to Kong himself, and no real gorilla would do, nor would a man in an ape suit. Cooper also realized that the story, as it was constructed up to that point, lacked a particular scene that the audience would always remem- ber. Then late one afternoon in Feb- ruary 1930 as he was leaving his office in midtown Manhattan, he heard the sound of an airplane motor. He re- flexively looked up just as the sun glinted off the wings of a plane flying extremely close to the tallest building in the city, the New York Life Insur~ ance Building. Without any con- scious effort of thought, he realized that if he placed the giant gorilla on top of the tallest building in the world and had him shot down by the most modern of weapons, the armed air- plane, he would have a story of the primitive doomed by modern civiliza- tion'. By now Cooper had written three treatments of the story, sketching in the characters of Carl Denham, the motion picture director who was to be a composite of himself and D9112? las Burden; Ann Darrow, descrlbed as a “blue—eyed beauty with long blonde hair, soft and vulnerable, bl“ plucky”; and young first mate Jack Driscoll, who was patterned after Schoedsack. Cooper also went over all the special effects processes then in use by the industry and concluded that, with intelligent use of the be§t0f them, “Kong” was not only feasxble l but practical. He made notat1o1180n how the scenes could be achlevedt which combinations of spec1al effects work would be necessary, and 11%", certain spectacular effects could 9 accomplished. He made notes on the way the film should 100k: “For $1065 and jungle on island, see D0re 11!“; Paradise Lost,” giving alPPmprl.a ‘ Page numbers. For scenes 1nvolv113 real actors and the giant ape, 990p re , devised what he termed “ml“,‘awl ‘ projection,” that is, preY‘Puer filmed action projected inimlmatnd on the scaled sets of the Jungle 3 the New York finale. . all) But he still needed a studio Skeollt that would allow him to fully Wolf “it. his ideas. All his efforts proves1 rum less until, through a series of Clrcwas ‘ stances, David O. SelanCkRKOI i made production head 0f damn i partly by Cooper’s recommenknow. through a friend. Selznick, nOt W W _—_y*v——-———~———E— ing of Cooper’s involvement, then in- vited him to become 1115 executive assistant at the West Coast studio. His duties involved evaluating both current and future production proj- ects, giving his views and recommen- dations on the commercial prospects of each. Among the in-work projects was an oddity called “Creation” on which a half reel of tests had been shot and a script written. According to Cooper: “It wasn’t worth a damn, dramatically or commercially.” What was worth a damn, as far as Cooper was concerned, was Willis O’Brien, the man responsible for creating the effects in “Creation.” A man without much of a formal education, O’Brien was a brilliant cartoonist and illustrator and had evolved and perfected the technique of “stop-motion animation,’ ’ wherein small, inanimate figures were made to move by photographing successwe stages of their movement afrarne at a time. He had used this technique in several films, most nota- bly 1n the 1925 version of The Lost 3321:1113??? his creation and manip- e huge prehistoric beasts created a sensation. “Creation” was :3 11%: bselecn somewhat of a follow-up known hadhiss’ O Bre, as he was ect for, sever en working on the pr0j- rounded himsalfyegrs’ and had sur- of young artiset With a talented crew elmakers Th S, sculptors, and mo- alien” came a: :ancellatron of Cre- his 00-W0rkers Cilérprrse to him and press d . - , per was very 1m- tech 6} w1th O Brien’s work and nlques: After s...
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