Digital Polyphony

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A Tribute to Merian C. Cooper

Posted on May 23, 2011 at 3:14 PM

A Tribute to Merian C. Cooper

(and all the early pioneers of film's frontier)

Now I'm sure your first question is, "who the hell is Merian C. Cooper?" Your second question is probably "What the hell does the 'C,' stand for? More puzzles of the universe will likely follow, but take light in that the 'C' stands for 'Caldwell' and that Cooper was a major influence in the early days of Hollywood - some as a director but mainly as a producer.  That's kind of the point to this whole Tribute series: to entertain and enlighten with some of moviemaking's past, whether you know them or not. If you haven't read about the history of film, or are just a casual watcher of movies, Cooper's name is probably unfamiliar to you.

That's alright, though. Because it's not so much Merian C. Cooper the (co)director, producer and writer I'm interested in, but the man's life itself. Every filmmaker has a history to them, but I don't know if there were many that combined a rich life on top of a very prominent and influential film career. That film, in case you haven't looked it up yet, was King Kong released in 1933. Not only did it set attendance records and a large amount of box office revenue, one of the first official "blockbuster" movies, but it arguably did more for the category and acceptance of "special effects" as an art form than any other film of its era. In fact, it couldn't even be nominated for special effects because the category wouldn't exist for years later. On top of that, the film saved RKO Pictures from bankruptsy, and if you know the history of RKO, that would have been a crime seeing as Citizen Kane, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cat People still needed to be made and early Walt Disney animated movies such as Snow White and Pinocchio to distribute, and made legendary producer David O Selznick's career, who was only about 30 at the time.

Yet, Kong wasn't even the most amazing thing Cooper did during his lifetime. Hell, the man and the myth were looked at as one. Today, directors and writers come from film school backgrounds and learn about the technique, do student projects and get their short films accepted into festivals. They play around with their parent's camcorders or just sit and watch a bunch of movies at home yearning to aspire to create a movie.

Cooper as a young pilot and adventurer.

Merian C. Cooper, future Oscar winner and savior of an entire studio, aspired for adventure first. Like a lot of early pioneers of film, the frontier of the movie industry was far more intriguing than merely making movies to be "creative." It was a test, and in the grand scheme of Cooper's life, despite it's amazing impact felt today, was relatively small in comparison to the rest of his labors.

Cooper enlisted in the military after high school and, after a deviation in Mexico to hunt and track Poncho Villa (no I'm not making this up) he entered World War I as a bomber pilot, was shot down with burns across his body, stayed in a German POW camp for the rest of the war and, I would have to assume due to the massive size of his balls, still insisted on staying in the military once the war was finally over and he was released.

He followed that up by spending two years as a volunteer (meaning he didn't have to) flight squadron fighter in Poland and in 1920 was shot down again and thrown into a POW camp again, this time Russian. In case you haven't been keeping track, that's two plane crashes he walked away from, most people can't survive one. Eventually Cooper escaped the prison, something right out of a movie itself, found freedom and was decorated with the highest order of the Polish Army.

I would have to think by this point, Cooper had enough of being shot down and thrown into prison, so he decided to try something new. No, not making movies yet, he decided to help found Pan Am. Yes, the very first commercial airline. But that's just a footnote, you see. As is his lust for adventure, such as a cross-Persia long distance ride with nomads in 1923 to make a documentary (This trek would greatly influence he and friend Ernest B Schoedsack's later King Kong collaboration - Schoedsack a man he met in Poland and the two became lifelong collaborators and friends).


Cooper visiting Polish airfighters in WWII and Cooper and Schoedsack with Bakhtiari Tribesmen while shooting the documentary "Grass."

Together Cooper and Schoedsack worked on various documentaries, such as the previously mentioned nomad film that would be called "Grass," and smaller films before catching the eye of upstart RKO Pictures head, David O. Selznick. The rest, as they say, is history as King Kong eventually came to light. The film set standards for special effects, stop motion by Willis O'Brien is still beloved and it shows how determination in young adventurous souls can get anything to happen.

Cooper seemed to have a hell of a career ahead of him, especially as a producer at RKO. Except then World War II broke out...and Cooper felt that call of duty and enlisted into yet another war. Like in Poland, he didn't have to. He was technically too old to serve to begin with, Yet for the entirety of the war he rose the ranks from Corporal to Brigadier General in the US Army Air Forces, led numerous missions, became Chief of Staff under General Clair Chennault and was present aboard the USS Missouri to witness Japan's surrender - invited personally due to his decorated record and respect amongst his fellow officers and soldiers.

After the war, Merian went right back into producing, this time with friend John Ford and giving us some of the man's best films including Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man and The Searchers. Though Cooper's legacy became slightly tainted during the 1950s and 60s by backing Joseph McCartney, it certainly doesn't make me think any less of him.

Cooper and Schoedsack lounging on set and a publicity still for their feature, The Four Feathers, a film based on many of their adventures.

Here's the whole point to all this: it's about the insane amount of respect I have to the men and women in film of these eras. They had nothing to go on. They had no "legitimacy" to their craft as art. They couldn't sit around and watch movies as children to be influenced by and, thusly, make movies of their own due to said influence. To guys like Cooper, it was just another adventure to take part in.

That "Spirit" can come and go in terms of films over the years, but in the world of the Hollywood studio, it's been long dead since at least the early 1980s - a time when the "blockbuster" began to grow and emerge more. During that era it was a good balance between the ambitiously creative and the desire to make money. Now it's certainly more in the latter. Going back to the origins of cinema, I can only imagine the complete sense of unknown behind it all for the early producers and filmmakers of the 20th century. Perhaps that's what drew Cooper to it (I have yet to read his biography, mainly because it's out of print and going for $80). I think that lust to simply try something new, to set trends and standards rather than rehash old ones, is why I'm so intrigued by that older era of Hollywood. Instead of growing up loving film and being influenced, these men and women (though mostly men) were something else first, interested in movie-making second. Cooper was an adventurer and soldier first, not some artist with some money looking to make a feature to be put into Cannes. He was too busy trying to escape a POW camp and bring the concept of cross-country commercial flying to the forefront of industry.

Oh, that reminds me, did I mention that Cooper also heavily promoted the use of Technicolor and, along with Fred Waller, pioneered the widescreen aspect ratio (Cinerama). Yeah, throw that into his list of credentials as well.

Older Hollywood(land) figures were simply more interesting and daring. Not because they were older, but because the approach to movies were so much different due to the newness of everything. Their lives before it all were often just as, if not more, interesting than when they actually got into the business itself: such as James Cagney who grew up in extreme poverty and helped support his family as a copy boy, or Rudolph Valentino who came as an immigrant through Ellis Island, lived on the streets and a few years later became the biggest sex symbol and celebrity in the entire world, dying only a decade after that at the age of 31. The story behind the fame of these early figures is what intrigues me so. You rarely get that today - people in the film industry today tend to know early on that it's something they want to do, whether directing, writing or acting. Then they do it. That sense of adventure really doesn't apply to today's world, I suppose.

Cooper and Schoedsack cameoing in King Kong as the pilots that bring Kong down. Cooper dreamt of the idea of King Kong and worked out a story about a giant ape. The character of Carl Denham is based on Cooper himself - ambitious, daring, adventurous and a bit wreckless.

We owe everything to people like Cooper, but unfortunately most people simply don't care. They took all the risks and chances to take a business and artform in infancy and build it from the ground up. They literally took nothing and made something out of it, a parallel to their own lives where they often came from nothing and became something through more hardships than any of us, or most any person in the film industry of the past 50 years at least, could ever possibly know. I do these blogs out of respect more than anything, and Merian C. Cooper is the perfect vehicle for me to utilize and bring out the broader scope of my point.

In Cooper's case, there really wasn't a ton of fame to be had. He wasn't a celebrity, but a producer and occasional director who just happened to make one of the most influential and important films in history alongside a mutual spirit and longtime friend...and that was down on the list of amazing things he did. I've always been interested in the man and the numerous "adventures" he went on in life - an amazing, complex and fulfilling life that screams "you would have to have been there." That's why he got into making movies, you know. To share ideas and stories and "get us there." That's a far different desire to get into film than film-school brats who watched a bunch of Bergman.

Now, ask yourself...what have you done with your life?

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1 Comment

Reply tomasmailor
7:55 AM on August 20, 2018 
I am proud of people who, no matter what, achieve their goal. Little can be successfully unless it is supported at the grass-roots level. Despite the difficult life story, he made succeed in society. What did not kill us made us stronger. This can be seen in the biography of this man. The more events in a person's life, it?s the more difficult to correctly create an autobiography. The site can help to write biography.