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FILM ON PAPER

His career was larger than life

Living Dangerously The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of "King Kong" Mark Cotta Vaz Villard: 480 pp., $26.95

August 14, 2005|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review, a film critic for Time magazine and the author of the forthcoming "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

BEFORE he was 36 years old, Merian C. Cooper had: gotten himself expelled from the U.S. Naval Academy; served with Gen. John Pershing in the undeclared 1914 war against Pancho Villa and company; been shot down twice and captured once in World War I; fought for Poland against the Russian Bolsheviks, where again he was shot down, captured and almost died in a prison camp near Moscow; sailed most of the way around the world on a schooner and was joined late in the voyage by his partner and cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack, with whom he took rare footage of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie; made "Grass," a pioneering documentary about the Bakhtiari tribe's crossing of the fierce Zardeh Kuh mountains of Persia (now Iran) in search of food for their animals; made another film, called "Chang," about Siamese villagers that featured tiger-hunting and a spectacular elephant stampede; and made the 1929 version of "The Four Feathers," which combined documentary footage with fictional material starring professional actors.

And that was just for starters. Before he died in 1973, Cooper had helped found Pan American Airways, had been a staff officer with Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers in China during World War II, had produced most of John Ford's best pictures (including "The Searchers") in the postwar era and, as a finale, had helped found Cinerama. None of which says anything about conceiving, producing and co-directing the movie that was to be his masterpiece and his chief claim on history's attention -- "King Kong."

My most persistent thought as I read "Living Dangerously," Mark Cotta Vaz's breathless, uncritical but deliciously readable biography of Cooper, was how utterly unduplicable this life would be today. The first three decades of the 20th century still offered adventurous souls like Cooper a planet full of vast, empty spaces populated only by primitive peoples, innocent of modernism's corrupting forces both material and political, that these perpetually boyish visitors might risk their lives to explore.

The period also offered them two new technologies, the airplane and the movie camera, which greatly enhanced these efforts. Nowadays, a traveler heading into one of these former wildernesses is likely to encounter a Sheraton Hotel offering him all the comforts of home or, alternatively, a revolution in progress and all the discomforts -- abduction, torture, death -- that radicalized populations may present any interloper.

Another way of putting that point is that Cooper and his ilk (he was not the only character wandering the world with gun and camera) were as agenda-free as the people whose lives he photographed. They met in innocence and parted friends; Vaz does not record a single instance in which Cooper's expeditions were menaced by any of the people he encountered.

Cooper's essentially romantic spirit infused "King Kong" from conception to completion, and Vaz is very good at tracing the autobiographical elements -- rather more of them than you might imagine -- in that production. The first seed was planted during Cooper's 1922 voyage in the South Pacific, when the sailing ship the Wisdom stopped briefly at the Adamin Islands and he encountered lizard-like creatures, some 14 feet in length, that he thought might be very distant relatives of dinosaurs.

The notion of doing a story in which prehistoric beasts rampaged around in the modern world occurred to him. Even though "The Lost World" (1925) beat him out, the adventures of a friend, W. Douglas Burden, who mounted an expedition to Komodo Island in Indonesia, lair of the scary dragons of that name, pushed him forward. Temporarily out of the picture business, Cooper was in New York City when, leaving his office one evening, he glanced up at the brand-new Empire State Building and, in his mind's eye, saw a giant gorilla clambering around on it. Now all he had to do was imagine a story that would somehow maneuver the great ape from a remote, dinosaur-infested island to Manhattan.

At some point thereafter, he projected a character (eventually called Carl Denham and played by Robert Armstrong) very like himself into the story. Denham is a fearless adventurer with a healthy interest in profiting from his activities, and it is he who hires boat and crew to sail for Skull Island in pursuit of a gorilla rumored to be lurking there. Cooper had felt that the lack of a love interest had harmed profits on "Grass" and "Chang," and he had Denham hire a girl off (but not of) the New York streets for that role.

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