The recent publication of
LIVING DANGEROUSLY: THE ADVENTURES OF MERIAN C. COOPER by Mark
Cotta Vaz represents a long-overdue look at the amazing life
of a man who, if he had died before ever having stepped foot
in Hollywood, would still be considered a legitimate legend.
If you haven’t yet purchased a copy, do so immediately.
A quick summary of Cooper’s amazing life and accomplishments
is impossible, but let’s make this clear: the rather grandiose
subtitle of the book is entirely accurate. A book subtitled
“The Adventures Of John Michlig,” for instance, would have to
be considered fairly ironic (though I once had a run-in with
a wasp nest that qualifies); in the case of Cooper, the word
choice is entirely appropriate. Cooper lived a life that was
full-to-bursting. He was a force of nature, seemingly without
fear, who made his mark over and over again.
Here’s a career overview, before any giant apes entered
• Hunted Pancho Villa with the National Guard.
• Shot down in flames as a World War One aviator, then recuperated
as a POW.
• Didn’t return home after the war; instead, formed the Kosciuszko
Squadron in Poland.
• Shot down again, captured, and sentenced to hard labor,
which he endured for months before escaping.
• Finally returned to the United States after four years
away, only to leave once again on an expedition to Ethiopia.
• Made two highly regarded silent documentaries in
Persia and Siam with partner Ernest Schoedsack.
• Produced one of the last big silent films in Hollywood,
The Four Feathers.
• Pioneered civil aviation as one of the first investors
in early airlines.
And he created King Kong, which, ironically, has overshadowed
his other feats before and after. Indeed, the “sub-sub title”
of this book, whose ostensible mission is to illuminate the
incredibly varied life and pursuits of a man who soared to legendary
heights in battle, exploration, entertainment, and business,
is “Creator of King Kong,” a fairly reductive tag in relationship
to his other accomplishments. A bit like calling Albert Einstein
“popularizer of knit sweaters,” or describing Ronald Reagan
as “star of Hellcats of the Navy.” And we still haven’t mentioned
that Cooper was a member of the Flying Tigers in China and stood
aboard the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered.
Still, to understand King Kong, you need to know Merian Coldwell
Cooper. Nearly every story element of the original film is reflective
of some aspect of Cooper’s life leading up to his creation of
the iconic movie. His passions—aviation, exploration, adventure
filmmaking—are all incorporated into King Kong. You can argue
about the extent to which the final screenplay evolved through
contributions by Edgar Wallace, James Creelman, Ruth Rose, as
well as a host of uncredited RKO scribes, but it’s clear that
virtually everything in Kong got there by way of Cooper. (There’s
a great memo from James Creelman to Cooper, in fact, where the
overworked scribe—he was also writing The Most Dangerous Game—laments
that Cooper’s suggested addition of a giant wall, island tribe
and sacrificial rites were just too much for the plot to handle.
Cooper “relieved” him soon after.)
Kong´s effects, music, sound; none of these aspects of the
film were the direct work of his hands, but Cooper’s force of
personality, bullheadedness and sheer refusal to take no for
an answer ultimately made Skull Island a real place in the minds
of film lovers across multiple generations.
A disclaimer: I cannot claim to be an impartial voice when it
comes to Cooper. I was introduced to his son, Col. Richard Cooper,
by Joe DeVito when we were working on “Kong:
King of Skull Island.”
Having done a great deal of research on Merian Cooper up to
that point, I was in awe of Col. Cooper’s father and got along
very well with Richard himself. I advised them on certain product
and branding issues as I set up “Kong:
King of Skull Island”
at Dark Horse. Those in search of an unbiased viewpoint will
have to look elsewhere.
That said, Vaz’s fast-paced book does a wonderful job of
conveying the indomitable spirit of the man called “old indestructible”
by his much quieter partner, Ernest Schoedsack. While there’s
very little new information presented here, and some provocative
stones are very definitely left unturned (more on that in the
next column), “Living Dangerously” succeeds as a fast paced
and consciously non-critical retelling of Cooper’s life and
will undoubtedly make many people wonder why they hadn’t heard
more about him before.
As someone who has seen (and heard, via interview tapes)
a great deal of the source material for this book, it’s fascinating
to me how Coop shaped this biography from beyond the grave much
as he constructed his own life epic while he was alive. “Living
Dangerously” is, in many ways, “Cooper by Cooper.”
And what do I mean by that? As eventful as his crowded life
was, Cooper was at heart a showman and could not resist adding
a “twist” somewhat outside the realm of fact in order to further
entertain his audience—he was, after all, the model for Carl
Denham. We’re not talking about Baron Munchausen-level boasting
here; Cooper was no fraud, and his central (and astounding)
exploits are absolute fact and indisputable. What it amounts
to is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest barefoot, and
then claiming to have done a double backflip at the peak as
if scaling the mountain itself weren’t enough. The goal is not
self-aggrandizement, but rather a more colorful tale for the
masses (or the lone interviewer whose tape captures the tale
for posterity). It’s the same storytelling sense that made King
Kong more than just the story of an island inhabited by a giant
In “Living Dangerously,” some of these fairly outlandish
details are related without quotes or a “Cooper claims…” preamble;
the cool, authoritative voice of third-person narrative combined
with nearly paragraph-by-paragraph numbered references impart
an air of historical certainty that encourages the reader to
drop his or her guard.
A personal digression; as an avid reader of nonfiction, I’m
no fan of the placement of “Notes” at the tail end of these
kinds of books. They are simply not useful there. In many cases—and
particularly in the case of “Living Dangerously”—the source
of a quote, anecdote or “fact” is at least as informative as
the actual passage. Of course, the alternative is an unattractive
array of footnotes on each page, so one can hardly blame authors
and publishers for perpetuating the “endnote” trend.
Still, very few people bother to carefully read a “Notes”
section, where a surprising amount of additional information
lurks. Too many books (though not “Living Dangerously”) seem
to make it as hard as possible to quickly bounce back and forth
between the reference notes and the body text, as if they’re
hiding something there. Sometimes notes will be divided by Roman
numeral designations for chapters, for instance, while the book
itself uses only unnumbered titles to identify chapters. I’m
a fan of the footnote and margin note; in fact, I would use
footnotes in these columns if it weren’t such an HTML nightmare.
This and the preceding paragraph would have made a nice footnote.
Much of what Vaz writes (or any of us writes, for that matter)
about Cooper comes from Cooper’s own mouth or his own sources.
This is from Rudy Behlmer’s foreword to “The Girl in the Hairy Paw”;
Fortunately for me, Cooper never did anything halfway. Once
he decided to grant me what was to be at first one interview,
and he realized that I wanted to dig into all aspects of his
amazing career, he helped me in every way possible. I have always
been a stickler for accuracy, and at last I met someone who
was my match and then some. Cooper's recall was precise and
backed up by all kinds of correspondence, letters of agreement,
memos, old newspaper accounts and excerpts from one thing or
another. He was a saver who believed in photocopying (before
the days of Xerox), following up a meeting with written confirmation,
and generally organized procedure.
To this impressive documentation, Cooper added his own colorful
anecdotes and tales, filling in the blanks with a slightly Southern
accent (which, in the case of this tightly disciplined man,
could not be called a “drawl”). As most of these interviews
were done later in Cooper’s life, the opportunity to strengthen
his position as “King Kong’s creator” was both irresistible
and potentially beneficial (both Cooper and his son, Colonel
Richard Cooper, tried unsuccessfully to assert legal ownership
of the property). Keep that in mind when you read the following
in “Living Dangerously,” regarding an incident that supposedly
preceded Cooper’s arrival at RKO and development of Kong:
The urge [to explore a gorilla scenario] might have been
spurred on an unfortunate bit of housecleaning, when a too tidy
maid inexplicably decided to toss into the fire Cooper’s only
copy of the massive, handwritten eight-hundred-page monograph
on baboons he had begun during the Four Feathers expedition,
and was still working on in New York.
It sounds a bit like a tall tale or exaggeration, but, because
it comes from the “God’s eye” narrator, we are to accept it
as fact right down to the page count of the lost document. The
above passage—unaccountably not marked with a reference, incidentally—is
similar to items I’d previously read in a 1977 article from
“American Film” magazine by Ron Haver (“a 85,000 word treatise
on baboons”), and in Rudy Behlmer’s foreword to “The Girl in the Hairy Paw.” This story most likely came from an anecdote
related directly to an interviewer (perhaps Kevin Brownlow or
Rudy Behlmer) by Cooper himself.
Consider this story, also surely from Cooper’s own recollection:
while in Siam filming Chang, Cooper needed tigers to film and
learned one had been trapped in a nearby village. By the time
he’d arrived there, the tiger had somehow escaped. Furious,
he slapped the village chief. Assuming that tale is true (more
on that in Part Two), what fate must the poor maid have suffered
for tossing the sole copy of a “massive, eight-hundred page
monograph”? Also, how does that square with Behlmer’s description
of Cooper as “a saver who believed in photocopying (before the
days of Xerox), following up a meeting with written confirmation,
and generally organized procedure”?
The late author Ron Haver would enjoy remarkable access to
Cooper while gathering material for his book, “David O. Selznik’s
Hollywood,” and it creates a very interesting view of the making
of King Kong. Haver used the same “God’s eye” voice to relate
Cooper’s fairly imaginative tales of pantomiming the precise
movements of Kong in front of O’Brien and his staff, standing
back as “the animators” manipulated their models and photographed
the action, then acting out another portion of the scene once
they’d finished the previous bit. Cooper also recalls the week
when he had to personally handle stop motion animation because
Willis O’Brien was out sick. Read this and see if it seems a
At one point, O’Brien’s hand became infected from working
with the moldy hides and chemicals and he developed gangrene.
While recovering from that, during the fall, he came down with
the flu, so Cooper was forced to work on much of the animation
himself. [Emphasis mine]
That little tidbit didn’t make it into “Living Dangerously,”
fortunately, though I still wish some of the less credible tales
that did make the cut for the book had been rendered as long-form
quotes. At the same time, Cooper’s embellishments are incredibly
instructive regarding his personality and the attitudes prevalent
in less enlightened times. That’ll be our topic in Part II—giving
you time to buy a copy of Vaz’s excellent book and get some
required reading done.
(Writer John Michlig's online article KING KONG: LOST AND FOUND can be seen at http://www.skullisland.net/KongBoomer.html. He's currently working with filmmaker James Mansfield on a documentary entitled EIGHTH WONDER: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF CARL DENHAM AND THE BEAST-GOD OF SKULL ISLAND, the startling details of which he promises to share in the very near future.)
THE KONG FILES and contents are © 2004-2006 John Michlig and written for KongisKing.net, subsidary of The One Ring®, Inc.