“Have you ever heard of . . . Kong?” asked Carl Denham of Englehorn, captain of the ship taking the adventurer-moviemaker, and his cast and crew, nearer to Skull Island, in uncharted regions of the Indian Ocean. “Why, yes,” was Englehorn’s measured reply, as if rousing long-dormant memories of the native legends he had heard on his countless voyages in the area. Since the release of King Kong in March 1933, very few who have inhabited Planet Earth would need more than a second to respond in the affirmative. King Kong has become entrenched in movie lore and culture not only in America, but around the world as well.
The question that, in contrast, remains baffling to many people in the twenty-first century is: Have you ever heard of Merian C. Cooper? What may be surprising to a majority of those who are told about him is that Merian Coldwell Cooper, in addition to King Kong, is directly connected to the following: world exploration, many of the classic films directed by John Ford, Technicolor and the increased use of color in motion pictures, the birth of widescreen movies with Cinerama, the development of commercial aviation, and distinguished service in America’s air force in two world wars.
I vividly recall reading the newspaper obituaries, published side-by-side, of Merian Cooper and Robert Armstrong, the man Cooper had chosen, over forty years earlier, to play Carl Denham in King Kong. Cooper died on April 21, 1973, and Armstrong the day before. The death of one following so closely on the other reinforced even more to me the degree to which Cooper was the character of Denham. This mingling of Merian C. Cooper into his creations was a trademark of this passionate jack-of-all-trades. Readers of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong will discover that Cooper and Denham, in so many respects, are one and the same.
A life that, by ordinary expectations of achievement, would logically be credited to five or six individuals, is, in the case of Cooper, confined to one human being whom famed journalist and broadcaster Lowell Thomas described as “not just a remarkable man, he was incredible.” With all of his accomplishments, there is little doubt that it is for the creation of King Kong that Merian C. Cooper will be most fondly remembered. King Kong was also an outgrowth of the motto that Cooper and filmmaking partner Ernest B. Schoedsack adopted as a litmus test for their future film projects. It was that locations and story elements must incorporate aspects of the distant, difficult, and dangerous.
Cooper was a man with seven-league boots, imbued with the romanticism of exploration, discovery, adventure, and danger more typical of a bygone era. Yet his love of twentieth-century aviation, technology, high finance, and the motion picture industry would, on the surface, seem irreconcilable to his passion for the primitive. Perhaps the most enduring creation resulting from this unique amalgamation of disparate worlds was King Kong.
Cooper himself indicated that the elements that became the motion picture King Kong began to come together in his mind in 1929, when he was thirty-six years old. The seed was most likely planted, however, at the tender age of six, when an uncle gave him a copy of Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa by Pierre Du Chaillu. That, according to Cooper, was when he decided to become a s his assistant. Two years later, Cooper became production head at RKO when Selznick left for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. During his tenure at RKO, Cooper paired up Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers, brought Katharine Hepburn to Hollywood, and began his long association with director John Ford, whom he brought to RKO to make The Lost Patrol and The Informer. Cooper’s stint at RKO also brought him in contact with technical wizard Willis O’Brien, then working on a secret, and ultimately unproduced, project called Creation, involving the stop-motion animation of models of prehistoric beasts. O’Brien would prove invaluable in bringing Kong to the screen.
The final link in what would become King Kong came out of discussions Cooper had with explorer W. Douglas Burden. Inspired by Chang, Burden led a filmmaking expedition to the island of Komodo and brought back two of its indigenous giant lizards for exhibition at the Bronx Zoo. That they eventually became ill and died was an element that found its way into Cooper’s beauty-and-the-beast story of a giant gorilla. The final story was classic Cooper, combining elements both primitive and contemporary, and whose premise involved difficulty, distance, and, most certainly, danger.
Popular British novelist Edgar Wallace was brought into the project in December 1932, but died suddenly of pneumonia just over two months later, after turning out a draft script of Cooper’s story. The script was more fully developed, under Cooper’s supervision, into its final form by James Creelman and Ruth Rose. Cooper, nevertheless, kept Wallace’s name on the film and in publicity connected to King Kong, both because of his promise to Wallace and for its publicity value.
At nearly fifty, Cooper, with a wife and three children to care for, could easily have remained safely at home during World War II. However, his innate patriotism compelled him to sign up, as he had done nearly three decades earlier, to serve his country. In China, Cooper was chief of staff to General Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers, and flew numerous bombing missions with his younger subordinates. Later, in the South Pacific, he was chief of staff to General Edward Kenney, masterminding air operations. At war’s end, he was among those on board the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay at the ceremony formalizing Japan’s surrender.
Following the war, Cooper and John Ford formed Argosy Pictures Corporation, and together were responsible for some of that era’s best films, including Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Quiet Man, as well as revisiting the giant gorilla theme with Mighty Joe Young. Ever on the cutting edge, Cooper was a major force in the development, along with Lowell Thomas, of Cinerama, the first commercially successful widescreen movie process, which revolutionized the motion picture industry.
I never met Merian C. Cooper. Photographs of him often show a broad smile of Cinerama proportions. Surviving audio recordings revealed his expansive Southern drawl, and a passion for what he was doing at the moment. My early interest in movies was bolstered by frequent viewings of King Kong on Los Angeles television during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its effect was singularly impressive: the human qualities of Kong; Max Steiner’s powerful score, laced with themes for each character; and the derring-do, man-on-the-make Depression-era elan of Carl Denham. At the time, the only accessible publication on Cooper was an excellent article by movie historian Rudy Behlmer in the January 1966 issue of Films in Review.
It was in meeting members of his family that I discovered firsthand the Cooper quality of relentless decency and warmth. My association began in 1976, with Cooper’s widow, the gracious Dorothy Jordan, at her home on Coronado Island near San Diego, where the couple had retired. I was early in my career as a manuscript curator at the Special Collections department at Brigham Young University. In the ensuing decade, during which Cooper’s papers were donated to BYU in 1986, I also enjoyed getting to know their son, U.S. Air Force Colonel Richard M. Cooper. He patiently entertained the countless questions thrown at him as I wound my way through over fifty cartons of correspondence, passports, scrapbooks, photographs, and memorabilia accumulated by Richard’s father and seen by no one else.
I must admit to being more than guarded when I heard of a modern adaptation of the original King Kong story. My immediate reaction was to conjure up horrific images of the makeover of the Kong story by movie producer Dino De Laurentiis in the mid 1970s. Leave well enough alone was my unspoken plea. What made me even consider reading this new version was that the request came from Colonel Cooper himself. A subsequent weekend immersed in the typescript erased any concerns I had about heresy, blasphemy, or crassly commercial exploitation of Merian C. Cooper’s original story by Mr. DeVito and Mr. Strickland. After years of being immersed in Cooper’s own papers, I emerged from reading the manuscript feeling at home.
The authors’ single-minded determination to remain faithful to Cooper’s original story has resulted in what is, to me, a seamless tale that authentically derives from the spirit of Cooper’s fertile imagination. What they have done is to flesh out the story that Kong devotees so protectively revere, and yet allow the reader to create an authentic theater-of-the-mind experience, not unlike that of old time radio. DeVito and Strickland convincingly invoke the senses into the voyage of The Wanderer to Skull Island and back: the pelting rain, the pungent smell of the jungle, the strained muscles, sweat, and sinews of Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll on the chase for Ann Darrow in peril, the heat and dampness of the tropical isle, and even the acrid aroma of Kong crashing through groves of jungle flora. Of particular interest are their credible embellishments on Cooper’s original story, covering the time between the capture of Kong on Skull Island and his exhibition on Broadway, as well as what transpires from Kong’s escape and the havoc wreaked in midtown Manhattan until his ascent of the Empire State Building, Ann Darrow in hand.
Venerated stories that have become cultural legends are both formidable in their longevity and, at the same time, highly vulnerable and fragile. Their strength comes from endurance in the culture; their fragility becomes exposed by attempts to alter them. DeVito and Strickland have taken a story—for generations familiar and for decades beloved—and have given it a fresh retelling. They have done their job so convincingly that they reinforce King Kong as myth without disturbing its core time-honored elements. As with Cooper himself, the authors have deftly blended the old with the new in a story that is well within the confines of the term “Faithful.” “It’s alive!” cried Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the movie about his creation that has also become a cultural legend. In the case of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, Cooper’s creation is, indeed not only alive . . . but alive and well.
James V. D’Arc
Curator, Merian C. Cooper Papers
Brigham Young University