Merian C. Cooper Productions
Sunday, July 3
Before he fell under the spell of the movies, Cooper served as a bomber pilot in WWI. While flying in a mission over German lines, his plane caught fire. Though he succeeded in landing it and saving the life of his wounded gunner, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. Thinking him dead, the military sent an official death notice to his family.
After the war, Cooper joined a group of American volunteer fliers committed to defending Poland against Russian aggression. He once again became a war prisoner, this time of the Russians. After being sentenced to death, he managed to escape, walking 400 miles across hostile terrain. After refusing honors from a grateful Poland, Cooper embarked on a life as an adventurer. He joined forces with cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack and went deep into Persia to record the migration across river and mountain of the Bakhtiari tribe. Never before witnessed by westerners, this event became the landmark 1925 documentary Grass and led to a contract with Paramount. For their next project, 1927's Chang, Cooper and Schoedsack lived for a year in the jungle of Siam, filming the story of a family's struggle to survive amongst the marauding animal life. The way they photographed animals in the wild broke new ground, especially when it came to the climax, an astonishing sequence in which a massive herd of elephants stampede through a native village.
Their third film, 1929's The Four Feathers, interpolated their trademark location shooting, this time in Africa, with the telling of a classic adventure yarn. But working for the first time in Hollywood, Cooper was disillusioned by what he saw as studio interference with his work. In his characteristically impulsive way he decided to leave filmmaking and return to his other love, aviation, getting in at the very start of PanAm. But a desk job was never going to contain Cooper's restless spirit, and when David O. Selznick invited him back to Hollywood to become his assistant at RKO, Cooper agreed. Not only would he be involved in developing new projects, he would also have the chance to bring to fruition an idea of his own, the distillation of his love of adventure and the years filming in the wild with Schoedsack.
The idea that would become King Kong had its roots in a book of exploration Cooper had read as a child, but the dream of a giant gorilla laying waste to New York only became practicable when he found Willis O'Brien at RKO developing a project about dinosaurs. Cooper recognized that O?Brien's stop-motion animation technique was perfect to bring his giant gorilla to life, and an enthusiastic Selznick gave him the green light. Cooper and Schoedsack were reunited for the film, but it was Cooper's ceaseless energy that kept the whole thing moving. RKO was staking a fortune on a fantasy, money that depended on untried effects that would set new boundaries for the industry.
King Kong opened to enormous public acclaim, with audiences the world over being swept along by the bold storytelling. With the success of the movie, Cooper was the natural choice for RKO to appoint as head of production when Selznick left the studio, and for a short while, he was content to fill that role. But another change was not far off. When he hired Fred Astaire for Flying Down to Rio, he intended to team the dancer with Dorothy Jordan. But since Cooper was engaged to marry Jordan, he teamed Astaire with Ginger Rogers instead, establishing one of Hollywood's most lasting on-screen couples. He then resigned from his position at the studio and, in true adventurer fashion, took his new bride on a honeymoon trip around the world.
Ever interested in new ideas, Cooper was convinced of the value of the new Technicolor three-strip process. But none of the studios were interested. Undaunted, Cooper formed a new company, Pioneer Pictures, with David O. Selznick and financier Jock Whitney. Through Pioneer, they produced the first films to utilize full Technicolor, paving the way for Selznick to later make his epic Gone With the Wind using the same color process.
With Europe at war once again, Cooper was convinced it was only a matter of time before the United States joined the conflict. In June 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, he once again put his film career on hold and left his family to return to active duty. When war was declared with Japan, Cooper was posted to the legendary Flying Tigers in China, where he became chief of staff to General Claire Chennault. Despite his age, Cooper was determined to see action from a cockpit and not just a desk. This fighting spirit may have impressed those who served around him, but it caused problems with those above, who consistently blocked his promotion. It would not be until several years after the war's end that he would be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, but by then he was back in Hollywood. Cooper had joined forces with John Ford before the war, and with the war now over, they could revive their production company, Argosy. Though Ford could be the most difficult of people, he had enormous respect for Cooper. And it was with Cooper as producer that Ford now made some of his most celebrated pictures, including his famed cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande). But Cooper also had ideas of his own, one of which became Mighty Joe Young, a light-hearted reworking of the Kong story, again boasting tremendous effects masterminded by Willis O?Brien. The movie also gave a major chance to someone who would carry stop-motion animation well into the future: Ray Harryhausen.
The final film Ford and Cooper would make together would become perhaps their most famous and enduring, The Searchers, often cited by critics as the greatest Western ever made. But by the time of its release, Argosy was disbanded, and Cooper had found expanded horizons of his own.
As a fitting cap to his career, Cooper produced and co-directed the film that would launch the widescreen revolution: This Is Cinerama. It was Cooper, the daredevil adventurer, who startled audiences with the thrilling rollercoaster ride that opened the show, and it was Cooper, the patriotic aviator, who stirred their hearts at the climax, as the camera soared in a plane from coast to coast. With this masterful achievement, he at last united all his loves in one gigantic enterprise.