Five bad arse facts about Merian C. Cooper.
Who is Merian C. Cooper? No doubt you’ve heard the name but just can’t place him. You’re familiar with his body of work, but not the man himself. Don’t worry too much. You’re not going to lose any cred over it (Okay maybe a little). The reason why you don’t know is because Cooper’s extraordinary body of work overshadows the man himself. We’re going to look at his top 5 bad arsed achievements. But first I have some honourable mentions. Merian C. Cooper helped kick-start the North American airline industry, risked his life in order to film man-eating tigers and leopards, survived a cholera epidemic in Africa, he fought against the Mexican mercenary Poncho Villa, won an Academy Award, was an international explorer and produced over 60 films; many of which are considered classics.
You might not know who he is now, but don’t worry, by the end of this article you’re never going to forget him.
Now it’s clicked. Cooper was the man who created King Kong.
I’m not putting this achievement on the bottom of my list to be controversial. I’m doing it for no other reason than it honestly deserves to be here. This should give you some indication of how bad arsed this guy is.
The story of how King Kong was created has been retold several times in books and documentaries. I can’t do the full story justice, so I’m just going to brush over the main points.
Cooper faced two main problems when making the film. Firstly he didn’t have the technology to visualise Kong, and North America was in the middle of the Great Depression. Studios were reluctant to take risks, let alone finance, what would be the most expensive film ever made. This would be enough to stop the average man; Cooper was anything but.
In the early 1930’s he was hired by David O. Selznick to be his executive assistant. Selznick was the Head of Production at RKO studios. The job also allowed him to produce his own films. That’s not to say it made things easier for him, not even close. Cooper pitched King Kong to the RKO executive board. They hated his script nd cautious about doing a special effects film, as they had been bleeding endless amounts of money into a similar production called Creation. Cooper was delighted as Creation was using ground breaking special effects techniques that would be able to bring King Kong to life.
He just needed to convince RKO that King Kong was a good idea. What better way to do that than just to start shooting footage. It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, right? Cooper decided to make a test reel so spectacular that RKO would have no choice but to say yes to make it. Thankfully for Cooper he had just started shooting an adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game. He used the same sets and actors for his test reel. This only involved having his cast and crew working 24 hours a day. This also involved kicking the director (and his best friend) of The Most Dangerous Game off his own sets, in order to film.
I think you know how the rest of this story goes. One last bad arse thing I want to mention is that King Kong in its original theatrical run ended up grossing over $2,000,000. This was amazing considering that it was a common belief a $1,000,000 was impossible to gross, yet he did it in the depths of the depression. More so when you consider that ticket prices were anywhere between 0.35c and 0.75c.
In 1932 the Technicolor Corporation had developed a way of photographing and processing full colour films. Sounds like something every studio would want to be a part of? Well, no. Studios were very interested but the problem being, it was bloody expensive. In most cases, it doubled the production cost. This was a big problem considering they were still in the middle of the depression.
Interest wasn’t going to pay the bills over at the Technicolor Corporation. Despite being in business or over a decade and making ground breaking advances in film technology they had only managed to ever turn a profit twice.
Not being afraid of the unknown (Unlike the rest of Hollywood) Cooper decided to invest his own money into the company (Who knows maybe this colour thing might take off!). He also helped found the aptly named Pioneer Pictures, which when on to produce some of the world’s first, full colour, live action movies.
Why is this bad arse? Because Cooper was a man of convictions. He was willing to put his money where his mouth was. It’s one thing to convince a studio to give him a potentially bankrupting amount of money for a film, it’s another to bankrupt himself in order to advance a technology that will help cinema as a whole.
Long, long before Cooper even had Kong in his mind he was a bomber pilot in World War 1. Cooper flew in a wooden airplane nicknamed ‘The Flaming Coffin’. They should have given him a ‘red shirt’ and be done with it.
Anyway one day he was flying over enemy lines and got into a dog fight where he was severely outnumbered. His co-pilot was shot in the neck; Cooper assumed he was dead. Things went from bad to worse when his wooden plane caught on fire.
The fire and smoke from the engine whipped back into Cooper, severely burnt his hands and face. Cooper was in so much pain he decided to jump out of the plane. Believe it or not, parachutes weren’t commonplace in World War 1. He was going to ‘free ball’ it. He climbs out to the wing and just before he’s about to jump to his death he looks around to see that his co-pilot was still alive. Cooper, being a better human being than you and me combined knew he couldn’t leave him. He climbs back in and decides to land it. He has a new problem: his hands are mincemeat. The fire had burnt his hands so badly he wasn’t able to grip the controls. Piff, who needs hands when you’re a total bad-arse. Cooper uses his elbows and knees to take the plane down into a steep drive. He opens up the throttle so all his gas will burn up. He puts out the flames and crash lands the plane.
Cooper and his co-pilot survive the crash and are taken to a German prison hospital where they both recover fast. Cooper’s hands would be scared for life, but this isn’t a bad thing. These scars would come to save his life. World War 1 ended soon after and he was released. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross which he refused on the ground that “We all took the same risks”. What a guy!
Cooper couldn’t accept that the war was over so he stuck around in Europe for a while. Shortly afterwards the Red Army invaded Poland (better get used to that Poland). Cooper being the super-human that he was, decided to join the Polish Air force where he went on over 70 missions and was promoted to the Squadron Commander. While serving on a mission behind enemy lines, he was shot down once again. He broke his leg, wascaptured by the Bolsheviks (and no, not the mid-80’s WWF Tag Team) and taken to their headquarters.
Granted this story isn’t nearly as dramatic as the last one, but I think we should all remember HE WAS SHOT OUT OF THE SKY!! Geez… isn’t that enough! Also I needed this to set up my next fact….
Where was I? Yes, shot out of the sky, broke his leg, mid-80’s Tag Team, Cooper was taken to the Bolshevik’s headquarters for interrogation. He knew if they found out he was a Squadron Leader he’d be killed.
Cooper being a master storyteller was able to convince them that he was nothing more than a common peasant. His story was backed up by his scarred hands. Despite logic and a mountain of evidence they believed him. He (and his broken leg) escaped five days later. He didn’t get very far and was taken back.
In late 1920 Poland won its independence. He should have been freed? Right? That’s how it works! Right? Right? WRONG! As Cooper was an American he couldn’t technically be classified as a prisoner of war and the Bolshevik’s were going to let him rot in goal for the rest of his life. Which would have happened except for the fact that Cooper was a ‘Weapon’s Grade Bad Arse’! He spent the next year and a half devising an escape plan. Which he did with two other prisoners. Two weeks and one dead ruskie later, Cooper managed to get to Latvia.
The Polish Air Force awarded him to ‘Cross of the Brave’, which is their armies highest honour. The Polish government offered him money and land which (if you can believe it) he refused as he didn’t want to profit off the war. Yep, just let that one sink in.
From there Cooper when back to the states and made this little film called King Kong which seems so inconsequential compared to the rest of his life.
What can you say about this guy? Comparing him to Indiana Jones seems a little underwhelming, as does saying someone should make a movie about him. If they did, I suspect the audience wouldn’t be able to hold their suspension of disbelief. It’s just too unbelievabke.