- Cooper, Merian C. (Creator, Person)
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Merian C. Cooper was involved in a variety of pursuits throughout his lifetime, and claimed more adventures and accomplishments than a score of other important figures rolled into one. A flier in both World Wars and the Polish-Russian War from 1919 to 1921, wounded and twice a prisoner of war, early advocate and participant in civilian aviation and one of the original directors of Pan American and Western Airlines, a major catalyst in the promotion and general acceptance of three-color Technicolor, head of production at RKO Studios, John Ford's partner and producer for many years -- these are some of the highlights of his kaleidoscopic life.
Cooper was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 24, 1893, the youngest of the three children of John C. and Mary (Coldwell) Cooper. His father was a lawyer who became chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in Florida.
In 1911, Cooper was appointed to the Unites States Naval Academy. After leaving the Academy, Cooper shipped as an able seaman on the transatlantic run, in the hope of joining the British or French air service, but ran into passport difficulties.
As soon as America entered World War I, Cooper enlisted in the Army's aviation service and was sent to France as a first lieutenant. He became a captain, and then, in September 1918, while piloting a bomber with the 20th Aero Squadron, he was shot down behind German lines and taken prisoner. His lips and hands were badly burned, and he was in a hospital until the Armistice. German doctors did an excellent job of plastic surgery on him.
In 1919, still seeking adventure, and believing strongly that Russian communism should be kept from Europe, he joined the Polish Army, and with Major Cedric E. Fauntleroy formed the Kosciuszko Squadron to help the Poles resist the Bolshevik invasion of their country. Cooper commanded the Kosciuszko Squadron and was shot down behind Russian lines in July 1920. After ten months in a prison camp near Moscow, Cooper escaped with a Polish officer and enlisted man, and managed to reach the Latvian border twenty-six days later. A professional smuggler helped them cross it.
Cooper returned to the U.S. in 1921 and went to work as a reporter and feature writer on the New York Times. He wrote autobiographical pieces under the byline "A Fortunate Soldier," and later put those in a book he called Things Men Die For, signed "C." Putman published it in 1927.
After six months with the Times, Cooper arranged through Asia magazine to go to Singapore and join Captain Edward A. Salisbury, who was engaged in a privately financed round-the-world exploratory cruise on a ninety-eight-foot ketch. Cooper was paid twenty-five dollars a month as second officer, plus half of any income from writing about the trip. He did sell some articles to Asia, and he and Salisbury collaborated on a book, The Sea Gypsy, which was published in 1924.
Cooper met Ernest B. Schoedsack on his way to cover the Russian invasion of Poland. Schoedsack joined the cruise, and a short time afterwards, while Salisbury was sick aboard the ketch, he and Cooper shot a considerable amount of footage in Ethiopia, which they hoped to edit into a documentary featuring Haile Selassie, then the Regent.
Cooper and Schoedsack had determined to make a movie that would "dramatize exploration" and on their return to the U.S., Cooper renewed his friendship with Marguerite Harrison, a newspaper correspondent and world traveler he had met in Poland. After many conversations, Harrison, Cooper, and Schoedsack agreed to make a movie about the primitive man's struggle for existence, specifically a study of one of the migrating tribes of Persia, now Iran. For six months, the "production company" lived with the Bakhtiari and photographed every stage of their trek to reach grass.
The three partners had planned to return with the Bakhtiari to the Persian Gulf and make the migration to the mountains once again in order to concentrate on one family and photograph all the events a second time from that one family's standpoint. But their money ran out and they were forced to stop filming after the first migration.
Cooper and Schoedsack went to Paris, and there, because of lack of money, developed and printed the entire 50,000 feet of exposed negative themselves. When they arrived in New York (Mrs. Harrison went there directly from Iran) Cooper and Schoedsack rented some equipment and a small room and edited the material that was to become the expeditionary-documentary entitled Grass (1925).
Grass played lecture engagements, with Cooper narrating, until Jesse L. Lasky saw it at a dinner party and soon arranged for its theatrical release. Paramount's distribution agreement for Grass included the payment of a percentage of the net profits to Cooper, Schoedsack, and Harrison. In the large U.S. cities Grass did fairly well, especially in view of its negative cost of $23,600 (Nanook had run to $55,000).
The most impressive sequences in Grass show thousands of people and their livestock crossing a turbulent river on rafts floated on inflated goatskins; their scaling of a two-thousand-foot precipice; and spectacular long shots of their zig-zag formation as they struggle through a snowy mountain pass.
Paramount offered to finance another production, and Cooper and Schoedsack decided that since the problem in Grass had been lack of vegetation they would go to where there was too much vegetation -- a jungle.
After a $75,000 budget was worked out with Lasky, the two adventurers set out for what was then Siam, now Thailand. Cooper and Schoedsack spent several months gaining the Laotians' confidence and learning all they could of how the Laotians survived in the jungle. Then they developed continuity in which most of the action revolved around one family wresting a living from the inhospitable milieu while constantly being harassed by marauding tigers, stampeding elephants, etc.
The finished film created a sensation, and relative to cost, was for some years one of the most profitable motion pictures.
Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) was also one of the first feature-length films to be shot entirely on panchromatic shock, a vast improvement over the insensitive-to-red orthochromatic film. But Chang's photography was excellent on all counts. Schoedsack (and Cooper's) coverage of the elephant stampede from various angles -- including dramatic pit shots -- served as a model for this kind of sequence in many subsequent jungle films. Indeed, Chang inspired MGM's opulent Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films (the bulk of which featured an elephant stampede as the grand finale), the Frank ("Bring 'Em Back Alive) Buck meleés and mayhems, and many other similar attractions. Chang also helped to create a more profitable market for the Martin Johnson (Simba (1928), etc.) type of tropical travelogue.
Cooper and Schoedsack were not the kind to repeat themselves and for their next film, an adaptation of A. E. W. Mason's 1902 novel The Four Feathers (a favorite of Cooper's), they decided to go to Africa and photograph real natives, real animals, and other authentic location footage, and then combine this material with footage shot in Hollywood and at nearby locations with Paramount contract players. This was a somewhat different concept of film making, and one which saved the expense of transporting actors and an entire motion picture company to Africa (later it became standard operating procedure).
In The Four Feathers, Richard Arlen plays Harry Feversham, the young lieutenant who resigns his commission and thereby prompts three brother officers (Clive Brook, William Powell, and Theodore con Eltz), and his fiancée (Fay Wray), to give him four white feathers as symbols of cowardice.
Cooper, Schoedsack, and Lasky wanted to include spoken dialogue, but Paramount studio head Adolph Zukor thought it unnecessary, and The Four Feathers was released in June 1929 as "the last of the big silent films." It was not quite that, for a music and sound effects track accompanied its screening. The reviews were mixed -- some critics thought the animal footage had been introduced arbitrarily -- but despite the talkie-frantic climate of the time it did fairly well. Alexander Korda remade it in Technicolor in 1939.
In 1927, on the advice of a close friend (John Hambleton), Cooper put most of the money he made from Grass and Chang (and later what he made from The Four Feathers) into a private mutual fund restricted to aviation stocks. This ultimately led to Cooper's being elected a director of Pan American Airways; of Western Airlines (the first chartered domestic airline, at that time called Western Air Express); of General Aviation (forerunner of North American Aviation) and of other commercial airlines. All this kept Cooper in New York.
In 1931, when Paramount asked Cooper and Schoedsack to shoot material in India for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and blend location footage with Paramount players in and around Hollywood, Cooper was too interested in aviation; but Schoedsack, who had just completed Rango (1931) in the Sumatran jungles without Cooper, went to India and shot considerable footage. Little of it was used for the final and considerably altered concept of Paramount's Lancers (1935), which was eventually shot in various southern California locations.
He had enjoyed observing the habits of baboons while he and Schoedsack were shooting the African footage for The Four Feathers, and this experience rekindled his interest in gorillas. It was this interest that led him to conceive the idea of a gigantic, semi-human gorilla pitted against modern civilization, an idea with "Beauty and the Beast" overtone. Four years earlier W. Douglas Burden, a friend and a director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, had published The Dragon Lizards of Komodo, a naturalist's factual account of nine-foot carnivorous lizards on the island of Komodo in the East Indies (Burden brought two to New York City's zoo, but they soon died). Burden's book set Cooper to mulling the idea of a movie in which a giant gorilla is brought to the U.S. and makes a last stand on top of the city's tallest building.
After completing a number of story treatments, Cooper presented the idea to David O. Selznick and his brother Myron while they were in New York in 1931 trying to raise money for an independent production company for David, who had been Paramount’s associate producer on The Four Feathers. Later, in September 1931, when David became executive vice-president in charge of production at RKO, he asked Cooper to help him straighten out some of RKO's financial and production problems. One of these required Cooper to evaluate some dimensional model-animation tests that had been done by Willis O'Brien for a film which Selznick had inherited from the prior regime, a proposed feature dealing with prehistoric animals entitled Creation. Cooper was impressed -- not with Creation, but with the possibility of using similar techniques to make Kong entirely in the studio and thereby eliminate location filming and the use of real gorillas and lizards. But RKO's New York executives were leery, and authorized the making of only one reel -- to be tested at an upcoming RKO sales meeting.
Edgar Wallace, then under contract to RKO, wrote an early version of the scenario from Cooper's original "Kong" story. The final shooting script was written by James Creelman and Ruth Rose. Cooper had high praise for Rose's ability, particularly in dialogue.
The now classic King Kong (1933) was released in the depth of the Depression. It is perfect escapism, an extraordinary piece of showmanship, and was an outstanding box office success.
Before and during work on Kong, Cooper's function at RKO evolved into becoming Selznick's executive assistant. As such, he produced -- with Schoedsack and Irving Pichel co-directing -- an adaptation of Richard Connell's wonderful adventure short story "The Most Dangerous Game," in which a mad hunter (Leslie Banks) pursues men as quarry on his private island.
Cooper also produced for RKO during this period The Phantom of Crestwood (1932), an unpretentious but well-made mystery-melodrama featuring Karen Morley, Ricardo Cortez, and Pauline Frederick; and Lucky Devils (1933), a melodrama involving Hollywood stunt men, with William Boyd, William Gargan, and Bruce Cabot. J. Walter Ruben directed Crestwood and Ralph Ince directed Lucky Devils.
Schoedsack was the sole director of the live-action quickie sequel, The Son of Kong (1933), which RKO hurriedly put together. Its budget was a third of the original features, and the result looked it.
When Selznick left RKO to set up his own unit at MGM in February 1933, Cooper took over as production head of both the RKO lot in Hollywood and the Pathé studio in Culver City. His contract provided that he receive twenty percent of the net profits on each film produced under his supervision.
Like Selznick before him, Cooper stretched an inadequate annual budget over a considerable number of properties. Among the films RKO made under Cooper's overall supervision: Morning Glory, Melody Cruise, Professional Sweetheart, Ann Vickers, Ace of Aces, Little Women, Flying Down to Rio (all 1933), and The Lost Patrol (1934).
Selznick had selected Little Women for production before he left, and when Cooper became involved with it, he insisted that the picture be based on the book, not only on the play adaptation. Little Women emerged as a true picturization of the Alcott novel and started a vogue for faithful screen adaptations of literary classics. Little Women and Flying Down to Rio were RKO's most expensive productions during Cooper's regime, and Cooper naturally devoted a greater portion of his time and attention to them.
The Whitneys and Cooper organized Pioneer Pictures in May 1933 for the express purpose of popularizing Technicolor, but because Cooper was under contract to RKO he did not become directly involved with Pioneer's operations until later. Kenneth MacGowan was borrowed from RKO to produce the first live-action film in full Technicolor: a short subject called La Cucaracha, released by RKO in 1934.
When Walt Disney heard of Cooper's belief in Technicolor's new process, he asked Cooper if RKO would put up the money, and release a full-length cartoon feature, Babes in Toyland, if Disney photographed it with the Technicolor camera. Cooper recommended Disney's proposal, but RKO executives in New York City declined it.
Cooper first became associated with director John Ford, who subsequently became his partner, in 1933 when he offered Ford a two-picture deal, one subject to be selected by Cooper, the other by Ford, with a percentage of the grosses for Ford. RKO had acquired the rights to Patrol, a story in which Cooper was interested, and Ford wanted to do The Informer. The Lost Patrol (1934) was made on a very slim budget, and almost no one at the studio believed it would go anywhere. It turned out to be a "sleeper."
That same year, Cooper's personal life changed dramatically. On May 27, 1933, Cooper and Dorothy Jordan eloped to Williams, Arizona. She had been a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, had acted in Theatre Guild productions, had danced in Broadway musicals, and had understudied Adele Astaire in the original stage production of Funny Face (1928). Her film début was as Bianca in the Fairbanks-Pickford Taming of the Shrew in 1929, and she subsequently had featured or leading roles in Devil May Care (1929), Call of the Flesh (1930), Min and Bill (1930), Hell Divers (1931), The Wet Parade (1932), Bondage (1933), et al.
Some of Cooper's honeymoon was spent in Europe, and while visiting Pompeii he found himself figuring out how to produce The Last Days of Pompeii in Technicolor.
When he finally got back to Hollywood he decided he didn't want to resume responsibility for all of RKO's production and settled his contract by agreeing to produce personally two "specials" for that studio: an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's She (1935), and an original story using Bulwer-Lytton's title, but not his plot, for The Last Days of Pompeii (1935).
Irving Pichel and Lansing Holden directed She with a cast featuring Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, and Helen Mack. The locale of that bizarre tale of reincarnation was switched from Africa to the Arctic.
As a spectacle of the Roman Empire, The Last Days of Pompeii is unique: no baths, chariot races, or amorous dalliances. But those other staples -- the gladiatorial arena, Roman politics, and faith -- were in plentiful supply, and its climate eruption of Vesuvius was accomplished by the special effects of Willis O'Brien, Vernon Walker, Linwood Dunn, and others, all of whom had worked on King Kong. Schoedsack directed Pompeii, probably his best directorial effort. Unfortunately, Cooper couldn't sell RKO on doing the film in Technicolor because of the cost.
In September 1935 Cooper became executive producer for Pioneer Pictures and promptly concluded that a production company designed to produce Technicolor films exclusively was not practical. So he was instrumental in merging Pioneer with Selznick International in June 1936. Moreover, Pioneer's Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature produced in full-Technicolor, had not done well, nor had Pioneer's other Technicolor feature, Dancing Pirate (1936).
Cooper became a vice-president of Selznick International and during his year there he functioned as a liaison between production in Hollywood and control in New York.
Early in 1937 he and John Ford tried to interest Selznick in producing a property they had acquired, Stage to Lord, in Technicolor with John Wayne and Claire Trevor in the leads. Selznick thought it should be done with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. Cooper felt so strongly about this film, which became Stagecoach (1939), that he left Selznick International and, with Ford, formed Argosy Pictures (Ford was chairman of the board and Cooper president).
The milestone Stagecoach was made with Wayne and Trevor, but in black-and-white. Though Cooper was active behind-the-scenes, he claims no credit for it as producer.
He was heavily involved in the production of Argosy's The Long Voyage Home (1940), an interesting, heavily atmospheric fusion of several one-act sea plays by Eugene O'Neill. As with Stagecoach, Ford directed and Walter Wanger "presented."
In June 1937 Cooper accepted an offer to produce for MGM. Cooper got Zoë Akins to adapt Frou Frou, a dated French drama of 1869 about a flighty wife whose frivolous ways bring disaster to her husband (Melvyn Douglas), her lover (Robert Young), and herself. Retitled The Toy Wife (1938), it was glossily produced but proved to be overwritten and stagy.
Cooper then began preparing a "King Kong type picture" for MGM that was tentatively called War Eagles. He also -- with MGM's permission -- did considerable preproduction work on The Jungle Book (1942) for Alexander Korda, and on Eagle Squadron (1942) for Walter Wanger. But he abandoned all these projects in June 1941 when he decided to go back into the armed services.
The Air Force promoted Cooper to a colonelcy and assigned him to General C. V. Haynes as an assistant executive and intelligence officer in the Pacific. In early 1942 Cooper was closely identified with the opening of the air route over the famous "Hump" (the Himalayas), and when it was decided to officially activate General Claire Chennault's "Flying Tigers" in China, Cooper became Chennault's first chief of staff and took part in the powerhouse air offensive against the Japanese in 1942. In his autobiography, Chennault says Cooper was "a brilliant tactitian ... When planning a mission ... he worked around the clock until every detail was satisfactory and then rode the nose of the lead bomber, peering over the bombardier's shoulder at the target."
Cooper was later with the Fifth Air Forces, and as chief of staff to General Ennis C. Whitehead, who was General George Kenny's deputy commander at the front, Cooper helped guide the New Guinea invasion, the first completely airborne invasion made by American troops. Later still, Cooper was deputy chief of staff for all the Air Force units in the Pacific under General Douglas MacArthur.
After the war, Cooper and John Ford reactivated Argosy Pictures. Their first production, filmed entirely in Mexico, was an adaptation by Dudley Nichols of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, which they retitled The Fugitive (1947). It was an odd choice, and its chief merit was some stunning high-contrast black-and-white photography by Gabriel Figueroa. It was not a financial success.
Argosy then made such well-received Ford-directed and Cooper-produced Westerns as Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1951), and Wagonmaster (1950). All were photographed primarily in Monument Valley, near Moab in Utah, and in Death Valley, California, and all but Wagonmaster starred John Wayne. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, possibly the most satisfying of this group, contained well-staged action sequences, sentimental but staunch story developments, and striking photographic compositions.
While these pictures were being made, Cooper was also busy with a fantasy about a giant ape reminiscent of King Kong, but with a different slant. He engaged Ruth Rose to do the screenplay, Willis O'Brien to create the technical effects, Ernest Schoedsack to direct, and even hired actor Robert Armstrong, who had starred in King Kong, The Son of Kong, and The Most Dangerous Game. The result was Mighty Joe Young (1949), which contained some interesting sequences and was financially profitable, but on the whole did not come off.
Mighty Joe Young was the only picture Schoedsack directed after World War II. While testing photographic equipment in the Air Force, he had dropped his face mask and severely damaged his eyes. Despite operations, he became incapacitated.
When Howard Hughes took control of RKO in 1949, Cooper and Ford decided to go elsewhere for financing, studio space, and releasing. For several years they had wanted to produce a film in Ireland based on a short story by Maurice Walsh, and they induced Republic Pictures to go along with that project by promising Argosy would first do Rio Grande, a surefire hit, for Republic.
The Irish film became The Quiet Man (1952). John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara and a grade-A cast played well together, and the location shooting of the Irish countryside in Technicolor was a delight. The Quiet Man won many awards and was the most successful picture Republic had ever made.
Argosy made one more picture before its dissolution in 1956: the poorly received The Sun Shines Bright (1953), based on some "Judge Priest" stories by Irvin S. Cobb.
Overall Argosy had been a very successful venture. Its major risk investors realized a capital gain of six-hundred percent, and its minor risk stockholders one of thirty percent. But Cooper could no longer give it even divided attention. He had become interested in Cinerama.
Fred Waller continued working on "peripheral vision" via multilens cameras and several projectors, and by 1939 had achieved a fairly practical technique he called VITARAMA. During World War II he devised a variation of it as an air-gunnery trainer. Then, in the late 1940s, Hazard Reeves, a sound engineer, joined Waller and worked out a dimensional sound system that complemented the depth and "surround" feeling engendered by the images on Waller's wide screen. By 1950, however, many of Waller's backers, including Laurance Rockafeller and Henry Luce, of Time, Inc., had grown disenchanted with the commercial prospects of the process. But that same year, Lowell Thomas became an ardent believer in it, and he and Mike Todd, another convert, hired Robert Flaherty to shoot a round-the-world travel film that would introduce Cinerama theatrically.
At Thomas and Todd's request, Cooper agreed to take over the production reins on the initial Cinerama presentation, personally co-direct additional material, and personally edit the new sequences and the highlights from what had been shot previously by Todd. Cooper and Robert Bendick set up and directed the Cypress Gardens segment and the climactic trip across the United States by airplane.
Mike Todd left Cinerama because of behind-the-scenes disputes about five months before This Is Cinerama opened.
Cooper was made general manager in charge of Cinerama's productions and was given a five-year contract. He brought C.V. Whitney onto the board of directors, and the latter, with Cooper's support, tried to buy a controlling interest. When Stanley Warner succeeded in obtaining control, Whitney and Cooper left Cinerama (September 1954) and proceeded to form C.V. Whitney Productions.
The only picture Cooper produced for C.V. Whitney Productions was The Searchers (released and distributed by Warner Bros. in 1956). John Ford directed that large-scale and exceptionally well-received story of a long, arduous trek through primitive country by two men (John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter) in search of a girl (Natalie Wood) who had been kidnapped by hostile Indians. Cooper's wife, Dorothy, played Wayne's romantic interest. Monument Valley again provided scenic values.
Following that one film Cooper resigned from C.V. Whitney Productions and did not produce another picture until The Best of Cinerama (1963), which he and Thomas Conroy compiled from the earlier Cinerama travelogues.
An extremely intelligent man of integrity, pride, and courage, Cooper was promoted to a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve in 1950, and in 1952 received an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "for his many innovations and contributions to the art of motion pictures."
Merian C. Cooper passed away on April 21, 1973, following a long and valiant battle against cancer.
Other Finding Aids
Immediate Source of Acquisition
- Register of the Merian C. Cooper papers
- James V. D'Arc and John N. Gillespie
- Description rules
- Language of description
- Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, 2007-2008
- 2010 February 8: GilEADized to correct small errors. Updated to DACS and CCLA compliance by Anita Hawkins.
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