The date is September 30, 1952 and we are at the Broadway Theater in New York City. The house lights deem and go out as the curtain covering the motion picture screen slowly opens to the standard 35 mm film aspect ratio of 4 to 3.
On the motion picture screen is Lowell Thomas the famous International Correspondent and author of the 1918 book "With Lawrence in Arabia". One of the source materials for the David Lean motion picture from 1962 starring Peter O'Toole. He addresses the movie audience in what will be a 12 minute lecture on the history of entertainment and the evolution of motion pictures. His material goes back to Stone Age paintings of animals appearing to be in movement.
The audience has come to see a motion picture and not a lecture and some are getting fidgety. However, there is a purpose here. Some audience members may have noticed while others are glued to Lowell Thomas that the curtain has been slowly opening further. Also the image has switched from Thomas to the roller coaster at "Rockaways Playground" and the audience is now watching people get on it and the coaster begins to move.
Slowly the roller coaster starts up the ramp taking the audience and it's passengers to the first drop. The audience observes the heavy chain pulling the coaster upwards and the image has switched in such a way that the audience is now the rider. Lowell Thomas' lecture on motion picture history comes to an end as the coaster reaches the top of the drop as he explains the audience they have been watching the movie in standard 35 mm, Next the audience hears what will be part of motion picture history Lowell Thomas uttering three words: "THIS IS CINERAMA". As the entire screen suddenly is filled and the audience along with those on the "Rockaways Playground" roller coaster take that first drop and continue to ride it.
What has happened is the film's image has changed from a ratio of 4 to 3 into one of 2.65 to 1. Through the use of three synchronized projectors the audience is experiencing a movie in the full range of the human eye tricking the brain into thinking this is not a motion picture, but a real roller coaster.
So who could be behind this movie magic?
It was the man who "SHOT KING KONG TWICE!" First as a motion picture and Second from the bi-plane that causes Kong to fall to his death Brigadier General Merian Caldwell Cooper, or was it really Carl Denham?
IF YOU THINK "KING KONG" WAS EXCITING. YOU DON'T KNOW THE REAL LIFE OF MERIAN CALDWELL COOPER. Had Hollywood filmed it you probably wouldn't have believed what you were seeing.
Cooper's life started with his birth on October 24, 1893 in Jacksonville, Florida. His father was an American of English decent John C. Cooper and his mother was Mary Caldwell of Jacksonville. His parents would have their son educated at the "Lawrenceville School" located in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Founded in 1810 Lawrenceville is one of the oldest co-educational college preparatory schools for ninth through twelfth grades in the United States.
After graduating Lawrenceville in 1912. Merian Caldwell Cooper was admitted to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. While at the Academy Cooper learned to fly and planned to become a Naval Aviator upon graduation, but he discovered that the Navy's position on the potential of air power differed from his vision. To the Navy a plane was good for scouting the enemy, but not as an instrument of fighting any countries navy. This was the unsinkable Battleship theory that future General of the Army Air Corp Billy Mitchell would disprove after the First World War and face Court Marshall over his action. So Cooper resigned from the Academy and in 1916 joined the Georgia National Guard. Where he found himself, more to his liking, under Army General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing fighting Pancho Villa.and becoming known to the Mexican people as a "Gringo". Which was based upon the color of his Green Army Uniform,
John J. "Black Jack" Pershing with Pancho Villa before he would lead American's into Mexico after the Mexican General. Pershing is to Villa's right.
The United States entered World War One on April 6, 1917 and Merian Caldwell Cooper returned to the Air in the fledgling Army Air Corp. He qualified as a "de Havilland (DH)-4 bomber pilot, Here is a link to the National Air Museum article on the aircraft Cooper flew with photos.
I do not know the date, but on a mission Merian C. Cooper was shot down by the German's and finished World War One as a prisoner of war.
After the war had ended most American's were glad to be heading home, but not Cooper. Instead of leaving Europe he went to Poland and joined their Air Force. Poland was engaged in a war with Russia. Merian C. Cooper would serve in the "Kosciuszko Squadron" made up of American flyers who wanted to help Poland. Déjà vu set in on July 26, 1920 when Cooper was shot down and spent six months as a prisoner of the Soviets. This was probably at Lubyanka which was both a Soviet Prison and the Headquarters of the KGB.
Just prior to the end of the war he managed to escape and made it into Latvia. For his service he would receive the highest Polish military decoration the "Virtuti Militari". Below is a photo of Cooper with Cedric Faunterlroy in the Polish Air Force. Cooper is on the right in full flying uniform.
Here is a great rumor never confirmed, but very possible. Merian C. Cooper was never shot down in Poland, but crashed on purpose to be sent to Lubyanka. He was on a secret mission for the United States Government as an agent of "The Office of Strategic Service (O.S.S.) to spy on the KGB and obtain as much information as possible on this organization that the U.S. knew very little about.
During his imprisonment Merian C. Cooper wrote an autobiography of his life to that point. The title was "The Things Men Die For" written by "C". It would be published in 1927.
On April 10, 1930 a movie "Gwiazdzista eskadra (The Starry Squadron) directed by Leonard Buczkowski and written by Janusz Meissner was released in Poland. This is a love story about an American flyer who fought in the Russo-Polish War and loved a Polish girl. The flyer was part of the "Polish 7th Escadrille" better known as ""Kosciuszko Squadron". All known prints would be destroyed by the Soviets. The movie was based upon Merian C. Cooper during the war. Also while in Poland he would father Polish translator and detective fiction writer Maciej Stomczyriski,
While in the "Kosciuszko Squadron" Cooper met Ernest B. Schoedsack a film producer, director and cinematographer. The two along with another film maker Marguerite Harrison went to Iran in 1924 to make a motion picture. The film would be the start of Merian C. Cooper's film career when it was released on March 20, 1925,.
The award winning silent documentary that resulted from their trip was "Grass:A Nation's Battle for Life". It tells the story of the "Bakhtari People" This tribe lived in southern Iran and were a Nomadic people. The motion picture was considered a very early look at a specific Ethnic people and has been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Below a shot from left to right of Cooper, Harrison and Schoedsack.
Here is a link to Merian C. Cooper's first motion picture "Grass":
Here is the inside fly leaf of an autographed copy by Cooper of the book "Grass" made after the movie came out.
To Alfred M. Collin at the Franklin Club with Best Compliments Merian C. Cooper.
Here's an interesting note on the possible real motive of this motion picture journey from an "unnamed source". Don't you just like them:
Marguerite Harrison was an American Spy and it is believed, but not substantiated, that so was Cooper once more. The American ambassador to Tehran who helped get the film crew authorized was killed a few weeks after the three finished their shoot for no apparent reason.On another note the finished film was the gateway for Cooper to be accepted into the “Hollywood” community.
Which brings me back to 1927 the year Cooper's autobiography was released. On March 14, 1927 Pan American Airlines was founded. The founders were three Army Air Corp Majors: Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Carl A, Spaatz and John H. Jouett. Merian C. Cooper was also on the founding Board of Directors and would remain part of Pan Am for decades.
In 1932 Grosset and Dunlap published a novelization by Delos W. Lovelace of a story conceived by mystery writer Edgar Wallace and Cooper. This is a quote from that book:
That's him! A fellow that if he wants a picture of a lion'll walk right up and tell it to look pleasant.Of course this is "King Kong", but the point is that quote could have read:
That's him! A fellow that if he wants a picture of a lion'll walk right up and tell it to look pleasant.Directed and produced by the team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and released on April 29, 1927 was "Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness". Described by Cooper as:
Chang is a "melodrama with man, the jungle, and wild animals as its cast.The movie is a about an actual farmer, Kru, from Northeastern Siam now Thailand and his day to day struggles. A lot of the action was staged by Cooper and Schoedsack, or redone when the real animals didn't cooperate. The motion picture was nominated at the very first Academy Awards for "Unique and Artistic Production". The ending with the elephant stampede was shot in a widescreen process called "Magnascope".
Here is a link to the opening seven minutes of the motion picture:
Keeping with his Carl Denham persona Cooper and Schoedsack teamed up with noted millionaire explorer and writer Captain E.A. Sailsbury as his cinematographers.and went to the South Seas and photographed actual headhunters. The motion picture released December 24, 1928 was entitled "Gow the Head Hunter". I could not find any specific information, or clips on this film, but this picture of the two men was from this period.
On June 29, 1929 Paramount Studios released "The Four Feathers". The film was produced by Cooper, Schoedsack and David O'Selznick.The movie was based upon A.E.W. Mason's 1902 adventure novel set during the British Colonial period in the Sudan. The year of the story is 1882 and tells of British Officer Harry Faversham who resigns his commission in the Royal North Surrey Regiment before they are to leave for the war in the Sudan. His friends give him the four feathers of the title as a symbol of Harry being a coward in their eyes. Feathers for cowardliness was used within the Army under Queen Victoria in actual life The novel tells of Faversham's road to redemption and the saving of several letters from General Charles "Chinese" Gordon lost after his death by the Sudanese followers of the Mahdi at Khartoum..
The picture was directed by Cooper, Schoedsack and Lothar Mendes. It is believed that David O'Selznik brought Lothar Mendes in to re-shoot some of the sequences with the leading actors, because he felt that Cooper and Schoedsack had at that time no real experience directing actors. While their footage from the Sudan was extremely exciting and is still considered the major attraction to this movie. Especially the hippos attacking at its climax. Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were resentful of what the two saw as "Hollywood's" interference with the creative visions. Cooper left the motion picture industry over this for his love of aviation and PAN AM.
Unknown to both Cooper and his leading actress in "The Four Feathers". Their fates were to intertwine for two more movies and one of them would make motion picture history. Her name was Fay Wray.
Below Fay Wray in her 34th motion picture 1929's "The Four Feathers".
Try and imagine someone like Merian C. Cooper working a 9 to 5 job behind a desk at PAN AM. This to the adventurer was worse than both the German and Russian prisons. His savior was the man he originally hated David O'Selznick, Who in 1931 brought him into RKO Studio's as his Executive Assistant. Selznick as a condition of his hiring agreed Cooper could make his own motion pictures. At the time Selznick was the head of production for the studio.
Below a photo of David O'Selznick.
Cooper had originally pitched the idea of an adventure story with a giant gorilla to Paramount while he was working there. The executives turned it down as too expensive using the "Great Depression's" impact on the United States economy as an excuse. However, now as the Assistant to David O'Selznick, Merian C. Cooper was one of the executives of RKO. So a script was commissioned and production began in 1932,
Edgar Wallace started writing the screenplay, but unfortunately he died on February 10, 1932. Cooper turned to James Ashmore Creelman to take over the writing which had high priority. Creelman was already working on a script for another proposed Cooper project. So Ruth Rose was added for assistance.
With a script being created Merian C. Cooper next went to the special effects department to speak to Willis O'Brien. O'Brien wasn't the most receptive person as Cooper now found himself in the same position Selznick had been to Cooper at the end of the making of "The Four Feathers",
O'Brien had started work on a personal project he called "Creation". He had already made a stop motion animation test. When Selznick dropped the project for the same reason Paramount had stopped Cooper's ape project the expense. Also Cooper himself told O'Brien his story line was boring and lacked action. Now he was going to Willis O'Brien to do the stop motion work on a movie titled "The Beast".
Two points of interest are that O'Brien's story "Creation" was about a group of modern men encountering prehistoric dinosaurs on an island. Could Cooper had panned O'Brien's script, because "The Beast" also takes place on an island with prehistoric animals/ Second point had "Creation" been completed it would have been released first and would the movie audience want to pay to see another film with a similar story? Just unanswered questions that crossed my mind.
Here is a link to a few seconds of Willis O'Brien's test footage for "Creation".
While O'Brien began his model work and the sets were being built for "The Beast". Cooper returned to another motion picture he was producing with Ernest B. Schoedsack "The Most Dangerous Game". Which was the other script Creelman was originally working on.
"The Most Dangerous Game" was based upon a very good short story I had read in Junior High School by Richard Connell. It tells of a man who falls off a pleasure yacht and makes it to an island were a big game hunter lives. After the man, Sanger Rainsford, also a game hunter recovers his strength. He finds himself as "The Most Dangerous Game" being hunted by his host. One of the movies major changes was having a previous shipwreck with four survivors on the island.
In the movie the part of Sanger "Bob" Rainsford is played by Joel McCrea, but it is the casting of two of the other four survivors that is of interest here. Cooper ever the business man realized that one of the two actors auditioning for a role was perfect for the part of Carl Denham in "The Beast". Robert Armstrong's agent was surprised when Cooper offered a two picture deal with an interesting caveat. Cooper wanted to shoot one movie during the daylight hours and several major scenes of the second at night using the same sets. Robert Armstrong agreed and by day he played Carl Denham and at night he played Martin Trowbridge.
Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham
Merian C. Cooper.
Now we come to that second actor, or in this case actress. The part of Ann Darrow was written with Jean Harlow in mind. Cooper and Schoedsack approached her agent, but where informed that Harlow had signed an exclusive contact with MGM. The two thought things over and approached dark haired actress Fay Wray for another double acting job. Wray would play Ann Darrow wearing a blonde wig in "The Beast" by day and Eve Trowbridge in her normal hair color at night in "The Most Dangerous Game". She accepted.
Fay Wray in 1933's "King Kong".
Fay Wray in 1932's "The Most Dangerous Game".
Playing the evil Count Zaroff was Leslie Banks, but once more in double duty playing Zaroff's henchman Ivan was Noble Johnson. Johnson would create another role he would always be associated with, Even if nobody knew his name. He was the Chief of the natives on Skull Island in both "King Kong' and "Son of Kong". Johnson is a very interesting and forgotten African American actor who played more Native American roles than most Native Americans and became a member of the "Merian C. Cooper-John Ford Film Company". Here is a link to my blog article on his life:
Noble John in "The Most Dangerous Game".
Noble Johnston in "King Kong".
Here also is a link to the complete movie "The Most Dangerous Game" which I highly recommend for viewing:
Between the release of "The Most Dangerous Game" on September 16, 1932 and "The Beast" now renamed "King Kong" at its world premier at RKO's New York City theater on March 2, 1933. Merian C. Cooper's name would appear as executive producer on four other films. The title change from "The Beast: to "King Kong" was not the only change to the film. The climatic ending on the Empire State Building had originally been written as at Madison Square Garden and then changed to Yankee Stadium, before the final choice. One has to wonder what the ending might have looked like especially if either of the two original venues were used. Then Kong could have been presented to the audience and killed in one location without the city rampage he went on. Which would have lost the irony that the two pilots who cause Kong to finally fall to his death are Merian C. Cooper in the planes front seat and Ernest B. Schoedsack in the backseat the two men who also brought him to life.
"King Kong" was followed by 24 forgotten films from RKO with Cooper's name on them as executive producer until a November 24, 1933 film. This was an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel "Little Women", This production starred Katherine Hepburn as "Jo" March and Joan Bennett as Amy March with Francis Dee as "Meg" March. It featured Spring Byington and Paul Lukas and was directed bt George Cukor.
Two more forgotten RKO motion pictures and Kong was back, or at least his son was. Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were surprised by the hit "King Kong" had been. The film cost 672,000 1932/1933 dollars to make. A large outlay for a depression era motion picture. One of those 24 forgotten films "Melody Cruise" had a final budget of $163.000 for comparison. However, Kong had brought RKO a profit of 2.8 million dollars. So Cooper went to David O'Selznick and a decision to rush a sequel into production and release was made.
This is a publicity photo of Cooper "Pipe Dreaming" about Kong fights with the T-Rex
Back were three cast members from "King Kong". Robert Armstrong was once more Carl Denham, Frank Reicher was once more Captain Englehorn and Victor Young as Charlie the cook. Instead of Fay Wray as Ann Darrow we have Helen Mack as (?). In the original script she is called "Hilda. In the motion picture her father refers to her as "Madame Helene" and through the entire movie Denham just calls her "Kid".
The sequel had a budget of about a third of the original $269.000 and made only $616.000. When the profit expectation was a lot higher by RKO. The problem with the movie was two fold. For one thing the film was released on December 22, 1933 as a Christmas release. This was only nine months after Kong's release date. The rushing was evident to both the critics and potential audience. Ruth Rose was the only script writer on the project and her attitude was quote:
if you can't make it bigger, make it funnier.She made the sole decision that with the time permitted for production the film could not be bigger and better than the original. So make it a comedy and because every one wanted the film out in a hurry nobody questioned her script idea.
The second problem was with Willis O'Brien who wanted more time to work on his models and stop motion animation. "Son of Kong" includes several outtakes from the original movie, So with the exception of "Little Kong", which used the same armatures as his dad and was called "Kiko" on the script pages, Any additional work by O'Brien was minimal.
As is model maker Marcel Delgado is usually overlooked even by some film buffs and viewers of both "King Kong" and "Son of Kong" . Another forgotten name associated with both films is the Visual Supervisor Technician "Buzz" Gibson. Whose special effects are overshadowed by the stop motion animation work of O'Brien.
Also released in December of 1933 was a musical from Executive Producer Merian C, Cooper which is famous for two things. This was the first pairing of dancers Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. The second a famous dancing number on the wing of an airplane. Some of the close ups are obviously in a studio, but as the following link shows. Some of the shots were actually on a plane's wing in the air making it a risky and interesting number.
On February 16, 1934 a very hard hitting World War One motion picture was released. The title was "The Lost Patrol" and it contains an over the top performance by Boris Karloff. The film is important for another reason though. The director of this Cooper production was John Ford. This was the first time the two names would appear on the same motion picture, but this meeting would also lead to both a life long friendship and a major movie making team. The movie also starred another member of what become known as the "Merian C. Cooper-John Ford Film Company" Victor McLaglen.
Moving forward we come to Merian C. Cooper's last two motion pictures for RKO Studios both released in 1935. First serialized in the British magazine "The Graphic" from October 1886 to January 1887 was the novel "SHE: A History of Adventure" by writer H. Rider Haggard. The story tells of Ayesha, "SHE who must be obeyed" living in the lost city of Kor. It tells of adventure Leo Vincey being drawn to this lost city in Africa as the reincarnated love of Ayesha who was born over 2,000 years before the novel takes place. This is the stuff Cooper loved, The novel had first been filmed in France by George Melies as "The Pillar of Fire" in 1899, because Ayesha stood within this pillar and gained eternal life and now she wants Leo to join her.
Cooper produced the 1935 version released July 12th and directed by Lansing C, Holden and Irving Pichel. Playing the title character was Broadway stage actress Helen Gahagan. Her later story is very interesting as first she married actor Melvin Douglas and as Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1944 became a member of the House of Representatives for California's 14th District. Six years later in 1950 she would run for the Senate against an ex-Navy man named Richard Nixon. Gahagan would be pictured by her opponent as a Communist, but of course he could not call her one, or use the term "Red". It wouldn't work even in the "Cold War/Red Scare" United States on such an established personage. So Nixon and his team started referring to Gahagan's entirely fictional "Pink Panties". Thus earning her the title in the press of the "Pink Lady" and winning the Senate seat for Nixon. He did not come out of this unscratched though. A term Helen Gahagan Douglas coined about him would stay to the day he died: "Tricky Dicky".
Yes, Walt Disney did borrow Ayesha's outfit for the wicked queens clothes in his 1939 "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Cooper's "SHE" was admittedly one of Walt's favorite movies.
Playing Leo Vincey was a young actor just starting out who would become more associated with Westerns over the years Randolph Scott,
In the role of Leo Vincey's best friend Horace Holly was Nigel Bruce. Bruce would take his performance as Holly and transfer it exactly to the way he would play Dr. John H. Watson in 1939's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" opposite Basil Rathbone.
Returning as Leo's one true love was Helen Mack in Tanya Dugmore a character not in the novel.
What is also interesting looking back from today are that the sets for KOR which reflected the "Art Deco" period American architecture was in. The two color images are from the Ray Harryhausen "Colorization" version of the movie. The lobby card was colored at the time of the film's release and actually appears to be a real color photo taken on the set rather than retouched up.
On October 8, 1935 what Cooper admitted was his answer to Cecil B. DeMille "The Last Days of Pompeii" was released. "The Last Days of Pompeii" was a novel written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1834. It had been filmed many times before and would be after Cooper's production including a version with Steve Reeves. The picture was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. The script was by Ruth Rose and the special effects by Willis O'Brien. The cast included Preston Foster, Basil Rathbone, Louis Calhern, Edward von Sloan, Alan Hale and as the gladiator that defeats Preston Foster an unknown Ward Bond. In short the movie should have been a major hit, but it was a major miss and the straw that broke the camels back causing Cooper to finally leave RKO.
Originally the motion picture was to be filmed in Technicolor, but on the day before production started Merian C. Cooper was informed that the powers at RKO had decided to film it in black and white. Initially the movie was to have some outstanding special effects. According to Ray Harryhausen in his "A Century of Stop Motion Animation". Willis O'Brien had planned a sequence with prehistoric sword fish. They would be in a large tank that the gladiators would fight over on a bridge. It along with other sequences were cancelled as the budget was cut.
Even the budget for the climax eruption of Mount Vesuvius was cut on O'Brien. Here is a link to that sequence, but the sound track has been replaced by somebody else with music. However, you can still appreciate its look and wonder how with both the original budget and Technicolor Willis O'Brien would have made it look like.
On its first release "The Last Days of Pompeii" would loose RKO $237,000. of its original $818,000 budget. After a re-release with "SHE" the movie finally turned a small profit for the studio. Merian C. Cooper left for Selznick International Pictures were he was made Vice President and would stay there through 1937. Also from 1934 through 1936 Cooper was in charge of production at a forgotten movie company "Pioneer Pictures". The company who merge with Selznick International. Pioneer had originally planned to make a Technicolor motion picture based upon "The Last Days of Pompeii", but the project was dropped after RKO released its black and white version.
The first film after "The Last Days of Pompeii" Merian C. Cooper produced was Pioneer's the "Dancing Pirate". The movie was shot in two strip Technicolor and has the distinction of being the first full length musical motion picture in color. It was also the third full length movie shot in color. The first two where both horror movies from Warner Brother's "Doctor X" and "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" both starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.
Working for Selznick International meant the films produced by Cooper needed another major studio to distribute them. The next film he produced was "Toy Wife" released by MGM and starring Luise Rainer who had back to back Best Actress Oscars for "The Good Earth" and "The Great Ziegfeld", Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young. This would be followed by Merian Caldwell Cooper's last motion picture released by Paramount Pictures prior to World War Two.
The movie was the early science fiction classic "Dr. Cyclops" directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and the first Technicolor Science Fiction movie. A group of biologists are summed to a remote location in the Peruvian Jungles by Dr. Alexander Thorkel played bv Albert Dekker. The biologists are simply asked to verify a specimen Thorkel had which they immediately do. Thorkel thanks them for coming and they are asked now to leave. The group is taken back over traveling such a distance just to look into a microscope to verify one simple specimen. They make their feeling known to Dr. Thorkel. In controlled anger Thorkel reveals his shrinking ray and some of the animals he has used it on. Then he locks the biologists in the radiation chamber with his assistant Pedro. When they wake up the next morning they have been reduced in size by the ray.The title for the movie comes when only one lense of Dr. Thorkel's glasses now works turning him into a Cyclops. The motion pictures special effects were nominated for an Academy Award.
Shortly after December 7, 1941 Merian Caldwell Cooper re-enlisted in the Army Air Corp and entered with the rank of Colonel. His first major assignment was as the logistic liaison for a fantastic plan to hit the Japanese homeland and specifically Tokyo. Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle had convinced his superiors that he could launch B-25B Mitchell bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier. On April 18, 1942 16 planes took off from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet and destroyed the security felt by the Japanese people. Although no significant military effect was derived from the raid. The morale in the United States after "Pearl Harbor" was uplifted.
Merian C. Cooper next served in China as Chief of Staff for General Claire Chennault on what was called "The China Task Force", but known more commonly as "The Flying Tigers". Then from 1943 until 1945 he served in the South Pacific as Chief of Staff for the Fifth Air Force's Bomber Command. The below commemorative envelope is of Cooper at this time.
While in the South Pacific Cooper would lead several combat missions as Chief of Staff, but at the start of this assignment his motion picture skills came into play. I return to the opening of this biographical sketch.
Bomber groups in both the South Pacific and Europe were having a major problem with the accuracy of the bombardiers. It broke down to newly trained bombardiers not being able to properly adjust to the actual movement of the plane and the changing ground image below it. No amount of class room training, or stateside flights could duplicate actual combat conditions. Merian Caldwell Cooper's motion picture background came into play and he developed a training solution.
He talked to ophthalmologists about how the eye worked and developed a three camera system. Which when projected upon a curved screen would produce a picture covering the full range of the human eye. He designed the theater and projection system necessary and while Army engineers built a training simulator of a cockpit and bombardier compartment. Cooper sent camera planes on combat missions in both theaters of war to film actual targets.
The result was both pilots and bombardiers in training were experiencing the feel and look of actual combat situations and the accuracy of the bombardiers greatly improved, As the Army was not in the motion picture business they permitted Cooper to patent his process which in the 1950's would be known as "Cinerama".
Brigadier General Merian Caldwell Cooper was present on September 2, 1945 on board the U.S.S. Missouri to witness the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.
The war was over and the motion picture business was awaiting once more. In 1947 the Armed Forces came together as Brigadier General Merian Caldwell Cooper and Navy Commander John Ford formed Argosy Pictures.
There first production released through RKO on November 3, 1947 was "The Fugitive" and starred Henry Fonda as a Catholic Priest in an unnamed Latin American country who is being tracked down by a repressive government, It is a very strong film with a strong ending as the priest is killed by firing squad on order of the dictator. The cast included Delores del Rio, Pedro Armendariz, J. Carrol Nash, Leo Carrillo, Ward Bond and Robert Armstrong. Note Henry Fonda's make-up for the role. The movie was based upon Graham Greene's novel "The Power and the Glory". Two other of his political works turned into motion pictures were "The Third Man" and "The Quiet American".
During the next four years the Cooper-Ford team would turn out a series of classic motion pictures. The film that followed "The Fugitive" also starred Henry Fonda and was the first of what would become known as John Ford's Calvary Trilogy. Although these motion pictures are about different people at different Forts and times.
The first film released on March 27, 1948 was "Fort Apache". It also starred John Wayne, Shirley Temple, John Agar and Victor McLagen. It featured both Ward Bond and Pedro Armendariz. The film was a reworking of Custer's Last Stand with Fonda's Lt. Col. Owen Thursday being John Ford's alternate Custer. The setting is changed from Montana to Arizona. Although as all three films would be shot really Monument Valley, Utah John Ford's favorite location..
The second film was released October 22, 1949 titled "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon". Once more the leads include John Wayne, John Agar, but instead of Shirley Temple the girl in question was Joanne Dru. The film featured Harry Carey,Jr, Victor McLagen and introduced Ben Johnson. This is one of Wayne's great roles as Nathan Brittles retiring after 30 years from the Calvary and overseeing the three way love affair of Dru, Agar and Carey,Jr.. It was also the only film in the trilogy in Technciolor.
The final film of the trilogy was released on November 15, 1950 is "Rio Grande". In this film John Wayne's son whom he hasn't seen in 15 years shows up as a new recruit. The son's arrival is followed shortly by Wayne's Kirby Yorke's estranged wife played by Maureen O'Hara and the sparks fly. Also the Apache raid.
All three are truly worthy of the title classic and here are some stills.
There were three other motion pictures from Cooper and Ford's Argosy Pictures that came out between John Ford's Calvary Trilogy. The first was released on December 1, 1948 specially for the Christmas market. It was a remake of a now lost 1919 motion picture also by Ford "Marked Men".
"The Three Godfathers" starred John Wayne and Pedro Armendariz. More importantly the motion picture introduced Harry Carey, Jr as the title characters,Whose father Harry Carey had been both a major silent screen cowboy and very good friend of the director.
The tale is about three bank robbers who come upon a lone covered wagon and its family in the desert. The husband has already died from lack of water and his wife, played by Ford regular Mildred Natwick, dies after the three men promise to take care of her baby. At this point think of the "Three Wise Men" of the Christmas Story.
The three are being pursued by Sheriff Buck Sweet who unknown to the robbers is the Uncle of the women whose baby they are trying to save. The film was perfect for a Christmas audience as the men slowly are redeemed from their evil ways, but unfortunately two will die before the end.
Skipping ahead to March 13, 1956 was the second to the last movie produced by Merian C. Cooper "The Searchers", directed by John Ford. In the film's cast were Harry Carey, Jr. as Brad Jorgensen and his mother actress Olive Carey playing his film mother Mrs. Jorgensen. Carey, Jr. relates in his book "A Company of Heroes: My Life in the John Ford Stock Company". A story about Wayne, who also knew his father very well, and what he did in the final shot of the motion picture. Wayne is framed in the doorway with everything else in black. He takes his left arm and made a trade mark jester Harry Carey, Sr. always did in his Westerns at the end. Olive Carey was on the set having been shot in that final sequence and upon seeing what Wayne did broke into tears.
Here is a link to the ending of "The Searchers".
The second film shot between the Calvary Trilogy was 1949's "Mighty Joe Young". The Argosy motion picture reflected in part the "Merian C. Cooper-John Ford Film Company". The director was Ernest B. Schoesack, the leading man in a rare lead was Ben Johnson as Gregg and Robert Armstrong was back as the promoter with a heart of gold Max O'Hara. The special effects and stop motion animation were supervised by Willis O'Brien.
There were two additions to the making of the film that are of interest to my reader. The first was the casting of actress Terry Moore in the critical part of Jill Young.
"Mighty Joe Young" would be released by RKO as had "King Kong" 16 years earlier. At the time the studio was owned by Howard Hughes. He made one condition to Executive Producer John Ford and Producer Merian C. Cooper. He would distribute the film and pay all promotional costs and a little more, if they used his current girlfriend as the female lead. So Terry Moore became Jill Young.
The second addition most fans of Science Fiction films know. Ray Harryhausen had served during World War Two in the Special Services Unit under Colonel Frank Capra, director of "Lost Horizon and "It's A Wonderful Life" among other classics, and was hired as assistant to Willis O'Brien's on "Mighty Joe Young". Also as most Science Fiction film fans know he did the majority of the Stop Motion Animation while O'Brien concentrated on solving the technical problems that kept coming up.
Most critics and viewers were expecting another "King Kong", but that wasn't Cooper's idea. He wanted a children's fairy tale with a sweet young love story included. According to Variety:
Mighty Joe Young is fun to laugh at and with, loaded with incredible corn, plenty of humor, and a robot gorilla who becomes a genuine hero. The technical skill of the large staff of experts (led by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen) gives the robot life.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would award the picture an Oscar for Best Special Effects. At the time the Academy's rules stated that the producer of the film in this category receive the award. Cooper would take the Oscar and present it to O'Brien whom he felt actually won it and should have been recognized in 1933.
The following are scenes from the red tinted sequence of the orphanage burning and Joe rescuing children.
"Mighty Joe Young" was the last picture Argosy made for RKO and at the end of 1949 Cooper and Ford moved their productions to Republic Studios located in Studio City, California. A name this section of North Hollywood got,because of Republic being located there. The name North Hollywood actually resulted from Universal Studios being set up in an area of the City of Los Angeles located, of course, North of Hollywood.
The first film the duo made for Republic had been turned down by RKO while Ford was making "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon". Ford approached Republic to shoot it and the only way Republic would permit the film was if he made another Calvary picture. Ford had not wanted too, but to make "Wagon Master" he agreed and "Rio Grande" was born.
The film stared Ben John, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr. and Ward Bond. It is a simple, but beautifully filmed motion picture about two cowboys being hired to lead a group of Mormon's to the promised land. The story had been an idea of Ford's son Patrick and he was given screenwriting duty on the film backed up by Frank S, Nugent. Among Nugent's scripts are the first two films of the Cavalry Trilogy, "The Quiet Man", "The Tall Men" and "The Searchers". So it was obvious who actually wrote the final screenplay.
In 1950 when "Wagon Master" was being filmed Merican Cooper became deeply involved in Republican Politics and became a strong supporter of Senator Joseph "Tail Gunner Joe" McCarthy. When the House Committee on Unamerican activities was formed and their hearings started. Cooper was supportive and testified against some of his own friends accusing them of being members of, or sympathizers of the Communist Party.
On this poster for Republic's "The Quiet Man", if you look under John Ford's name as director on the lower right side. Then in the very small print three lines down you will find "Producer Merian C. Cooper". Now look at the upper left corner and you will see: "Herbert Yates presents" in large letters and color to attract a person's attention. Yates was the founder and dictator of Republic Studios and all films during his reign give him "Presenting" credit. Although he had no actual participation in their filming. He was the money man.
"The Quiet Man" was a risky investment for Republic as it was shot partly in Ireland. No other movie had been shot outside of the Studio and its surrounding locations like Vazquez Rocks. The movie is about a boxer from America marrying a Irish lass and the sparks that fly. It is the only motion picture Republic Studios ever had that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The movie was actually first released in the U,K. on July 21, 1952. Then it went to the Venice Film Festival for an August showing and also in August on the 14th it was released in the United States.
"This Is Cinerama" would be followed by one more outing in 1956 as producer with Lowell Thomas called "The Seven Wonders of the World". All though he did not personally film any of the motion picture. You could say that Cooper had returned to his routes in the documentary film. However, as with "The Quiet Man" look for any mention of Merian C. Cooper on this poster for the Cinerama release, or the sound track that sold very well at the time.
On April 21, 1973 at the age of 79 Merian Caldwell Cooper died from complications caused by cancer in San Diego, California. Sixteen hours prior to Cooper's death his doppelganger as Carl Denham in the 1933 "King Kong" and "Son of Kong" Robert Armstrong passed away on April 20, 1973. Armstrong was 82 years of age.
Here are links to some of my blog articles related to "King Kong".
We all know Fay Wray from the film, but what about her careers before it? I mentioned "The Most Dangerous Game", but there were two classic technicolor Horror movies.
We all know Willis O'Brien the stop motion animator, but what about Marcel Delgado the man who built "Kong"?
Then there is the argument about how tall King Kong was: