By Ray Young


Merian C. Cooper, Marguerite Harrison and Ernest B. Schoedsack on the pipe on location.
(Click to enlarge)


Jungle Fever:
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and
Grass and Chang




Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life
Photographed, produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.
Additional photography by Marguerite Harrison
71 minutes. Originally released in 1925.
Available on DVD from Milestone Films, $29.95. Call them at (800) 603-1104.


Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
Photographed, written, produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.
69 minutes. Originally released in 1927
Available on DVD from Milestone Films, $29.95. Call them at (800) 603-1104.


Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong
By Mark Cotta Vaz
496 pages, illustrated. New York: Villard. $26.95

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    One of the great adventure films, King Kong (1933) has held on to a legendary status for over seventy years. Its flair for grand showmanship once implied that executive producer David O. Selznick was a major influence over the production; but the locations, characters and heightened drama are certainly the attributes of co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Among the passengers and crew sailing to Skull Island, Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham has often been construed as an amalgam of the two adventurous spirits, war heroes and impulsive media correspondents—men who would’ve jumped at the chance to track down a real giant ape to the edge of the world.
    The hype surrounding Peter Jackson’s very expensive (and very long) new remake has paved the way for the obligatory Kong tie-ins, but in some quarters Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper has been an eagerly awaited and long overdue biography. Mark Cotta Vaz traces the man’s remarkable life with meticulous attention to detail. The book is a ceaseless stream of information, from Cooper’s family background, childhood, and war experiences; to his strange career in the movies, first as a photographer, editor, writer, and director of some elaborate, original ventures who eventually settled into the less strenuous (and very lucrative) role of John Ford’s producer. (Their partnership began in 1947 on The Fugitive and ended in 1956 with The Searchers.) But Vaz can’t resist dramatization, as in this florid description of Cooper’s return to New York City after World War I:

[He] walked those streets until dawn. It was at the end of that long night that he paused within the shadow of the American dream. He stood in front of the great stone lions flanking the steps of the New York Public Library, which seemed like a temple against ignorance. The great library had been a backdrop for the victory marches and crowds of cheering spectators, but all was now dark and silent. He walked around to Bryant Park, behind the library, where he found huddled masses of gaunt, unshaven men on park benches, stirring from the cramped and troubled slumbers of the long, cold night. Cooper himself wasn’t far off from those homeless men, yet somehow, to a stubborn, ambitious young man who had already endured so much, that made the odds of taking on the big city about right.

    These shades of purple permeate the text, ornate pontification suggesting Vaz as Denham fumbling with Eugene O’Neill and sounding like P.T. Barnum: “[Cooper] sought out danger and wilderness without regard for personal safety; the rougher it was, the better he liked it.” If you can fathom nearly five hundred pages composed at that pitch, where so much of a man’s life becomes fodder for spinning headlines, bon appétit.
    Meanwhile, Milestone Films has reissued DVDs of two pre-Kong Cooper and Schoedsack movies, Grass (1925) and Chang (1927). Chang02.jpgExperiments in the documentary form, both pictures effectively reveal the inner Denhams that compelled their creators, and, despite the passing of eight decades, have lost little of their beguiling power.

Left: Merian C. Cooper with Bimbo during the filming of Chang (click to enlarge).

    When plans were made to film Grass in 1923, Robert Flaherty and the unexpected popularity of Nanook of the North (1922) kicked off a wave of documentaries shot in the most remote areas from the moviegoing public. Produced on money collected from private investors—among them Marguerite Harrison, a journalist and intelligence agent who insisted on joining the crew—Grass was the result of an expedition to Persia (now Iran) to follow the primitive Bakhtiaris during their grueling annual migration. Across rivers and over snow-capped mountains, they flock en masse, following the changing seasons from drought to rich soil.
    The ritual has gone on for centuries: some sources estimate less than 700 years, others claim over 2,500. Regardless, the film never questions the sanity and intelligence of a people who, up until just recently, hadn’t developed adequate methods of food preservation, irrigation, grain storage, or at least bridges to transport them across violent rapids. (An untold number of people and livestock used to drown annually.) Instead, Cooper and Schoedsack realize it as an inspirational human interest story. And before even reaching the Bakhtiaris, they’ve documented the exhausting journey that takes them to Chief Haider Khan, supervisor of the exodus of 50,000 people and half a million farm animals.
    In spite of its technical limitations, Grass is truly spectacular. Unlike Flaherty’s comparatively sedate portraits of primitives, Cooper and Schoedsack possess an innate skill at high drama. Their advanced photographic and editing concepts intensify already fantastic situations: goats and other animals helplessly drowning, the tribes’ barefoot ascent over ice and rock, their numbing six-week advance toward vegetation—and no option of turning back. It’s one of those rare occasions when the cinema understands necessity and perseverance.
    Paramount bought the distribution rights and encouraged them to make another picture. Studio head Jesse Lasky had a taste for exotic locations, having backed Flaherty’s portrait of Samoan life, Moana (1926). Later, he’d greenlight Varick Frissell’s treacherous Newfoundland epic, White Thunder (a/k/a The Viking, 1931—before dying on that venture, Frissell had approached Cooper about working together); Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s supposedly ‘cursed’ Tahitian drama, Tabu (1931); and Henri de la Falaise’s Legong (1935), which was filmed in color in Bali.
    Shot on location deep in a Siamese jungle (now Thailand), Chang is from a scripted story that follows a small family (played by native, nonprofessional actors) setting up house away from the tribe. Cooper and Schoedsack open with scenes of domestic bliss and, offsetting title card warnings of the dangers of the jungle, a bucolic Eden ripe for development. But the tone soon shifts as tigers and leopards attack, along with a monstrous ‘Chang,’ and the picture evolves into a succession of episodes concerning their survival.
    Less edgy than Grass, the manipulated perils in Chang often feel rigged, most conspicuously in places where animals appear to have been killed simply for the benefit of the camera. (If it were made today, the SPCA would have a field day handing out fines.) By most accounts, Schoedsack did most of the filming while Cooper covered him with a rifle, and their patience and endurance netted a number of breathtaking scenes. Also, images of the family fleeing from tigers are executed with effective tracking shots that seem unworkable given the thick enveloping flora.
    If Grass shows the building of Carl Denham’s character, Chang is then the blueprint for Kong. These are films from not only another era, but from that rare mind that believes squarely in the survival of the fittest. Cooper and Schoedsack would soon be swallowed up by studio sound stages, special effects and photographic gimmicks. Perhaps most tellingly, Cooper’s plans to return to the original locations and remake the two films in color in the 1950’s were quickly scrubbed. One is certain his decision had something to do with fools and madmen and those dark places where angels fear to tread. That they were ever made in the first place seems an instance of providential recklessness.




Top: Cooper, Lufta Khan, Haidar Khan, and Schoedsack take a break from Grass.

Above: Schoedsack and Cooper with the actors who played the family in Chang.
(Click images to enlarge)

Photos courtesy of Milestone Films