Merian C. Cooper: Legend, Hero and
by Edward P. Curtis, Jr.
Chair, Motion Picture Acquisitions Committee George
As this is rather more of a personal reminiscence than an academic
paper, I dispense with footnotes and a formal bibliography. Common courtesy,
however, dictates that I extend my personal thanks to those who helped
me in the preparation of this paper. I am especially indebted to Jim DArc,
Curator of the Arts and Communications Archives of Brigham Young University,
who compiled and edited the Merian C. Cooper papers.
This remarkable archive is as wide-ranging and comprehensive a collection
of documents as one could hope to find on a 20th century leader in both
aviation and motion pictures. I have drawn extensively on the 20-page
biography of Cooper, which Rudy Behlmer wrote as introduction to the papers.
Copies of correspondence between Cooper and my father from 1932 to 1966
were especially interesting, as was Coopers own 37 page paper My
Life in War and Peace, published in 1965.
Fay Wrays autobiography On the Other Hand covers at length
her role as screaming heroine of King Kong, as well as her debt
to Cooper as her life-long friend and mentor.
Without doubt the single most useful source I found was Spawn of Skull
Island, a revised and expanded version of The Making of King Kong.
This splendid book, published in 2002, covers in fascinating detail the
story of King Kong from first conception to final release. It is
also a marvelous account of all the joint ventures of Cooper and Ernest
B. Schoedsack, and includes a useful analytic listing of the "Preludes,
Prologues & Progeny" of King Kong.
Perhaps my most unusual source is a book called Things Men Die For,
by "C", published in 1927. This is a vivid and romantic account
of Coopers exploits from 1914 to 1925. He evidently had second thoughts
prior to its distribution and bought up the entire edition before it went
on the market.
This paper cannot possibly do justice to Coopers extraordinary life
and accomplishments I hope I have appropriately touched on the
highlights of a heroic career, as well as recalling personal memories
of the very close ties between Cooper and his wife Dorothy and my family.
Finally, I am indebted to my good friend Paolo Cherchi Usai for suggesting
my participation in the Giornate del Cinema Muto. I have greatly enjoyed
the preparation of this paper, and I am honored to deliver it in conjunction
with the retrospective showing of Coopers legendary silent films.
When I was young, my heroes were the men who fought and
flew with my father in the 95th Squadron in World War I. Ace fighter pilots
all, after the war they became bankers and lawyers and industrialists
and educators but in 1940 and early 1941, long before Pearl Harbor,
most of them came back to Washington to volunteer for a war they knew
was coming. The country, led by the America First group, was still strongly
isolationist, but these men had spoken out for aid to England, and to
China, and were to spend the next five years of their lives fighting the
From the 95th came Curtis, Casgrain, Buckley and Mitchell, from the 94th
came Rickenbacker and many of his colleagues; Gaylord from the 96th; and
from the 20th Squadron, Merian C. Cooper, the subject of this paper and
the most daring, adventuresome, legendary and accomplished figure of them
What makes Cooper so special to me? Partly because he and my father had
remarkable similarities in their careers and their private lives. Both
came early to World War I, Cooper after service against Pancho Villa on
the Mexican frontier in 1916; my father driving an ambulance for the French
Army while serving in the American Field Service. They both became aviators
at the earliest opportunity, Cooper as a bomber pilot with the 20th Squadron,
Curtis as a fighter pilot with the 95th.
They each continued to fight after the war, Cooper as a co-founder of
the Kosciuszko Squadron in Poland; Curtis as number two in the U.S. Military
Mission to the Baltic Provinces. They later became closely associated
with motion pictures, Cooper in a variety of roles which we will discuss
later, Curtis as Director of Motion Pictures Sales for Eastman Kodak company.
They both returned to military service with the U.S. Army Air Corps a
year before Pearl Harbor. Curtis ultimately became Chief of Staff for
the Strategic Air Forces in Europe, while Cooper was Chief of Staff of
the Far East Air Forces.
Civil aviation was another common interest: Cooper as director of Pan
American Airways, Western Air Express and National Aviation Corporation,
Curtis as Special Assistant to President Eisenhower for Aviation Facilities
And, as a final delightful coincidence, they each married beautiful women
and had two daughters and a son!
But in the 15 years after World War I, Coopers life took a radically
different tack. Curtis went into corporate life; Cooper carried on as
a soldier of fortune, vagabond adventurer, explorer, moviemaker and fighter
for air power and against Communism.
Lets take a closer look at Coopers life and career from the
end of World War I in 1918 until the production and release of King
Kong in 1933, since this covers the period of his greatest activity
in silent film production.
While flying with the 20th Squadron he was shot down and captured behind
German lines in September 1918. He suffered severe burns in the crash
and was in a German hospital until a month after the armistice.
After his release he went to Poland with the American Relief Association,
and on the way in Vienna met for the first time Ernest B. Schoedsack,
who was to be his lifelong friend, fellow adventurer, and moviemaker.
Schoedsack had already done valiant work helping Polish refugees escape
from Russian-held territory and was heading back into Poland where he
drove an ambulance, shot movies for the Red Cross and fought with the
Polish army through the retreat from Kiev.
Cooper soon decided on a more active role against the Bolshevik armies
and joined forces with Major Fauntleroy (a Lafayette Escadrille veteran)
to form the Kosciuszko Squadron.
He flew more than 70 missions in the spring and summer of 1920 until he
was again shot down and taken prisoner by General Budennys Red Army
cavalry. He escaped, was recaptured and sent under guard to Moscow. There
he was moved from jail to jail, winding up in a work camp where he spent
most of the winter shoveling snow from the railroad.
His fascinating account of his captivity in Things Men Die For
concentrates mostly on his insatiable hunger for books! With two Polish
comrades he escaped from the camp in April 1921 and, 14 days and 500 miles
later, smuggled across the Latvian frontier. In Warsaw a few days later
he was awarded the Cross of the Brave, Polands highest honor, by
President Pilsudski. A statue was raised in Coopers honor.
Returning to New York in 1921, Cooper became a crime and feature writer
for the New York Times. His account of covering a Christmas Eve
interrogation of a particularly brutal child murderer in New Jersey is
especially dramatic. He soon became bored with the life of a journeyman
journalist and sought more exciting and romantic endeavor.
He found it aboard Wisdom II, a 98-foot ketch on a round the world
exploratory cruise skippered by owner Edward A. Salisbury. The skippers
talents for promotion, tall tales, and entertaining local dignitaries
greatly exceeded his abilities as navigator, scientist or author.
Cooper was hired on as a second officer at $25 a month and was charged
with writing and reporting duties as well. When the ships cameraman
quit after a nasty typhoon, Cooper wired Schoedsack in Paris to join the
cruise. They were able to shoot footage in Ethiopia that included a splendid
review of Haile Selassies mounted troops.
After a near shipwreck on the Yemeni coast, Wisdom II limped through
the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to drydock in Italy. There
an explosion and fire destroyed the ship and, unfortunately, all their
exposed but undeveloped motion picture negatives.
The experience left Cooper and Schoedsack convinced that their partnership
should continue, and they began planning a film on exploration and the
migration of a nomadic tribe that was to become Grass.
Cooper had a talent for gaining the interest and support of investors
that would prove useful throughout his career. This time he contacted
Mrs. Marguerite Harrison, a widowed journalist whom he met doing relief
work in Poland. She was interested in the venture and agreed to help finance
it, but as a condition of her financial participation, insisted on accompanying
them. Schoedsack was dubious, but agreed. With $10,000 and 40,000 feet
of movie film, they set off for Turkey.
Here they met with resistance and harassment from the new Turkish government
of Kemal Ataturk. Making their way to Baghdad, they made contact with
the Bakhtiari tribe who were about to make their annual spring trek from
the shores of the Persian Gulf up over the mountains to high summer pastures
in Persia (now Iran).
The Khan of the tribes warned them: "Alright you go with one
of my tribes but they go very hard. So hard, not any of my family ever
living go that way. No foreigners ever been. Big mountains, woods, big
river then big, big mountain with plenty snow. And my people there men
call bears they live so wild and hard. They drink sour milk,
eat acorns and mutton. Very, very bad road."
And so they went, Cooper and Schoedsack sleeping on the ground with their
hosts, Mrs. Harrison in a tent on top of their money and negatives. It
took the tribe five days to ford the Karun River, losing many animals
and at least two people in the process. Cooper called it "The greatest
piece of continuous action I have ever seen."
And finally the tribe with all their animals reached the Zardeh Kuh, a
12,000-foot mountain whose crossing provided some of the most spectacular
action scenes ever filmed. From Coopers May 29th 1924 diary: "Schoedsack
and I camped halfway up Zardeh Kuh. It is blowing like a devil, and cold.
We are out of grub and we are going to sleep a bit chilly here tonight,
almost at the top of Persia. But both of us are at the peak of happiness.
We have done it. We have seen as great a struggle for existence as there
is. And we have it for the screen! Tomorrow, the summit!"
They reached the far side of the Zardeh Kuh with 80 feet of film left,
enough for a very quick ending. Back in Paris with little money, they
developed 40,000 feet of exposed negative themselves. Returning to New
York, they edited their footage into a two-hour film called Grass,
and Cooper took it out on the lecture circuit.
Movie mogul Jesse L. Lasky saw it and offered to underwrite a professional
version, which premiered in New York in February 1925 to critical acclaim.
It grossed enough to repay the original $10,000 investment and generate
a modest profit, but it was not a financial blockbuster.
Lasky was sufficiently impressed with the dedication and genius of the
two adventurers that he persuaded Paramount to send them off on another
expedition, this time to Siam (now Thailand) to film the jungle epic that
Instead of mountains, deserts and domestic animals, the scene shifts to
jungles and a stunning variety of wild animals: tigers, elephants, leopards,
bears, pythons, monitor lizards, buffalo and monkeys, and a tribe of the
Lao people (in the Lao tongue, Chang means elephant).
All this takes place in the Nan district of northeastern Siam, allegedly
the most forbidding jungle on the planet. A story was loosely built around
a Lao family and their struggle for survival in the midst of man-eating
tigers, marauding elephants, and giant pythons.
The adventurers had to capture several tigers for future scenes; their
popularity with the natives soared as the mortality rate of the tribe
There is no trick photography in Chang; its all real, authentic
and rarely matched in later films. The two classic encounters are a tiger
shot and an elephant stampede. For the former, Schoedsack built a platform
13 feet high in a tree, and native bearers chased one of their captured
tigers into the clearing. Schoedsack annoyed the beast with loud and rude
noises while Cooper, with rifle in hand, kept an alert watch from the
next tree. The now enraged tiger, forgetting the fact that tigers cant
climb trees, managed to scramble up 11 feet while Schoedsack calmly cranked
his French Debrie camera. The ensuing close-up of the face of a maddened
tiger two feet away scared moviegoers for years.
The elephant stampede was even trickier to shoot. They dug a pit five
feet square by seven feet deep (Schoedsack stood six feet six), roofed
it with logs and put a turret in the middle for the camera and Schoedsacks
head. Natives drove a herd of elephants towards, and then over, the covered
pit. The elephants thundered across and, once past, several turned around
and came back. One of them stepped on the turret and put his foot through
it, crashing a hail of splintered logs on Schoedsack. He and the elephant
This sequence inspired many subsequent jungle films the Tarzan
series, Frank Bucks Bring Em Back Alive classics, and
the travelogues of Martin and Osa "I Married Adventure" Johnson.
Meanwhile, the jungle took its toll: a severe monsoon made them shift
locations, a cholera epidemic killed seven native workers, Schoedsack
worked for 11 months with malarial fever, and they both returned to New
York emaciated and exhausted, but with the film they considered to be
"Coop and I made Chang with the raw materials we found there
and no help whatever." Schoedsack said later. "There was hard
work, sweat and malaria but in dollars it only cost what it takes
to operate a second unit for two days."
Chang opened at the Rivoli Theater in New York in April 1927 and was not
only a sensation but immensely profitable, especially since it cost only
$60,000 to make.
Jesse Lasky and Paramount were so ecstatic they gave the two producers
carte blanche for their next film, urging them to turn one of their favorite
stories into a movie. The choice was easy back in that Russian
prison camp in 1921, Cooper had been able to take four books with him.
His first choice was A.E.W. Masons The Four Feathers.
Cooper and Schoedsack decided to go to Africa for authentic footage with
natives and animals and combine this with film shot in Hollywood in studios
and a desert location where Paramount recreated an African fort. They
took off for Sudan and Tanganyika in August 1927, accompanied once more
by a woman. Mrs. Harrison had decided that Grass would be her one
and only movie, but Schoedsack had married Ruth Rose, who was to be an
invaluable partner and collaborator in every film from The Four Feathers
in 1929 through King Kong in 1933 to Mighty Joe Young in
The Four Feathers was the first time the two collaborated on a
film that had a large professional cast coupled with the usual Hollywood
assortment of additional directors, producers, editors, accountants, studio
executives and other hangers-on. Their time in Africa was to be their
last experience at operating absolutely independently.
They took full advantage of it. One jungle scene they especially needed
showed two white men being chased by slave traders into a parched jungle.
The traders torch the woods and the flames drive out the fugitives, followed
closely by a horde of terrified baboons. The two men cross a bamboo bridge
and weaken it from the far side; the pursuing baboons swarm over the bridge,
causing it to collapse as a herd of hippopotami stampedes into the river.
This was accomplished by herding a substantial number of hippos into a
large log corral of which the wall against the river could be cut free.
Cooper was standing beside the wall when Schoedsack, filming from a raft
in the river, called "Coop!" The crewmen in charge of releasing
the herd thought he yelled "Cut!" and slashed the rope. Cooper
leapt to safety as logs and hippos plunged into the river. That scene
had to be staged 13 times to get the desired results.
Later they sailed north along the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea to Port
Sudan. They trekked overland 700 miles, arriving finally at the old slave
port of Suakin, abandoned during the mahdis uprising in the 1880s.
This region was home to one of Kiplings favorite tribes: "Then
heres to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your home in the Sudan. Youre
a poor benighted heathen, but a first-class fighting man."
And, as the poem goes: "you broke the British square" which
is the finest scene in this movie the running charge of the horde
of Fuzzy-Wuzzies, filmed from many angles, matches the elephant stampede
in Chang for terrifying excitement.
Back in California they began shooting at the Paramount studio and the
desert location near Palm Springs where they built the replica of the
The extensive cast included, as the female lead, Fay Wray, who went on
to fame (but not fortune) as Ann Darrow in King Kong. Interestingly,
although she appeared in 74 other films, Four Feathers, The
Most Dangerous Game and King Kong are the only ones she did
with Cooper and Schoedsack.
The studio rejected proposals to make Four Feathers a talking movie,
and so it became the last of the big silent films. The producer-directors
were able through careful planning to cut and edit together scenes from
Africa and California into a seamless whole.
Unfortunately, after they left Hollywood thinking their job (and the picture)
was done, David Selznick decided additional scenes were needed and assigned
Lothar Mendes to direct these. The extra footage did not improve the film,
and the two original producers decided they would personally edit all
The Four Feathers opened in New York in June 1929 and did fairly well,
considering it was up against a raft of new talking films.
Here Cooper takes a three-year hiatus from filmmaking and the author of
this paper shifts to a different tack. Since these three films
Grass, Chang and Four Feathers are the ones
being featured at this festival, I have tried to write of them in some
detail if not comprehensively. But neither time nor space will allow me
to go into comparable detail on subsequent films, a decision I genuinely
regret since I firmly believe King Kong is the second greatest
movie ever made (the first, of course, is Casablanca).
However, our focus must remain on Cooper, and his career over the next
twenty years, while it includes many notable films, also has fascinating
highlights which we must at least touch on.
For openers, he decided to get back into aviation, his first love and
enthusiasm. He believed with his wartime commander and long-time hero
General Billy Mitchell, that Soviet Communism was the main threat to the
United States, and that in any future war air power would play a commanding
role. He also believed that creating a strong civil aviation program would
be a vital foundation for future military aviation.
He had put all his earnings from his first movies into a mutual fund devoted
exclusively to aviation stocks. His interest and talent led to his being
elected a director of Pan American Airways, Western Airlines, and General
Aviation (later North American Aviation). This activity kept Cooper rooted
in New York with only occasional forays to the West Coast.
His interest in aviation took a more dramatic turn in March 1931 when
his friend Varick Frissell, arctic explorer and cinematographer, went
missing when the ship "Viking" blew up and sank off the rugged
northern Newfoundland coast. Frissells father called Cooper for
help within 48 hours he contacted famed arctic pilot Bernt Balchen,
found an amphibian Sikorsky twin engine craft, fitted it with additional
gas tanks and emergency gear, and left Boston for Newfoundland.
Unfortunately, several days search of the area in a wide strip up and
down the coast proved fruitless. While many of the "Viking"
crew survived, no trace of Varick Frissell and his companions was ever
Later that year Cooper returned to movies when Selznick asked him to come
out and help with some of RKOs financial and production problems.
Cooper also wanted to interest RKO in the production of a new concept
he and Schoedsack had been working on involving a giant gorilla, using
the stop-motion techniques that had recently been perfected by Willis
The authors of Spawn of Skull Island devote over 100 pages to the
fascinating, frustrating, challenging, weird, wild and wonderful tale
of the making of King Kong, and all I can tell readers of this
paper is that they should immediately get a copy, because no brief summary
can do it justice.
My two favorite bits? First, having Cooper and Schoedsack serve as the
pilot and gunner that finally shot Kong off the Empire State Building
as Cooper said "We should kill the son of a bitch ourselves".
The second is an old piece of Curtis family lore my mother and
father were part of the crew of dozens of extras gathered around the corpse
as Denham says: "It wasnt the airplanes it was Beauty
killed the Beast".
Cooper followed Selznick as production head at RKO turning out a number
of classics including Little Women, Flying down to Rio,
and The Lost Patrol. He was the first to put Fred Astaire into
movies and pair him with Ginger Rogers. At the same time my father comes
back in the picture:
"I had become interested in Technicolor in late 1932 or 33 through
Ted Curtis, an executive with Eastman Kodak and an old friend, who showed
me some material that had been shot with the new three-color method. I
was amazed at the improvement over the old two-color. Curtis recommended
that RKO buy 100,000 shares of Technicolor stock at $3.00 a share. I proposed
this to the RKO board and when they turned it down I convinced Jock and
C.V. Whitney of the great potential of Technicolor and, with them, I bought
100,000 shares and secured options to purchase a great deal more.
Coopers personal life took a dramatic turn for the better in May
1933, when he married Dorothy Jordan, a truly gorgeous silent film star
who had declined earlier opportunities to work with Cooper, saying she
"thought poorly of working with one of your big animals." She
was a close friend of Fay Wrays and they were all friends of my
From Fay Wrays On the Other Hand:
"When I got Merian Cooper for a director, I also got a lot of friends
that were his friends, both past and present. Many were bound together
with the ties of shared experiences, particularly in the air: Ted Curtis,
Harold Buckley, Denny Holden, M.C. Mosely." And again: "Of Coopers
friends in the group of ex-aviators, the steadiest and most responsible
was Ted Curtis. He was married to a woman of great good humor. Agnes went
with Ted and her children to their home in Beverly Hills in the winter
and returned to Rochester in the spring, where Ted was an officer in Eastman
Kodak. He was that countys representative to Hollywood and
other foreign countries as Agnes put it."
After producing She (1935) and The Last Days of Pompeii
(1935) for RKO, Cooper left them to join Pioneer Productions with Jock
Whitney. The idea was to produce Technicolor pictures, but these were
not being well received so they merged with Selznick International. Early
in 1937 Cooper and John Ford tried to interest Selznick in the property
that later became Stagecoach after disagreements on casting
and other details, Cooper left Selznick and formed Argosy Pictures with
John Ford, a happy relationship that lasted until 1956.
After Stagecoach, Cooper worked on The Long Voyage Home
(1940) and had a number of other ideas in preparation at the end of 1940.
The handwriting on the wall was getting clearer on May 29, 1940
my father wrote Cooper: "News from abroad certainly gets no better
fast and as far as I am concerned I find it a little difficult to keep
by mind on the picture business while all this is going on. I have a very
decided feeling that I ought to be doing something about it but it isnt
quite clear to me what use, if any, a broken down aviator can be in the
present situation. I am off to Maine tonight and we have no less than
fifteen of the former heroes arriving by plane on Saturday to help put
Sewall over. I am sorry you are not going to be along." The last
two sentences refer to an extraordinary prewar gathering where Eddie Rickenbacker,
our #1 American ace in the first war and then President of Eastern Airlines,
flew 15 pilot veterans to Maine to help fellow ace Sumner Sewall get elected
Four months later in September 1940, my father was back in uniform. Cooper
followed in June 1941. This is the time that I personally remember best
we had rented a beautiful house in old Alexandria across the river
from Washington and it became the gathering place for most of the "retreads",
newly arrived airmen who had flown in World War I.
Fay Wray again "Pearl Harbor was in the very near future when I went
to Washington for the tryout of a play about Englands RAF called
Golden Wings. Ted and Agnes Curtis had taken a house in Alexandria.
At a gathering there, it was clear that our countrys mobilization
was beginning. General William Donovan was there with Cooper and John
Ford he had asked them to join him in the OSS. I heard Cooper say
to someone that there would soon be trouble in the South Pacific."
My contribution to the war effort at age 11? Among the furnishings of
the rented house was a beautiful set of sterling silver mint julep goblets.
Mint juleps were very popular with the Air Force, so two or three times
a week I could be found sitting on the back kitchen steps with a big canvas
bag full of ice cubes and a large hammer my job was to produce
large quantities of well-crushed ice for the mint juleps.
They were happy times, that summer and early fall of 1941. Everyone knew
war was coming, but they were glad to be there in the thick of it. One
Sunday my father put all three of us, and my mother, in the car (she had
been after him to spend some time with us) and took us all to see the
Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. We were eating sandwiches in the
local diner when we heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. We rushed
back to Washington, dropped my father off at the War Department and didnt
see him for a week.
Cooper was the first to go overseas he had worked with my father
on General Spaatzs staff, but he hadnt changed. Staff work
was not for him, he had joined up to fight. In January 1942 he went to
Karachi, India and helped set up the supply route into China known as
flying "The Hump" twin engine C-47s which flew
over the Himalayas from India into China. But still not enough action,
so Cooper flew into Chungking and joined up with General Chennault who
commanded the Flying Tigers. Cooper became his Chief of Staff. Chennault
later wrote: "He did a superior job during his entire assignment
here and participated in a number of combat missions."
In December 1942 he returned to Washington to report to the Assistant
Secretary of War for Air on the situation in China. It was a very brief
trip as he was immediately reassigned to General Kenney as Chief of Staff
for the Southwest Pacific. While brief, his stay in Washington was long
enough so that he and Dorothy had their third child in September 1943.
My happiest wartime memory came in the fall of 1942. By that time the
retreads had all gone overseas and life was a little dull in a town full
of women. But one Saturday in October 1942, Dorothy Cooper hired a limousine
and a driver and took me to a Naval Academy football game in Annapolis.
On the way she told me all the naughty things Cooper had done as a cadet
30 years before. By his own account: "I resigned in my graduating
year at the Naval Academy in 1915, having too many demerits and being
deficient in Navigation. I was high-spirited, loved excitement, took chances
and got caught too many times. That was all." Typical forthright
Cooper. As for me, at age 12 I had a huge crush on Dorothy, by then in
her late 30s. We had a splendid day together.
Cooper stayed in the South Pacific until the fall of 1944 when as he says:
"By the fall of 1944, having burned out a number of young operations
officers under me, I burned myself out by dysentery, sinus, etc."
He had been recommended for promotion to Brigadier General, which was
approved in the field by General MacArthur, but never acted on in Washington.
Cooper was sent to Europe to help plan the movement of American troops
to the Pacific as soon as the war in Europe was won.
He returned to the Philippines in July 1945 as Chief of Staff of the Far
East Air Forces, and finished the war at the Japanese surrender aboard
the battleship Missouri in August 1945.
After the war Cooper and John Ford revived Argosy Pictures and produced
some of the greatest Western films ever made, including Fort Apache,
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. Then Cooper, feeling
he had one more giant ape film in him, reassembled many of the old King
Kong veterans (Schoedsack, Ruth Rose, Willis OBrien, and Robert
Armstrong) to produce Mighty Joe Young. It wasnt exactly
a wasted effort, but it couldnt begin to match King Kong.
In particular, Terry Moore was not in the same league as Fay Wray. This
was the last film that Schoedsack would direct; he was nearly blinded
in an accident with Air Force photo equipment during the war.
Ford and Coopers last collaboration was The Quiet Man, an
immensely popular film in a beautiful Irish setting they made for Republic
Pictures. With a stellar cast headed by John Wayne and Maureen OHara,
it was the most successful film ever made under the Republic label.
Coopers last great enthusiasm was working with Lowell Thomas on
the completely novel epic This is Cinerama. On the widest, biggest
screen ever made (until Imax) Cooper produced two of the most compelling
scenes ever shot: the opening shot of the roller coaster slowly climbing
until, as it reaches the top, the screen expands six times and you go
thundering down the other side. And, the last 26 minutes with special
Cinerama cameras mounted in the nose of Paul Mantzs converted B-25
for a cross-country trip across America, much of it at treetop level,
with the music of America the Beautiful on the sound track.
From Coopers account: "Prior to the premier at the Broadway
Theatre in New York on the night of September 30, 1952, no one
including myself had seen the whole thing put together. Some wheat
field shots were barely out of the lab in time for opening night! Bob
Bendick and I made the final cut only a couple hours before the opening.
After the showing, the most distinguished audience I have ever seen in
a theatre stood up and cheered." Fifty years later, I remember that
I did too the first time I saw it.
Also in 1952 Cooper received an honorary Oscar "for his many innovations
and contributions to the art of motion pictures." The same year The
Quiet Man was nominated for six Oscars and John Ford won the Oscar
His final films were The Searchers in 1956 and The Best of Cinerama
in 1962. In his later years Cooper formed Merian C. Cooper Enterprises
and worked on a variety of proposals, including a television series on
the Air Force Academy. He also made extensive notes on his autobiography,
which to our sorrow, was never completed.
After a long battle with cancer he died on April 21, 1973.
How shall we sum up the life of this extraordinary man and his amazing
accomplishments? Let me tell you what others thought of him and, at the
end, give you my assessment.
From General Walter Harris, commanding the Second Georgia Brigade, August
1917: "He was considered the best soldier in the Second Brigade."
From Commanding Officer, 200-201 Aero Squadrons, October 1917: "I
consider him as capable a young officer as I have met in my 20 years experience
in the regular army."
From Herbert Hoover, commanding the American Relief Agency, May 1919:
"Captain Cooper has given extraordinary service to the A.R.A. He
has exhibited courage, resourcefulness and tact to an unusual degree."
From Colonel C.E. Fauntleroy, co-founder with Cooper of the Kosciuszko
Squadron, June 1920: "Flying and fighting, it seemed the entire day,
he seemed to be absolutely tireless and fearless. The hotter it was the
better he liked it. He is already the hero of this city and if he keeps
on at the rate he is going, he will surely become one of Polands
From Count Pininski, Governor General of Galicia, May 1921: "He was
just splendid in the most difficult situations, full of enthusiasm, a
born hero, energetic, plucky beyond all imagination, noble-minded, idealistic
and at the same time very practical and endowed with an excellent sharp
political judgment. He will be ever for me one of the persons I love and
From Marguerite Harrison, co-producer of Grass, 1925: "He
was disdainful of all the refinements of life which were soft
in his opinion. Stubborn as a mule, moody, quick tempered but generous
and loyal to the point of fanaticism, he was forever striving for startling
climaxes and sharp contrasts, with a flair for the bizarre and unusual
and a vivid imagination."
From Fay Wray, 1932: "Merian Cooper was a fascinating combination
of high imagination, an implicitly rebellious nature, a political conservative,
an intellect, an adventurer, and a visionary."
From General Whitehead, recommending Cooper for promotion to Brigadier
General, April 1944: "He knows how to fight modern war. His operations
have been brilliant. On combined fighter and bomber operations Colonel
Cooper has capabilities second to no one else I know."
And, finally, my own judgment and assessment: Cooper was the epitome of
a generation of men whose like we will not see again. Born late in the
19th century, they distinguished themselves in two world wars and countless
peacetime activities as well. Cooper was too independent, impatient and
outspoken to have been a great general or politician his heroes
in that regard were Chennault and Goldwater. But his passion for adventure,
his insistence on going where no man had gone before, his imagination
that let him bring to the screen things people had never seen or even
dreamed of, his determination to get it done and do it right, his fierce
loyalty to friends and associates all these combine to make him
a legend and a hero for our times.
And besides he was my godfather.