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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Merian C. Cooper and New Announcements

In this edition of Classic Coming Attractions, I look briefly at the career of the originator of King Kong - Merian C. Cooper, who had three different incarnations in the movie industry - first as an documentary film-maker, then as a studio executive, and finally as an independent producer. As part of this overview, I've included reviews of five Cooper films that have recently appeared on DVD - Grass, Chang, King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young. I also have my usual rundown of the latest announcements of classic films coming on DVD; that can be found at the end of the column.

Merian Cooper and Documentary Film-Making

Born in 1893 in Florida, Merian Cooper was a timid youngster who threw himself into physical pursuits to compensate. He became enamored of flying and eventually served as a pilot in World War I. This only whetted his appetite for adventure and he then found himself serving in a volunteer American airplane squadron supporting the Polish army in its war with Russia in 1920. He developed a friendship with Ernest B. Schoedsack who had a like-minded interest in exploration and adventure, and experience in film-making. The two first collaborated on 1922's Ra-Mu, filmed in Abyssinia. In 1924, they (along with journalist Marguerite Harrison) traveled to Persia (Iran) where they filmed the annual migration of the little-known Bakhtiari tribe under the title Grass (1925). With this success under their belt, the duo then traveled to Siam (Thailand) to film Chang (1927), a profile of a family eking out a living on the edge of the jungle. The results were again positive. Cooper and Schoedsack's final collaboration of this period was the shooting of footage in Sudan for use in the 1929 version of The Four Feathers.

From this period, both Grass and Chang are available on DVD. Both have recently been re-released by Milestone Film and Video.


Grass (1925)
(re-released on DVD by Milestone on November 15th, 2005)

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B

Grass is a documentary that follows Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison as they travel through Asia Minor to reach a tribe of nomads in Iran known as the Bakhtiari. It then documents the tribe's long trek across deserts, rivers, and mountains in order to reach summer pasturing for their animals. It is a trek that the tribe takes every year in order to survive. The footage that Cooper and Schoedsack managed to shoot is truly amazing not only in how it manages to capture the events, but also in the shear drama of what is conveyed.

Most memorable are the long lines of people and animals spread out across the snow-covered mountainside as they attempt to cross over to their destination. The route they take must be carved out of the snow as they go using the simplest of implements, and many of the people are reduced to traveling barefoot lest the wet snow destroy the simple foot coverings they normally wear. Cooper and Schoedsack are behind the camera the whole time, and the only evidence of the documentary team are occasional shots of Marguerite Harrison being helped along the way by some of the Bakhtiari people and several scenes that seem staged for effect. The outstanding document that is Grass seemed at the time of its completion doomed to be merely an object for the academic lecture circuit until it was seen by chance by Paramount boss Jesse Lasky. His enthusiasm for it resulted in widespread distribution through Paramount's influence.

Milestone's re-release of Grass (in conjunction with Image) is remarkably good looking considering the film's origins. There is substantial scratching in evidence at times and some scenes are slightly washed out, but overall, the image is clear and characterized by impressive detail. The disc includes a stereo soundtrack of traditional Iranian music that fits the events well and creates an appropriate mood for what's on screen. Supplementary content consists of an excellent audio interview of Merian Cooper by film historian Rudy Behlmer that lasts over an hour and a half. It's a treat to hear Cooper's own comments on Grass and other aspects of his career. Recommended.


Chang (1927)
(re-released on DVD by Milestone on November 15th, 2005)

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B

Chang is a more intimate film than Grass, but it's also more docudrama than true documentary. Cooper and Schoedsack created a dramatic story about a family living on the edge of the Siamese jungle and used it as a framework to show many examples of a way of life that was being threatened by the encroachment of modern civilization. In the story, villager Kru and his family struggle to survive by planting and harvesting rice while the dangers of the jungle threaten them on all sides. We see efforts that are made by Kru and his fellow villagers to deal with leopards and tigers that threaten their animals and their own lives. And we also see what happens when rampaging elephants (changs) are also a threat. Throughout it all, we are treated to the people's daily rituals that have defined a way of life for centuries.

More than Grass, Chang's dramatic device really draws the audience into the story and makes for a very entertaining tale whose 70-odd minutes race by. By all accounts, the events surrounding the 14 months of time that Cooper and Schoedsack spent in Siam getting the needed footage would have made for a fine film in its own right. Schoedsack had to deal with malaria; Cooper faced death when he slapped a local chief; and some of the natives died from a cholera outbreak during a lengthy break in shooting. Cooper and Schoedsack even had to move quickly to edit the film when they returned to Hollywood for fear that it would be improperly handled by Paramount in the absence of Jesse Lasky who was otherwise involved at the time.

Milestone's re-release of Chang, in conjunction with Image, is even better-looking than Grass. Based on a preservation copy of the 35mm negative, the image is more uniformly clear and crisp, and the amount of scratching is not as severe. There are a few contrast issues, but otherwise, the film looks better than it has a right to. The stereo score is a winner. It's been newly composed by Bangkok composer Bruce Gaston and performed by Fong Naam, a Thailand orchestra whose focus is traditional music. The disc's supplements include a good audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer, a colourization test on a part of Chang done in the 1950s, and extracts from Chang's original press kit. Recommended.

Merian Cooper and RKO

Cooper's experiences with studio interference on the final version of The Four Feathers temporarily soured him on the industry and in the meantime, he revisited his interest in aviation, investing in various such concerns in the late 1920s. As a result, he found himself actively involved with several companies including Pan Am. In 1932, the RKO Radio film studio was finding itself becoming considerably rejuvenated under the new leadership of David O. Selznick. Selznick offered Cooper, an old friend of his, the job of being his executive assistant, and Cooper leaped at the chance. His time away from the film industry had whetted Cooper's appetite for a return, but in addition, he had developed an idea for a film about a giant gorilla he called Kong. The seed of this idea had been planted many years ago by an adventure book on Equatorial Africa that had enchanted Cooper as a youngster, and subsequently fostered by his film-making adventures with Ernest Schoedsack. Cooper's idea had drawn no interest in Hollywood from Paramount or Fox, but Selznick was open-minded partly because he needed Cooper's help greatly with the ambitious film plans that he had for RKO. Cooper's first credits at RKO were as associate producer on The Most Dangerous Game and The Phantom of Crestwood, but his main efforts were on King Kong during the latter half of 1932 and the early months of 1933. The film (for which Cooper took a full producer credit) had its premiere on March 2nd, 1933 in New York and was immediately a critical and box office success. That boded well for RKO, because less than a month previously, David Selznick had left the company and the vacant position of studio boss had been given to Merian Cooper who would now be responsible for the success of the entire studio output, not just his own pet projects. Cooper's reign would last only for 15 months, but during that time more than three dozen features bore his name as executive producer including Morning Glory (Katharine Hepburn's first Academy Award performance), Flying Down to Rio (the first Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers teaming), Little Women (the delightful Katharine Hepburn version), Son of Kong (a rather weak sequel to the original), and The Lost Patrol (a classic John Ford action film). By early 1934, however, Cooper was already yearning for the freedom of being an independent producer again and in May, he resigned as head of production. He had in mind several ideas for action-adventure pictures. Resulting from this was She, completed in 1935 and released by RKO. The Last Days of Pompeii followed soon thereafter.

From this period, both the Kong films (see reviews below) and four other Merian Cooper credited films are available on DVD, with at least one other on the way. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) used some of the King Kong sets as well as the services of Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong from the Kong cast and direction by Ernest Schoedsack. Leslie Banks and Joel McCrea starred in an offbeat tale of a man who hunts humans on his own island. Criterion has issued a very fine DVD edition. Little Women (1933) was released on DVD by Warner Bros. several years ago and it's an excellent presentation of the George Stevens-directed and Katharine Hepburn-starred version of the classic story. Cooper had associate producer status on the former film and executive producer credit on the latter. She (1935), a generally entertaining version of the H. Rider Haggard novel, was issued by Kino (one of its earliest DVD releases) in quite a decent version. The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) has just been released by Warner Bros. in conjunction with its King Kong releases. Coming in August 2006 is Flying Down to Rio (1933) which will be part of the second Astaire & Rogers set from Warner Bros. Cooper was executive producer on it.

King Kong: Collector's Edition

King Kong: Collector's Edition (1933)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on November 22nd, 2005)

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/A

With its 1933 release of King Kong, RKO saw that it had a monster hit on its hands and as a consequence, had considerable confidence in its choice of Merian C. Cooper as the studio's new production chief. The film was the culmination of a dream by Cooper (and his close friend Ernest Schoedsack who co-directed the film) and also the vindication of his faith in the concept when most of the Hollywood establishment refused to back his idea. The "beauty and the beast" story of a giant gorilla found on a remote island and brought to New York as an entertainment attraction for the masses seemed to strike a chord with moviegoers due both to the film's shock value as well as the sympathetic manner in which Kong was portrayed. The film returned $2 million on a cost of under $700,000 and occasioned a re-release only five years later.

Viewed some 70 plus years after its initial release, King Kong might seem like just another monster flick to the uninitiated. But it's far more than that. Filmgoers had never seen anything quite like Kong on the screen. Oh, actors had dressed up in ape suits for both horrific and comedic effect before, but the end result was just what you might expect - unconvincing at best and laughable when it wasn't supposed to be. Kong was different. He looked big; he looked real; and he looked scary. He had a personality of his own and he projected human characteristics that a viewer could identify with as well. Yet Kong was never more than an 18-inch flexible doll (except for a few scenes that required the construction of a giant-sized head, a hand, and a leg).

What brought so much of it all to life was the magic of stop-motion animation. It was animation that basically involved setting up the desired action on a table that included the model of Kong amongst whatever scenery was called for and then exposing one frame of film. Adjustments were then made to the Kong miniature on the special effects table to reflect the next step in the desired action and another frame of film was exposed. With film passing through a camera at 24 frames per second, one can appreciate how long it would take to get even one minute of completed filming and the degree of exactness and patience in working that was required. Fortunately, RKO had Willis O'Brien on its staff. O'Brien was the pioneer of stop-motion work and had previously had some success with it in 1925's The Lost World. He was now experimenting with more elaborate effects for a film that was to be called Creation. It was never completed, but the work that O'Brien was doing on it did serve as inspiration for many of the Kong effects and techniques.

The special effects work on Kong went far beyond the basic stop-motion activity. It included elaborate miniature sets that combined the stop-motion tables with matte paintings behind them and paintings on glass in front. In addition, live action footage of the film's human stars was shot and later projected on miniature screens placed within the stop-motion sets. Thus were created many of the scenes that show Kong interacting with those characters.

In addition to the realistic visual effects, Cooper and Schoedsack were also looking for the right sounds to enhance the spectacle. Murray Spivack was tasked with producing all the sound effects for the film and he found himself developing new ways of creating and mixing sounds that would become industry standards. For the first time also, an entirely new motion picture film score was created especially for the film incorporating many of the music score forms that would also become standard procedure in later years - for example, themes for each of the main characters that would recur at appropriate times throughout the film. For this, credit goes to composer Max Steiner who would come to be recognized as one of the giants of motion picture scoring.

With all the attention to Kong, one can tend to overlook the flesh-and-blood actors in the film. Robert Armstrong plays the adventurer and showman, Carl Denham, who brings Kong to New York. Denham was obviously modeled on Merian Cooper himself, just as Ernest Schoedsack had himself immortalized in the cast as the Denham's co-adventurer Jack Driscoll, as portrayed by Bruce Cabot. Fay Wray, of course, is the best-remembered member of the cast as Ann Darrow who gets captured by Kong on the island where he is first found and later finds herself carried to the top of the Empire State Building by Kong. Armstrong and Wray particularly give reasonable portrayals, given their clichéd parts, that for the most part manage to avoid the rather mannered performances that tended to dominate more than a few early sound films. Viewers should keep their eyes open for Cooper and Schoedsack themselves, as they make cameo appearances as the flyers of the plane that's responsible for the film's climactic moment.

Warner Bros.' two-disc release of King Kong on DVD has been a number of years in coming as the studio tried to find the best possible elements to work from. It's an understatement to say that the wait has been worth it. Although the film's original elements no longer exist and a version edited to fit the needs of the Production Code in the late 1930s had been the standard available for many years, Warners was able to utilize various versions of film available domestically and abroad in a thorough restoration that recreates the original film quite majestically. The full frame image offers very fine image detail and moderate film grain that gives a very film-like viewing experience. Contrast is good with blacks being very deep and whites acceptably clean. This is far and away the best I have ever seen the film look. The mono sound is in great shape offering clear dialogue and nicely-defined sound effects. There is some minor background hiss, but it's never intrusive. Max Steiner's score sounds fine and the film's overture is included. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.

The set's supplements are superb. The first disc contains an audio commentary by visual effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with comments interpolated from past interviews with Merian Cooper and Fay Wray. The commentary is an entertaining one, using what's on the screen to prompt memories that result in great reminiscences or anecdotes rather than providing in-depth analyses of methodologies and the like. Cooper and Wray's comments are limited, but usually pertinent. The other supplement on the first disc is a trailer gallery of eight films with which Cooper was involved. The titles are: Flying Down to Rio, King Kong, Son of Kong, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, Mighty Joe Young, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers.

Disc two contains three supplements. The first is a detailed profile of Merian Cooper prepared by Kevin Brownlow's Photoplay Productions, entitled I'm King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. Clocking in at just under an hour in length, this gives good insight into Cooper's career utilizing plenty of film clips and comments from various film historians and Cooper biographers. Even more impressive is a two-and-a-half hour documentary in seven parts that conveys everything you could possibly want to know about the making-of the film. RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World is accessible by play-all or individual chapter options. Its highlight is the section dealing with the re-creation of "The Spider Pit", one of the film's sequences that was cut from the final version because Cooper felt that it slowed down the action. Peter Jackson, director of the new forthcoming King Kong theatrical feature, along with his associates managed to recreate the sequence using existing historical information on it and stop-motion techniques replicating the original methods. The resulting six-minute sequence (which is included on the disc) is amazingly faithful to the look and feel of the original feature. It was obviously a true labour of love and is almost worth the price of the disc alone. Rounding out the second disc is original footage from the Willis O'Brien Creation film, accompanied by narration by Ray Harryhausen. Very highly recommended.

Potential purchasers should note that King Kong is available in three ways - the stand alone two-disc offering reviewed here, as the same two-disc set included in the King Kong Collection that also includes separate discs of Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, and as the two-disc set included in a special embossed tin that also includes various reproductions of posters and the original program as well as an offer to obtain a 27x40 poster by mail for a nominal shipping cost.

The Son of Kong

The Son of Kong (1933)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on November 22nd, 2005)

Film Rating: C
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/D

Work on a sequel to King Kong began almost immediately upon the original's release and its very positive reception. Many of the same animation techniques and sets were used once again, supplemented by some location work on Santa Catalina Island and the Santa Monica pier. As for the cast, only Robert Armstrong and Frank Reicher returned, to play Carl Denham and the ship's captain respectively. The story finds Denham attracted back to Skull Island in search of a treasure, but instead he discovers a younger version of Kong. Helen Mack appears as the young woman in peril. Action is restricted to the island this time, but we get an earthquake thrown in for good measure.

Otherwise the story is quite derivative, right down to the young Kong climbing to the highest point of land and trying to save one of the main characters even as he loses his own life. At no time does one get the impression of the attention to detail that went into King Kong. Certainly the young Kong seems like a very plain and tame version of the original, even allowing for the supposed difference in age. The film is brought in at under 70 minutes and has a distinct quickie B flavour to it.

Other than during a few short sequences, the image transfer on The Son of Kong looks almost as good as that for King Kong. Blacks are deep and the image demonstrates a nicely detailed gray scale. Modest grain is in evidence. The mono sound is quite workable although there is more hiss in evidence than on King Kong. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer.

On to Part Two

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