Saturday, July 19, 2008

Merian C. Cooper

TCM is showing the classic 1933 version of King Kong at 4:00 PM ET today. It's an easy enough movie to do an entire blog posting on, except that everybody already knows the story: Giant Ape meets Girl. Giant Ape falls in love with Girl. Giant Ape climbs Empire State Building with Girl in hand. So, instead of talking about the movie itself, I'll comment on the movie's director, Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was also the head of production at RKO at the time, and lived quite an interesting life, to say the least. His exploits both movie related and outside of cinema, are told in the wonderful TCM documentary I'm King Kong. Cooper was an adventurer, being both a pilot in multiple wars, and used that sense of adventure in making his films, notably his first one, Grass: A Nation's Battle For Life.

Cooper and his directing partner, Ernest Schoedsack, had seen the quasi-documentary Nanook of the North when it was released in 1923, and wanted to do something similar. Eventually, they found a little-known tribe known as the Bakhtiari, in what is now southwestern Iran, and decided to do a documentary on this groups semiannual migration complete with livestock in tow. The first third of the movie is a bit boring, as it tells the filmmakers' story in how they got from Istanbul to Persia, complete with woman in tow. (That woman was the girlfirend of one of them, and having to bring along a woman was problematic. This was referenced in King Kong, when Fay Wray was treated almost as a fifth wheel during the trip to Skull Island.) However, once Cooper and Schoedsack get to Persia, the action picks up, and becomes much more fascinating and exciting.

What has to be remembered here is that the action is also real; what you see is what actually happened, without any special effects. The migration must have been extremely difficult, with the Bakhtiari having to scale high, snow-capped mountains, and ford icy rivers, carrying their children and precious animals along the way When you see an animal getting swept away, that poor animal is actually dying. It's a migration that's reminiscent in many ways of the 1930 John Wayne movie The Big Trail, which has some equally harrowing footage.

But if the migration is difficult for the Bakthiari, spare a thought for Cooper and Schoedsack. They were carrying a substantial amount of film, and the movie cameras; furthermore, they hadn't made such a trek before, unlike the Bakhtiari, who would have been used to the migration. They also had the logistical problems facing directors: not only how to get a shot of, say, the tribesmen climbing a mountain trail, but when to get it. They had to bring in all the film themselves, and couldn't exactly call Hollywood for more film and stop production for a day while they waited for it. They didn't know how much film they were going to need to bring along to get enough footage to make their movie. As it turned out, they very nearly ran out, but ended up with enough footage for a 70-minute movie. Grass was not originally intended for general release, but Cooper and Schoedsack were so successful on the lecture circuit that Paramount eventually gave the movie a theatrical release. Nowadays, it's available on DVD to watch any time one wants. Grass is a fascinating movie of a time that will never again exist, and not only in the sense of the Bakhtiari. Movie-makers in the mold of Cooper and Schoedsack are likely gone for good, too.

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