Merian C. Cooper, King Kong, and the Carl Denham Connection

– Say, is this the moving picture ship?

– The pictures? Yeah. Are you going on this crazy voyage?

– What’s crazy about it?

                                   – I don’t know, but everybody around here is talking about that crazy fella that’s running it.

– Carl Denham?

                                         – Guess that’s the name. They say he ain’t scared of                                                  nothin’. If he wants a picture of a lion, he just goes up to him and tells him to look pleasant.

– He’s a tough egg all right.

For all the remakes, sequels, and knock-offs that followed in its wake, the original King Kong still stands apart as something special. Now sure, some of that is down to the tremendous craft involved in its creation. And some of it is down to its trailblazing place in cinema history. And some of it is down to just the dumb luck confluence of right-place-and-right-time grouping of people and resources that can be found behind the scenes of so many truly classic movies. But I think the real secret to King Kong is how personal it is. That’s right, the fantastical story of an ape-god lording over a mysterious lost world also happens to feature a fair amount of autobiography, a fact perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Carl Denham, the adventurer and filmmaker who is essentially responsible for all of the destructive events in the film, is also its hero. And that’s because Carl Denham is basically King Kong‘s director, Merian C. Cooper.

Merian Coldwell Cooper was born on October 24, 1893 in Jacksonville, Florida. His was a childhood spent dreaming of adventure and military glory. The Coopers had a tradition of military service, and Merian was particularly inspired by his ancestor Colonel John Cooper who had served as senior officer to Kazimierz Pulaski in Poland’s fights against Russia, Prussia, and Austria. At age six, his great-uncle Merian R. Cooper gave him a copy of Paul Du Chaillu’s Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, a book chronicling a journey into a mysterious region in Africa. The book changed young Coop’s life. Not only did it establish his goal of becoming an explorer, but its accounts of wild gorillas would take root in his imagination for decades.

After graduating from a New Jersey prep school in 1911, Cooper attended the U.S. Naval Academy, but he was expelled in his senior year (he would later claim it was because he had been too insistent in championing air power as superior to naval power, though he also allowed that he “took chances, and got caught too many times”). Following a brief stint as a reporter, Cooper joined the Georgia National Guard in their hunt for Pancho Villa, and went on to attend the Military Aeronautics school in Atlanta before flying as a bomber pilot in World War I. In September of 1918, Cooper’s plane was shot down. His co-pilot was shot through the neck and Cooper’s hands were badly burned, but he managed to escape the wreckage and save his co-pilot. German soldiers had observed the landing and Cooper spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. After the war, he continued on in the Air Service and worked for the U.S. Food Administration in providing aid to Poland. In 1919, Cooper joined the Kosciuszko Squadron, a volunteer flight squadron of Americans, to support Poland in the Polish-Soviet War. The following July his plane was again shot down and he was captured and imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp for nearly nine months before making a harrowing escape to Latvia.

Merian C. Cooper (left) & Ernest B. Schoedsack (right)

Returning to America feeling he’d redeemed himself through his military service, Cooper turned to his great passion: exploration. He was commissioned to write articles for Asia magazine, and spent the next five years traveling with a fellow adventurer and former wartime associate, Ernest Schoedsack. Schoedsack, an Iowa boy who ascribed his own call to adventure to books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, had met Cooper after the war (where he’d been serving in Europe as a cameraman) and they stayed in touch as Coop flew for the Polish and Schoedsack helped refugees escape Russia. Now reunited and sharing a passion for exploration (their credo was “distant, difficult, and dangerous), they traveled about the ship the Wisdom II. On that voyage they traveled to Abyssinia, met the prince regent of the Ethiopian Empire, Ras Tafari, and had a close call with pirates. Their next voyage found them traveling to Turkey to observe the migration of nomadic Bakhtiari tribe, accompanied by fellow reporter and filmmaker Marguerite Harrison (despite Schoedsack’s objections that the expedition was no place for a woman). They documented the journey on film, and assembled the resulting footage into the film Grass, an early example of ethnographic documentary. As Schoedsack joined a New York Zoological Society expedition as cameraman and fell in love with a young naturalist named Ruth Rose, Cooper parlayed his travels into membership in the Explorers Club of New York City and began to give lectures featuring Grass. The film drew the attention of Hollywood, and was picked up for distribution. Cooper and Schoedsack were then commissioned by Paramount Pictures to make another film. This time they traveled to Siam (modern day Thailand) and immersed themselves in the life of the people there, looking for a story. Chang, the film the ended up producing, combined footage or real life with re-staged events and occasional melodramatic flourishes. Using real people (and real animals, including tigers and an elephant stampede) the film is a blend of documentary and narrative filmmaking. Their next film, The Four Feathers (adapting one of Cooper’s favorite books, and one of four that he was able to acquire while in captivity as a Soviet POW), further refined their narrative film technique while still finding opportunities to incorporate footage of real events captured in their travels.

There followed a short time apart, as Cooper’s love of aviation led him to take an office job helping to start Pan American Airways, and Schoedsack and Ruth (the two of them now married) went to Sumatra and shot the movie Rango in a similar manner to how Chang had been created. Still, despite his love for aviation, Cooper was beginning to chafe at his desk job. He would later claim that in February of 1930, as he exited a building in midtown, he heard a plane engine overhead and, “without any conscious effort of thought I immediately saw in my mind’s eye a giant gorilla on top of the building.” So when he left New York to take up his friend David Selznick’s offer of work at RKO Pictures, he brought with him the inklings of a story that would set the course of the rest of his life.

Working with writer Edgar Wallace, Cooper set about synthesizing elements from all of his travels and obsessions into a single story. There would be an expedition to a previously undiscovered island teeming with exotic new animals. In particular, his imagination had been fired by his friend and follow explorer W. Douglas Burden’s expedition to the island of Komodo, from which he returned with twelve dead Komodo dragons and two living specimens. Cooper dreamed of setting off to shoot real footage of gorillas doing battle with these giant reptiles. And his vision of a gorilla atop New York’s new greatest building could be combined with his memories of his thrilling wartime piloting experiences. After a few weeks’ work, Wallace had produced a 110 page treatment and the two of them proceeded to work through developing it into a proper screenplay. Before completing work, Wallace fell ill and passed away suddenly. Cooper then turned to James Ashmore Creelman, who had worked with on an adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, to continue work on the script, incorporating new concepts like the massive wall on Skull Island, the native tribe, and their relationship with Kong. When Creelman struggled with combining so many disparate elements into the story, Cooper asked Ruth Rose to work on it. She proved to be a perfect fit. She had firsthand knowledge of what it was to embark on a voyage to mysterious locations and wrestle a movie out of them. And most of all, she knew the characters.

Schoedsack & Cooper (top, left to right) Bruce Cabot & Robert Armstrong as Driscoll & Denham (bottom, left to right)

She imbued, at Cooper’s behest, the characters of Jack Driscoll and Carl Denham with the personality of Schoedsack and Cooper respectively (with Ann Darrow as her own stand-in). Even the casting would reflect this approach. First Mate Driscoll, as portrayed by tall, lanky, handsome Bruce Cabot, shares Schoedsack’s gruff-but-sensitive qualities (his grumbling about bringing a woman aboard a voyage and his later tenderness toward Ann are both directly inspired by Schoedsack). Similarly, Denham is very much Merian Cooper. Both men were daring adventurers, loyal and brave friends, and consummate showmen (here too are details that were directly drawn from life, such as Denham’s wry amusement at calls to add a love interest to his jungle movies, mirroring Cooper’s own). The story Denham tells of facing down a charging rhinoceros with a camera and a gun could be taken verbatim from tales of Cooper and Shoedsack risking life and limb to get their spectacular footage in Grass and Chang. And Robert Armstrong’s stocky build and energy make him a dead ringer for Cooper in the role (Armstrong even smokes a pipe in the film, an affectation Denham shared with Cooper). Cooper and Schoedsack themselves even make a cameo appearance as the pilots in the plane that shoots down Kong at the end of the film. Fay Wray observed about the two men, in a statement that could as easily have described the characters in the film, “They were adventurers–Cooper, the voluble visionary, Schoedsack, the self-styled ‘strong, silent one.'”

The resulting film would use studio-bound jungle sets and Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation effects to complete the transition of Cooper and Schoedsack’s filmmaking style from documentary to Hollywood narrative film. Of course, King Kong went on to be a smash hit for RKO, and Cooper parlayed the success into becoming head of production at the studio. He continued to work in the film industry for the rest of his life (except for when he reenlisted to serve in the U.S. Air Force during World War II), starting a production company with his friend and frequent collaborator John Ford. He worked again with the Schoedsacks on 1946’s Mighty Joe Young, was involved in the development of Cinerama, and he was still thinking about new projects (some involving his most famous creation) until his death in 1973.

In the years since Cooper’s death, King Kong has been remade twice, and both versions of the film have featured a Carl Denham figure. But the approach in both of the films is really quite different. The Carl Denham of 1933 creates an emotional contradiction: he’s a brave, heroic figure whose actions nonetheless bring down calamity everywhere he goes. The original film’s sympathies still remain with him (perhaps because his great flaw, his recklessness, is one shared by Cooper), allowing him to remorsefully deliver Cooper’s “Twas beauty killed the beast” summation. But the later films, presumably due to evolving recognition of the damage wrought by colonialism and of man’s impact on the environment, reconcile this contradiction by casting Denham in a more explicitly villainous light.

Fred Wilson, the oil executive that Charles Grodin plays in the 1976 update, is greedy and amoral, with no appreciable redeeming qualities. He sets out with the goal of pillaging Kong’s island of its oil reserves, and when that plan falls through he decides to exploit Kong himself. Wilson occupies the Denham role in the story, but it’s a radically different character (while Denham joined in the search for Ann without a second thought, standing his ground against a charging stegosaurus and Kong himself, Wilson sits on a beach and casually tracks the search party’s progress via radio). Grodin makes for a good villain, smirking and sneering his way through the movie, and the show he puts on to unveil Kong when they return to New York is a gaudy horror-show. As Kong is revealed emerging from a gigantic branded gas pump, Grodin barks out, “Hail to the power! Hail to the power of Kong!…And Petrox!” And we don’t even get to see him express any regret, as he is immediately stomped to death when Kong breaks free.

The 2005 version of the story, which returns the story to 1933 and finds Jack Black’s Carl Denham on a moviemaking expedition like in the original film, takes a much more nuanced approach. This Denham shares many qualities with the original one. He is brave and driven, confident, reckless, and a born showman. But the film approaches him with more skepticism than the original, offering Colin Hanks’s Preston, Denham’s assistant, as an audience surrogate who starts the film going along with Denham’s heedless passion and ends it broken and disillusioned in the man. Similarly, Black brings a bluster and steeliness that approaches Robert Armstrong’s take on the character, but he’s also got a nervy energy that makes the audience wary of placing too much trust in him (note the contrast between Denham ’33’s cozy relationship with Captain Englehorn and the more adversarial relationship between their ’05 counterparts). This Denham survives the events of the film and is on hand to deliver the “beauty killed the beast” epigram, but it feels rather more hollow here, perhaps because with so many other characters more actively calling Denham out for his bad decisions in the remake, he really should have known better.

For all the changes made in these two remakes, the attitude toward Carl Denham strikes me as the most significant. Because, despite his flaws and the great disaster they bring down on everybody, the original film’s creators loved Denham. This is probably best demonstrated by the sequel, Son of Kong, which offers Denham something of a redemption story.

After the instant success of King Kong, a sequel was rushed into production with the goal of having it in theaters around eight months after the original had opened in theaters. Cooper contributed the story idea, and is credited as executive producer, but he left the actual production work on the film to the Schoedsacks and their collaborators on the original Kong. Ruth Rose also wrote the sequel, which follows a bankrupted Carl Denham as he flees New York City with Captain Englehorn aboard the Venture and takes up work shipping cargo. In the course of the film, Denham returns to Skull Island, finds a treasure, falls in love, finds Kong’s son and apologizes to it for what he did to the beast’s father, and sails off into the sunset. It’s a lighter film than the original, and Denham is, if anything, portrayed even more sympathetically. He feels guilt for what he did to Kong in the first film, and he’s clearly suffering legal consequences, but it’s a far cry from the punishment or repudiation to be found in the 1976 or 2005 iterations of the character. Denham is a hero, because the people making the movie loved Merian Cooper. Instead of comeuppance, Denham is granted, in perhaps another bit of biography inserted into the films, a love interest. During the production of the original Kong, Cooper himself fell in love with and secretly married actress Dorothy Jordan (they remained married until Cooper’s death). It’s easy, given the autobiographic detail already found in the movie, to imagine the Schoedsacks’ delight in reflecting their friend’s (who had, a decade earlier, written to his father from Poland saying, “I have decided to be the bachelor of the family. No women for me.”) real life love story in that of his fictional counterpart. There’s even some resemblance between Jordan and Helen Mack, the woman who played Denham’s love interest Hilda in the film.

Dorothy Jordan (left) & Helen Mack (right)

The remakes of King Kong both basically work, and offer plenty of things to recommend them. But while they both successfully execute a version of the story (parable about greed & ambition in the ’76, doomed romance in the ’05), the changes to the Carl Denham character destabilize them both. Ray Harryhausen probably summed it up best when discussing what he saw as the big difference in the 1976 remake, “Merian Cooper was a bigger-than-life character who lived a life of adventure–which De Laurentiis didn’t live–which comes through in Kong.”

The original King Kong is as distant, difficult, and dangerous as Cooper and Schoedsack intended, and it feels that way because they lived it.