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THE MAN WHO CHEATED DEATH
When a man knows how to live dangerously, he is not afraid to die. When he is not afraid to die, he is, strangely, free to live.
--William O. Douglas, OF MEN AND MOUNTAINS
THE SCENE IS THE EARLY 1930S, THE PLACE A NOCTURNAL harbor in Hoboken, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where a docked ship christened the Venture is ready to sail at dawn. Out of the darkness a tall, impeccably dressed man appears and asks a grizzled night watchman, "Say, is this the moving-picture ship?"
"Pictures, yeah." The watchman nods. "You going on this crazy voyage?"
The destination of the Venture is cloaked in mystery as deep as the darkness shrouding the city. All that's known is that Carl Denham, famed and fearless filmmaker, is at the helm of his latest movie expedition and eager to set sail for a top secret production at a far-flung and undisclosed location.
"They say he ain't scared of nuthin'," the watchman declares. "If he wants a picture of a lion, he goes up to him and tells him to look pleasant!"
And that's what's troubling the impeccably dressed man, theatrical agent Charles Weston, who's come aboard the ship to personally break some bad news to Denham: He can't provide a young actress for so secretive and potentially dangerous a production. True, there's only one Carl Denham, and whenever he embarks on a moviemaking expedition he always brings back a picture. But that's not the problem.
"Everyone knows you're square," Weston tells Denham, gentleman to gentleman, "but you have a reputation for recklessness."
Carl Denham, stocky, energetic, and exuding confidence, doesn't need to hear this. The moviegoing public, bless them, must have a pretty face--and Denham won't be denied a leading lady. He's poised on the brink of the ultimate moviemaking expedition and dreaming dreams no picturemaker has ever dared to dream before.
"I'm going out to make the greatest picture in the world, something that nobody's ever seen or heard of," Denham exults to a skeptical Weston. "They'll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back."
Thus opened King Kong, the 1933 RKO Radio Pictures production unveiled at the nadir of the Great Depression. The picture included a glimpse of the nation's economic troubles as Denham took a taxi into the heart of Manhattan and witnessed a line of women waiting for soup at a rescue mission. Then he encountered a young woman who was trying to steal food from a corner stand, a virginal beauty named Ann Darrow who was nearly faint from hunger.
When the bombastic showman bought a meal in a diner for Darrow and shared his dangerous dream, Denham's crazy, cockeyed, all-American optimism beguiled his new leading lady. And it gripped movie audiences as well. Like Ann, audiences could leave their troubles behind and vicariously join the Venture, sailing for the mystery that waited just beyond the horizon. Moviegoers, like the loyal crew, were spared details of their destination until Denham finally shared a strange tale--of a meeting in Singapore with a Norwegian skipper who had once picked up a canoe of dying natives blown by the winds into the open ocean. The skipper had sketched a map based on the natives' account showing an uncharted island west of Sumatra. A map of a dream that in turn became the film producer's quest.
The allure for Denham was the story that went with the map, the weird rumors of an ancient wall built by a forgotten civilization and the legend of Kong, the gigantic ape of Skull Island, a prehistoric isle that time had forgotten . . .
KING KONG HAD been one of the great gambles in movie history, but when it finally emerged into public view, after a long creative gestation, it was a roaring box-office success. Kong beguiled an entire generation, and its financial returns marked the turning point for an entire film industry that had recently bottomed out but was back on an economic upswing. Kong's triumphant creator would be crowned in glory, thus raising Merian Coldwell Cooper to the pinnacle of Hollywood power and influence.
"Coop," as he was known to many, took it all in stride. In many ways he was the unlikeliest of moviemakers. Before coming to RKO in the autumn of 1931 as the trusted right-hand man for production head David O. Selznick, he had produced only three other films. What Cooper lacked in film credits, though, he made up for in creative instinct and passion.
Although studio ballyhoo for King Kong hailed Cooper as a renowned adventurer, what was left unsaid was that Carl Denham was in fact Merian Cooper. Cooper, like Denham, had himself sailed to a lost island and discovered seemingly prehistoric creatures. Cooper had witnessed the massing of tribal warriors on the windswept plains of a kingdom in Africa, had hunted man-eating tigers in the steaming jungles. The Cooper-inspired touches for Denham ranged from allusions to celebrated movie expeditions to Weston's declaration to Denham, "You have a reputation for recklessness." Even Denham's pipe smoking was a noted Cooper affectation, and there was a distinct physical resemblance between Cooper and Robert Armstrong, the veteran actor who played Kong's intrepid filmmaker.
As with his cinematic alter ego, moviemaking became Cooper's passport to adventure. During the 1920s, he created moving pictures that served audiences as a window onto the world, in an era when radio was in its infancy and television and satellite communications remained in the realm of science fiction. This was a time when oceans could be crossed only by boat, and maps had vast regions stamped "unknown." Those early movie expeditions, which Cooper further celebrated in books, articles, and public presentations, influenced an entire generation and forged a paradigm for adventure that still resonates into the present day.
In Cooper's time, one could still strike out into a wide, wild world, sometimes guided only by legends, or seduced by the mystery of unknown places whose secrets, waiting like buried treasure, fired the imagination. Yet only a hardy few had the mettle to mount such death-defying expeditions--Cooper's hunger for adventure was unusual for any age. During his life he would make his home in places like New York and Los Angeles, but Cooper was always contemptuous of the conceits and conveniences of the modern world. To him "civilization" was a pejorative for all that was soft and weak. He sought out danger and wilderness without regard for personal safety; the rougher it was, the better he liked it. Often it took weeks of boat travel to span the oceans and days or weeks more to reach the places where the roads came to an end. From there one had to carry on by foot or camel or horse, with each step moving farther from the remotest outpost of civilization and deeper into territories often ruled by violent peoples, places governed by magic and spirit worship, where deadly diseases and wild animals regularly thinned the local population.
Merian Cooper lived for such things. He seemed to view himself as an artist, and life itself was his art, each amazing adventure woven into an unfolding tapestry of dramatic experiences. Other men, with similarly passionate ambition, might seek to forge financial empires, and, indeed, Cooper had a taste along those lines himself. But in the final analysis, he found big business boring. Adventure, manifesting in all its forms and possibilities, was his desire. Cooper would know the terror of slipping into the brush with his rifle to face a wounded and cornered wild animal; his memories would echo with the drums and war shouts of warriors and the exotic clamor of ancient rituals. Through his heart's desire he molded his very existence like a potter at the wheel, dreamed his great dreams of adventure and made them come true. In a way, natural-born showman that he was, his own life story was his greatest production, and he burnished his own legend to a shining luster with each dramatic exploit.
For Coop, living dangerously was particularly sweet when he could share experiences with similarly brave souls. One of his earliest adventures was a sea voyage that nearly ended in disaster as his ship ran aground on the Red Sea. Cooper later recalled that brush with death in a diary account that revealed much of what drew him to danger: "You risk your skin, and in the moment when life balances with death, no matter how afraid you may be, you get a touch of the animal value of existence. . . . Wind and rain beat on your face as you brace yourself to swing the wheel, as a giant wave comes crashing towards your little sailing ship. Some man trusts you above all other men and you realize what friendship means.
"These are the seconds which give the zest and fire to existence. . . . These are the moments when conscience and memory alike are drowned in the fine physical or spiritual beauty of life."
Cooper wrote that diary entry in April 1924, while camped in the mountains of Persia, where he had joined a tribal migration, an adventure he was sharing with two other Americans, his young friend Ernest Schoedsack and the mysterious Marguerite Harrison, an heiress and reputed professional spy who had once saved his life. He was sitting in a tent overlooking the moonlit valley where the massing clans of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe had pitched their black tents. The grass that sustained their flocks was dying, and a seasonal imperative and an ancient rite of survival forced their mass migration to a distant plateau, the promised land of verdant fields.
To Cooper this was the ultimate adventure--he had finally merged with the epic struggle for survival that took him to the heart of "the animal value of existence." He and his two partners would not only be the first foreigners to make the dangerous migration but would do so with an exotic piece of equipment: a moving-picture camera.
Grass, the result of this movie expedition, Cooper's first, was released in 1925 and marked the official beginning of the Cooper-Schoedsack filmmaking partnership. The two men would sum up the spiritual imperative of their movie expeditions with the phrase "Keep it distant, difficult, and dangerous." It was that guiding spirit of adventure that would take them deeper into the wild, unconquerable realm of imagination, a creative journey that led to their shared directorial work on King Kong.
Even before the Grass expedition, Cooper had taken to heart the advice given him by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer who had traveled the frozen wilderness and had lived among the Eskimos. "Stefansson said, 'If you think hazardously, as I have done, then you'll think of at least ninety-five percent of the things that could possibly happen to you, [and] you'll be prepared,' " Coop once recalled. "Men get killed easily when they don't live dangerously."
FROM HIS YOUTH, Merian Cooper was schooled in the perilous art of living dangerously. He was one of that first generation to take to the skies in airplanes--clattering contraptions that often became flying death traps--and he would be among the first men in history to fly into battle during wartime.
Cooper eagerly embarked on the path to war: He wanted combat and got it. He had promises to keep, spiritual debts he owed himself, his family, and his heritage, and he'd be damned if he didn't answer the call. In the early days of World War I he wrote home that if his own life was lost it would be a small thing, and his premonition of danger proved prophetic in the skies above Dun-sur-Meuse, France, on September 26, 1918; he was among seven American DH-4 Liberty planes returning from a successful bombing mission when they were attacked by a "hunting pack" of German Fokkers. In the ensuing aerial dogfight Cooper's plane was riddled with bullets and his cockpit burst into flames--not for nothing were these Liberty planes known as "flaming coffins." He began to fall from the sky. Like many fliers going down in flames, his only thought was Escape, and since Cooper, like other American airmen, had gone up without a parachute--part of the gallant code of some of these early air warriors--he frantically pulled his plane up, fighting the centrifugal force of the screaming tailspin to teeter on the edge of the flaming cockpit for his leap into the abyss. . . .
In the heroic style of the most outlandish movie cliffhangers, Coop went down in flames--but survived. In later years, he'd point with an ironic pride to the official United States Army death certificate made out "in memory of Merian C. Cooper" and signed by General John "Black Jack" Pershing himself. He would recall that the day he was shot down and survived became a second birthday, all his days thereafter a "bonus period."
Cooper had entered World War I in the bloom of youth, when death and destruction were abstract notions. He came away with a firsthand awareness of the price of war, having watched comrades and friends die before his eyes, and having tended to their foreign graves. Nevertheless, with the fires of the Great War still smoldering, Cooper resolved to remain in Europe. For a time he performed humanitarian duty, bringing food to the starving populations of ravaged cities held under siege, and soon he was fighting again, leading an all-American squadron of airmen to help Poland battle the invading Bolsheviks. In that conflict, Coop suffered his own deprivations as a prisoner of war in squalid camps where madness and death were always near. The nightmarish pain and torture stretched into months and marked him forever.
But he would have no regrets.
It was a code of honor that had put Cooper on the path to war and kept him in war-torn Europe. That code, mixed with a lust for adventure and risk, was a combustible combination that would be characterized, like Carl Denham's own legend, as recklessness.
Merian Cooper was a mass of contradictions.
Excerpted from Living Dangerously by Mark Cotta Vaz
Excerpted by permission.
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