LIVING DANGEROUSLY: THE ADVENTURES OF MERIAN C. COOPER, CREATOR OF KING KONG, by Mari Cotta Vaz, Villard, 400 pages, $26.95.
Merian C. Cooper didn't live a remarkable life — he lived several of them.
Cooper is most famous for creating and directing the character and film "King Kong" — and if that were the sum of his life he would still be worthy of interest and praise from biographers and film buffs. But Kong was only a part of his 80 years as a filmmaker, director, soldier, prisoner of war, explorer, innovator, businessman and mogul.
His life is getting new exposure because of the new "King Kong" film coming this December from Universal Studios. Money and Hollywood always attract interest, but his legacy would be relevant and interesting without the newest remake of his seminal film.
In the 1933 "Kong" (as well as the 2005 remake), Carl Denham is a film director who seeks out an uncharted island so that he can make an adventure film. Denham is, of course, based on Cooper, as well as his faithful friend and co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack. And it's Cooper's temperament that rings most true in Denham.
Like the film character, the two friends made films in remote locations across the planet, including the important silent documentary classic "Grass" (1925) and the docudrama "Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness" (1927). Each features remarkable footage of a primate world that doesn't exist in modern times.
As with the fictional Denham, the pair literally risked their lives for these movies, even adopting the motto, "Keep it distant, difficult and dangerous," which led to the inspiration behind "Kong."
Besides embracing new technology, such as films with sound and innovative special effects, Cooper also supported the early use of color and other new ideas, and he produced more than 60 films while working for several studios.
However, Cooper was also a dedicated, hard-working, expert pilot, fighting in both world wars and in smaller conflicts for foreign countries. He was twice a prisoner of war, cheating death several times, and earning and declining several medals. He eventually was made a general and was a force behind the development of commercial airlines. Either storied career would have been a full life for most any man.
Cooper's papers, a significant source for the biography, were given to Brigham Young University by Cooper's widow. The book is rich with Cooper's own photos and movie posters, and his correspondence with his loved ones, all now part of BYU's archives.
With new interest in Cooper because of the upcoming big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, the biography is fascinating and vivid as a window into the life of a true swashbuckling adventurer.