Brushes with GR8Ness™: For such a small place, Greater Jacksonville has had more than its share of contact with the famous and the infamous. Some even admit to being born here. Your Greater Jacksonville Examiner merely reports what she finds – GR8Ness™ where you least expect it.
The city of Jacksonville being what it is – the state’s biggest city, one of the state’s oldest cities, erstwhile home to French, Spanish and Indians alike – you might think that brushes with greatness abound.
And, as with St. Augustine, in and around Jacksonville you can find various purveyors of a certain kind of Florida Tourism, as well as one or two pioneers of same.
Warren “Alligator Joe” Frazee springs to mind.
Even Jacksonville’s role in the early days of the film industry is fairly well known.
However, not often in Jacksonville history will you find someone so thoroughly hooked up with big-time Hollywood movies as Merian Caldwell Cooper.
First a soldier
Cooper’s life pre-cinema was nothing if not colorful.
Born in Jacksonville on October 24, 1893, Cooper was educated at the Lawrenceville preparatory school in New Jersey, Cooper entered the United States Naval Academy in 1912.
After a dispute with the Academy about the importance of air superiority in warfare, Cooper resigned from Annapolis in his senior year and in 1916 enlisted in the Georgia National Guard to fight Pancho Villa in Mexico.
During World War I, he flew a DH-4 bomber, was shot down and captured by Germans, and spent the remainder of the war as a POW.
From late 1919 until the 1921 Treaty of Riga, Cooper flew as a volunteer in the American Koscuiszko Squadron in support of the Polish army against Soviet Russia. On July 26, 1920, he was shot down again and spent nine months as a POW in a Soviet prisoner of war camp.
At what some call the height of his career in Hollywood, Cooper re-enlisted as a colonel in the US Army in 1941 becoming the oldest active duty fighter pilot.
His list of honors in WWII is nothing short of amazing –
- Flew with General Claire Lee Chennault’s "Flying Tigers” then later served in China as Chennault’s chief staff for China Air Task Force — precursor of the Fourteenth Air Force
- Served with Col. Robert L. Scott in India as a logistics liaison for the Doolittle Raid
- Served 1943-1945 in the Southwest Pacific as chief of staff for the Fifth Air Force's Bomber Command
- Achieved the rank of brigadier general
- For his contributions, was allowed aboard the USS Missouri to witness Japan's surrender
This is the guy who made ‘King Kong.’
Action, action, action!
In many ways, Cooper’s military experience more than prepared him to work in the movie business.
A seasoned traveler and adventurer, when Cooper and his business partner Ernest B. Schoedsack set about making a movie in the early days, in meant long trips, often overseas, schlepping a movie camera.
It may also explain his interest in documentaries.
His first movies, for Paramount Pictures, included ‘Chang,’ filmed in 1927, about a poor Thai farmer and his life in the jungle.
More famous is ‘Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life,’ (1925) made with journalist Marguerite Harrison, which chronicles the travels of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe of Persia (now Iran), some 50,000 people who must move nearly one million animals to new pasture every six months.
The 800-pound gorilla
But before he got to produce his greatest monster movie, he had a chance to make almost every other kind of movie.
Comedies of manners, Busby-Berkeley style musicals and totally legit blockbusters like ‘King Kong’ (1933) and ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (1949) led to work with John Ford, John Wayne and some of the best westerns ever made.
A small sampling of his credits include:
- ‘The Four Feathers,’ 1929
- ‘Little Women,’ 1933, with George Cukor
- ‘Flying Down To Rio,’ 1933, RKO musical with Dolores del Rio
- ‘The Fugitive,’ 1948, with Henry Fonda
- ‘Fort Apache,’ 1948, with John Ford and John Wayne
- ‘Mighty Joe Young,’ 1949, Oscar-winner for Best Visual Effects
- ‘Rio Grande,’ 1950, with John Ford and John Wayne
- ‘The Quiet Man,’ 1952, with John Ford and John Wayne, nominated for Best Picture
- ‘The Searchers,’ 1956, with John Ford and John Wayne
He is also a pioneer of modern cinematography and one of the original developers of the Cinerama process.
No doubt he fell into this bed of roses because he was David O. Selznick’s favorite producer.
After working as head of production for RKO Radio Pictures under David O. Selznick, he was hired as vice president in charge of production for Pioneer Pictures then became vice president of Selznick International Picures.
When David O. Selznick went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1933, he took Merian Cooper with him.
Later, but not much, when professional acquaintances Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and his cousin W. Douglas Burden – both of whom had worked as producers on ‘Gone with the Wind’ and with John Ford on other projects – set their minds on developing Marine Studios® for Marineland® in St. Augustine, they hired Merian Cooper to help.
That’s show biz, kids
A big, bold personality, Cooper regretted, sort of, that he never recaptured the excitement and market share of ‘King Kong.’
Although he admitted to being tired of his great big monkey, he missed the fanfare, the openings of the big blockbusters and most of all the creative control of being at once writer, director, cinematographer and producer.
As should be obvious, making a movie is a tremendous collaboration.
Sometimes the more famous you get, the less creative freedom you have when other famous and fantastically wealthy people want to work with you.
In recognition of his willingness to collaborate, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awarded him an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1952.
To his credit, Cooper was always political and mostly politic, a skill that in 1964 got him voted No. 1 Hollywood celebrity behind Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Earlier he had been a staunch supporter of Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), not a popular move in Hollywood when so many actors, directors and producers were black-listed.
Maybe that’s why his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame reads “M-e-r-i-a-m C. Cooper.”
Mr. Merian got his star on February 8, 1960.
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OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org