Both director and ape were larger than life

Commentary

November 18, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Both director and ape were larger than life Before Merian C. Cooper made King Kong, this rugged character from Jacksonville, Fla., became a Hollywood force to be reckoned with by filming real-life adventures in Persia and Siam. After he made King Kong, he became a Tinseltown legend. I'm King Kong, the latest production for Turner Classic Movies by ace documentary director Kevin Brownlow, airing Tuesday, pays stirring tribute to this mammoth risk-taker.

The title comes from Cooper himself. After noting to an interviewer that he was a timid Southern boy who built himself up and went on to serve proudly in three wars, he boasted of his status as a self-made mover and shaker by saying, "I'm King Kong." The documentary turns his life into a genuine hero's journey. He became a bomber pilot in World War I and met his future partner, Ernest B. Schoedsack, when Schoedsack served in the Signal Corps. Cooper later fought on the side of Polish nationalists against the Bolsheviks, and credited Baltimore Sun correspondent (and sometime U.S. spy) Marguerite Harrison with bucking him up and keeping him alive after Soviet troops captured him.

A few years later, Cooper, Schoedsack and Harrison teamed for a pioneering nature epic, Grass (also to be broadcast Tuesday on TCM). It was released in 1925 - and for raw excitement and beauty, no spectacle in the last 80 years has topped this documentary record of a seasonal tribal migration in frontier Iran. The filmmakers follow the Bakhtiari people of Persia over foaming waters and snow-ridged mountains. They capture a horrifying, lyrical survival drama on an epic scale.

In Grass, stuff that usually goes into oral history or holy Scripture tumbles fresh and unfiltered onto the movie screen. As thousands of men, women and children transport their worldly goods and livestock to green pastures in the high country, the filmmakers present, with equal eloquence and authority, sights that would be unbelievable were it not for the testimony of the camera - such as trailblazers taking off their cotton shoes and breaking a path through mountain snow in their bare feet. This is one of the great, largely unsung and (these days) unseen real-life adventures in film history.

But Grass didn't satisfy Schoedsack and Cooper. They considered it a lost opportunity because it didn't focus on a single Bakhtiari family that would intensify a viewer's attention and emotions. Without Harrison (who objected to their theatrical bent), they next traveled to the Siamese rain forest for their 1927 frontier extravaganza, Chang. There they soaked up jungle lore and figured out how to trap wild animals; a couple of their ideas even clicked with the natives. More important, they assembled a man, a woman, two children and a gibbon named Bimbo to play a family trying to withstand tigers and elephants while carving a homestead out of the overgrowth.

As in all their films, they went for pace, tension and excitement. They weren't anthropologists or ethnographers. They were honest-to-God moviemakers. They suffused their work with the tingle of entering a native environment and maneuvering within it on instinct, hunch and a smattering of common sense.

Chang (the title means "elephant") is filled with frissons that make audiences jump in their seats and other filmmakers wonder, How did they get that shot? There are terrifying scenes of a marauding tiger, a mama elephant rescuing her baby, an elephant stampede and the rounding up of a huge herd into a kraal.

Bimbo provides the emotional core. He's always in the thick of the action: he tries to bomb elephants with coconuts. Schoedsack and Cooper gave themselves, and their audience, a hardy good time.

I'm King Kong contains eloquent chunks of Grass and Chang - and happily, these two extraordinary films have just been reissued on Milestone DVDs. TCM will immediately follow the documentary with a broadcast of King Kong (1933), which provides a different kind of payoff.

After watching I'm King Kong, just plain King Kong comes off as a movie about life imitating a Cooper film project. It's got two epic antiheroes: the mythic ape and the famous director played by Robert Armstrong - patterned after Cooper himself.

At the beginning, Armstrong complains that pundits say his movies would have more draw if they contained some romance. So he scours the New York City soup lines for a woman needy enough to join his most dangerous trek yet: a secret voyage to Skull Island in search of the fabled King Kong. He recruits Fay Wray after he sees her lifting an apple from a sidewalk stand. Even before he knows that Kong lusts for human female flesh, he test-screams Wray and photographs her modeling a "Beauty and the Beast" costume.

Viewed in this context, King Kong is the story of the luckiest director who ever lived. Wray turns out to be a plucky leading lady with a powerful set of lungs, and Kong is, if anything, overly cooperative in filling out Armstrong's love story - especially in the restored prints that show Kong gently stripping away Wray's clothing.

Armstrong's showmanship, like Cooper's, helps give the movie's horrifying adventures their harum-scarum zest. The show-biz frame cushions the bone crunching. You see the action through Armstrong's let's-put-on-a-show eyes, and it becomes a grand excursion into impure movie magic.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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