LIVING DANGEROUSLY

The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper,

Creator of King Kong

By Mark Cotta Vaz

Villard. 478 pp. $26.95

In 1998, Fay Wray came to Washington for the screening of a new print of "King Kong." During the Q&A, someone asked her if it seemed as though she'd made the film yesterday or a long time ago. "Oh," she said, laughing, "a very long time ago."

Indeed, it was: 1933 to be exact, during the Great Depression, a fluid and tumultuous time, when a dreamer like Merian C. Cooper could devise a loopy scenario about a gigantic ape who is snatched from his jungly island home and taken to Manhattan, where he shinnies up the Empire State Building and loses his heart to a dame -- and could inveigle a Hollywood studio into putting this on celluloid, using special effects that practically had to be invented as the filming went along. Cooper's improbable life, of which "King Kong" was only one improbable episode, is the subject of Mark Cotta Vaz's aptly titled Living Dangerously, being published just as Wray's successor twice removed, Naomi Watts, is about to scream bloody murder in a new "Kong" sequel.

Cooper was born to privilege in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1893. At age 6, he set his sights on emulating the author of a first-person narrative called Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. Damned if the kid didn't grow up to make good on that dream. After being kicked out of the Naval Academy for an unspecified reason (probably insubordination), Cooper worked as a reporter before serving in the Great War with the Georgia National Guard. He hankered to be a pilot, and he got his wish shortly before the war's end. Shot down over Germany, he managed to land the plane despite suffering "horrible burns"; he was treated by German doctors and released after the armistice. He stuck around for a while, fighting for Poland against Ukrainian and Russian invaders and surviving a stint in a prison camp. During this period he had an affair with a Polish woman and fathered a son out of wedlock. Also while in postwar Europe, he met an American cameraman named Ernest Schoedsack.

Back in the States, Cooper got himself hired as "scribe" for a nautical expedition bent on finding the "missing link," a putative lost tribe of "apelike men with short tails." (In this context, the "King Kong" story doesn't sound so addlebrained after all.) While taking part in this protracted lark, Cooper remembered Schoedsack when the expedition's cameraman jumped ship in Ceylon. By the time Schoedsack caught up with them, the rovers had moved on to Africa. Although most of the footage he and Cooper shot was lost in a fire, the pair formed a partnership in which they typically co-directed their films.

Their first durable collaboration was "Grass" (1925), a documentary about the annual migration of the Bakhtiari people in what is now Iran. The film did well enough at the box office to convince Paramount to send the pair to Thailand, where they made "Chang" (1927), a mostly fictional story about jungle life. This became a popular and critical success, winning an Academy Award nomination. They followed it up with an early version of A.E. Mason's "The Four Feathers," one of Cooper's favorite novels, and "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932), from a macho story by Richard Connell. The female lead in both "Feathers" and "Game" went to an up-and-coming actress named Fay Wray.

A year later, all three principals collaborated on "King Kong." Vaz sketches the technique of stop-motion animation, perfected by Willis O'Brien, that made the ape -- along with the film itself -- a phenom in its day: "Typically, a puppet constructed with movable parts is positioned in a succession of poses, which are filmed one frame at a time. When the final film is projected, the perception is that the puppet is moving with continuous, seamless motion." At times Wray herself was doubled by a doll, and in 1998 she defended all her screaming on the sound track as necessary to feed the illusion that the doll was a real person.

"King Kong" was a monster hit, as it were, giving its studio, RKO, a much-needed infusion of cash and helping forge the consensus that made possible Hollywood's Golden Age: Movies were just the thing to take one's mind off the miseries of economic doldrums and global war. Cooper had a heart attack in late 1933; thereafter he approached moviemaking primarily as an executive, producing films directed by his friend John Ford and championing the short-lived Cinerama technique. During World War II he hooked up with a different sort of teammate, the stout defender of nationalist China Gen. Claire Chennault. But Cooper, for all his courage as a soldier and moviemaker, could never bring himself to buck convention by acknowledging his illegitimate son, who grew up to be the eminent Polish writer Maciej Slomczynski, author of a series of crime novels and translator of Joyce's Ulysses into Polish. Working 12- to 14-hour days until almost the end, Cooper died in 1973.

Mark Cotta Vaz has drawn on an impressive amount of research, but his prose is tepid, and he overuses what Mary McCarthy once called the "future past" tense. Several times a page, Vaz's people don't do things but "would" do them -- if only, that is, they ever caught up with the byzantine time scheme in the author's head. Thus, we get portentous sentences galore, such as "But it would be quite by accident that they would meet up with the Baba Ahmedi tribe" and " 'The Searchers' . . . would be the last film Cooper and Ford would make together. . . . " Fortunately, Merian Cooper crowded his life with so much danger and achievement that his elan comes through in spite of his biographer's humdrum writing. Cooper was lucky enough to live in an age when dreamers could inflict their fantasies upon the world, and smart enough to make indelible use of that privilege. *

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

Movie poster for "King Kong," directed by Merian Cooper and Ernest SchoedsackMerian C. Cooper and a still from "King Kong"