Given TCM’s stellar track record with docus devoted to stars and filmmakers, this look at “King Kong” director Merian C. Cooper is well timed but something of a letdown, proving neither fish nor fowl — or rather, man nor ape. Splitting time between Cooper’s life as an adventurer and his most famous creation, directors Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird don’t entirely do either justice. That said, there are still plenty of intriguing tidbits here for those brushing up on their history in advance of Kong-mania.
Cooper in essence was Carl Denham, the intrepid explorer-turned-documentary filmmaker who traveled the world to bring back exotic footage, back when more of the world was mysterious and unreachable.
After fighting in World War I, Cooper and cinematographer Ernest B. Schoedsack (who would direct Cooper’s other ape opus, “Mighty Joe Young”) toured the globe, experiences Cooper drew upon in making “King Kong.”
Still, it’s almost 25 minutes into this production before that memorable chapter in Cooper’s life begins. While he was a technological trailblazer — championing both Technicolor and wide-screen Cinerama — it’s the Kong portion that, not surprisingly, brings this film to life.
In addition to interviews with the likes of author Ray Bradbury and stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen — who recalls seeing “King Kong” and muses, “I haven’t been the same since” — the film has access to audio interviews with Cooper, who comes across as a rollicking showman.
An experienced aviator, he and Schoedsack actually flew the plane that blasts Kong off the Empire State Building, with Cooper saying he told his collaborator that, given the difficulty of the shoot, “We ought to kill the sonofabitch ourselves.”
Cooper, 40 when he made “Kong,” actually re-enlisted to oversee a fighter squadron during World War II and later collaborated with John Ford on a series of memorable Westerns. Unfortunately, the details of his life before and after “King Kong” occupy either too little or too much of this hour, inasmuch as there’s no mention, say, of Cooper’s death.
Of course, the “Kong” tidbits are worth the time investment, such as Cooper recalling how he “acted out every goddamn gesture that Kong made,” or how the sets were recycled for another film even before the pic’s release because of the cost and protracted production time. In that respect, perhaps it’s fitting that Cooper’s most enduring legacy should tower over this somewhat hurried exploration of an undoubtedly colorful life.