Merian Caldwell Cooper (October 24, 1893 — April 21, 1973) was an American aviator, United States Air Force and Polish Air Force officer, adventurer, screenwriter, and film director and producer. His most famous film was the 1933 movie King Kong.
Cooper was the father of Polish translator and writer Maciej Słomczyński, and later married film actress Dorothy Jordan.
Born to John C. Cooper, of distant English descent, and the former Mary Caldwell in Jacksonville, Florida, Cooper was educated at The Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1912 but was forced to resign in 1915 (his senior year). In 1916 he joined the Georgia National Guard to help chase Pancho Villa in Mexico.
Cooper was a founding member of the Board of Directors of Pan American Airways, serving on the board for decades. He was a pioneer in the use of aircraft, military and civilian. During his tenure at Pan Am, the company established the first regularly scheduled transatlantic service.
In the 1950s and '60s he was a big crusader in fighting communism, backing Joseph McCarthy in his crusade to root out perceived communists in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Cooper died of cancer in San Diego, California.
World War I
Cooper was a DH-4 bomber pilot during World War I. He was shot down and captured by the Germans, serving out the remainder of the war in a POW camp. According to Stephen Skinner (The Stand), Captain Cooper was allowed to remain in the U.S. Air Service after the war, despite serious burns to his arms incurred in the crash of his DH-4. In January 1919, while on special duty with the American Red Cross in France, he located the gravesite of Lieutenant Frank Luke, Jr., America's second-highest-scoring ace of World War I. Cooper's subsequent report helped to confirm the identity and location of Lt. Luke's first burial site, which was near the village of Murvaux.
From late 1919 until the 1921 Treaty of Riga, Cooper was a member of a volunteer American flight squadron, the Kościuszko Squadron, which supported the Polish Army in the Polish-Soviet War. On July 26, 1920, his plane was shot down, and he spent nearly 9 months in a Soviet prisoner of war camp. He escaped just before the war was over and made it to Latvia. For valor he was decorated by Polish commander-in-chief Józef Piłsudski with the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari.
During his time as a POW, Cooper wrote an autobiography: Things Men Die For by “C”. He turned the manuscript over to Dagmar Matson to type for publisher submission. It was submitted to G. P. Putnam's Sons in New York (the Knickerbocker Press) in 1927 and published that same year. Just after the book's release, he changed his mind about releasing the personal details about “Nina” and asked Dagmar to buy up every copy she could find. She managed to acquire most of the 5,000 copies that had been released. Cooper kept a copy and Dagmar kept a copy, while the rest were eventually destroyed. Dagmar sent Nina money every month, on behalf of Cooper, until his death.
World War II
Though old enough to be free of service in World War II, he enlisted anyway, commissioned as a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and accompanied Col. Robert L. Scott to India while serving as a logistics liaison for the Doolittle Raid. He and Scott traveled to Dinjan Airfield, Assam, where they assisted Col. Caleb V. Haynes, a bomber pilot, in setting up the Assam-Burma-China Ferrying Command, which was the origin of The Hump Airlift. He went on to serve in China as chief of staff for General Claire Chennault of the China Air Task Force — precursor of the Fourteenth Air Force — then from 1943 to 1945 in the Southwest Pacific as chief of staff for the Fifth Air Force's Bomber Command.
Leading many missions and carefully planning them to minimize loss of life, he was known for his hard work and relentless planning. At the end of the war, he was promoted to brigadier general. For his contributions, he was also aboard the USS Missouri to witness Japan's surrender.
Cooper led movie production for RKO Radio Pictures before and after World War II. He frequently collaborated with Ernest B. Schoedsack. Cooper also served as vice president in charge of production for Pioneer Pictures from 1934 to 1936, and vice president of Selznick International Pictures in 1936–1937, before moving to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Cooper started his film career with documentaries for Paramount Pictures such as Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), which combined real footage with staged sequences. In Chang , he used this technique to create a memorable finale featuring an elephant stampede. His movie The Four Feathers was filmed among the fighting tribes of the Sudan.
Throughout his career, Cooper was a proponent of technical innovation. The film King Kong, which he co-wrote, co-directed, and appeared in, was a breakthrough in this regard. Another outstanding film that he produced in trying to follow up on his success with King Kong was the 1935 film She. Additionally, Cooper helped pave the way for such ground-breaking technologies as Technicolor and the widescreen process Cinerama.
Cooper was a good friend and frequent collaborator with noted Western director John Ford. In 1947, they formed Argosy Productions and produced such notable films as Wagon Master (1950), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956). He was nominated for an Academy Award for producing The Quiet Man in 1952, but lost to Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. Cooper did however receive an Honorary Oscar that same year.
Cooper has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (his name is misspelled “Meriam C. Cooper”).
In 1927, the Boy Scouts of America made Cooper an Honorary Scout, a new category of Scout created that same year. This distinction was awarded to “American citizens whose achievements in outdoor activity, exploration and worthwhile adventure are of such an exceptional character as to capture the imagination of boys…”. The other eighteen men who were awarded this distinction were: Roy Chapman Andrews; Robert Bartlett; Frederick Russell Burnham; Richard E. Byrd; George Kruck Cherrie; James L. Clark; Lincoln Ellsworth; Louis Agassiz Fuertes; George Bird Grinnell; Charles A. Lindbergh; Donald Baxter MacMillan; Clifford H. Pope; George Palmer Putnam; Kermit Roosevelt; Carl Rungius; Stewart Edward White; Orville Wright.
An Interbellum Polish film directed by Leonard Buczkowski, Gwiaździsta eskadra (The Starry Squadron), was inspired by Cooper's experiences as a Polish Air Force officer during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–21. The film was made with the cooperation of the Polish army and was the most expensive Polish film prior to World War II.
After World War II, all copies of the film in Poland were destroyed by the Soviets.