Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SFSFF09: CHANG (1927)—Introductory Remarks by Mark Cotta Vaz

Admitting his pleasure at having been invited by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) to introduce Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), Mark Cotta Vaz—author of Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong—extolled the Castro Theatre as "the greatest living movie theater in the world" and the seed of inspiration for his authoring Living Dangerously.

In the Summer of 1991, Vaz sat in the Castro Theater and watched Chang. At that time, Chang had not been screened in some 60 years. Though not a lost film, it had only recently been rediscovered. In his enthusiasm, Vaz saved the Castro program for the screening and clipped out a promotional article in the Chronicle Datebook that introduced him to the two filmmakers responsible for Chang: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. An odd couple, referred to in the Datebook article as "a Mutt & Jeff team", Vaz explained that Cooper was short and stocky and Schoedsack was nicknamed "Shorty" (even though he was 6'6"). Though Schoedsack was the official camera man of the two, essentially they shared all the responsibilities. As a filmmaking team they had a motto: "Keep it distant, difficult and dangerous."

They weren't completely reckless, however. "Coop" (as he was known)—though practicing a philosophy of living dangerously—was well-aware that when you went into a dangerous situation, you had to know what you were getting into and had to be prepared. By example, Vaz recounted that both men had served in World War I. Cooper was one of the early bomber pilots; Schoedsack a camera man with the U.S. Signal Corps. On a bombing mission during one of the great offensives of WWI, Cooper's plane was suddenly attacked and riddled full of bullets by German fighter planes. Cooper's rear bombardier and mate was shot dead and Cooper's cockpit burst into flames. He was flying a DH-4 Liberty plane, commonly known as "flaming coffins." They also didn't use parachutes in those days. So his plane was on fire, it was going down, and Cooper was slowly burning alive. He stood up on the edge of the cockpit to leap to a mercifully quick death; but, managed to survive. What he got out of the experience was a death certificate signed by General Pershing. Cooper often looked at that death certificate and said that it basically summed up his life and his "bonus years", as he called them.

Cooper and Schoedsack's first movie was Grass (1925), essentially a documentary film wherein they followed a tribe on a nomadic seasonal expedition. Before that, Cooper had been on a seafaring expedition where—among adventures too numerous to detail—at one point Cooper reached Ethiopia and needed a camera man. He cabled Schoedsack and "Shorty" joined him in Ethiopia to film a mass scene of Haile Selassie's warriors on a giant plain. Cooper helped direct the action with Schoedsack on his camera platform. Cooper described this scene of hundreds and hundreds of horse-riding warriors in their battle armament and shields as "fire on the prairie with the bright sun glistening off their accoutrement." It was at that moment that the two of them realized they could make movie magic together. After all, it wasn't any small feat to coordinate the king of a country and his mass of warriors for a camera.

Soon after they left Ethiopia, they were waylaid by pirates when their ship ran aground. Cooper later wrote about the experience as a moment when he felt he was between life and death—an animal valuing its existence—but, also a moment when he knew what friendship meant. He knew he had found not only a filmmaking partner in Schoedsack but a good friend to share his adventures with as well.

In the Summer of 1925—albeit with the backing of Jesse Lasky and Paramount—Cooper and Schoedsack went off by themselves to film Chang, doing everything from scratch, inspired by an idea of creating a "natural drama." One of Cooper's disappointments when they made Grass was that he had wanted to cover the migration through the lives of one family, which didn't quite work out. With Chang, he had the chance to situate the film with one family: the father Kru, his wife Chantui, their two children Nah and Ladah, and their pet gibbon Bimbo. Cooper secured the assistance of the King and Prince of Siam and missionaries helped save Cooper's life on more than one occasion; but, all in all, it was just the two of them on a wild adventure spending a year and a half in Siam, basically now known as Thailand.

They studied animal action so they could replicate it for the camera. There's a scene in Chang where a baby elephant is tied up to Kru's family house and the mother elephant comes to save it. The scene is obviously intercut with Bimbo going crazy as the house is being shaken, but they knew what the mother elephant would do when she came to protect her child. They observed wildlife in a land of wonder and mysticism. The natives believed that the man-eating tigers that were captured and used in Chang were ridden by spirit beings and that to kill these tigers would incur the curse of these demons. Cooper told the tribal leaders, "Hey, let the demons ride me; that's okay. I'll take it. I'll capture and kill the tiger." They had a rule that—while "Shorty" ran the camera—Cooper kept a rifle at hand; but, they didn't kill animals unless it was absolutely necessary. They were committed to protecting the wildlife. They did manage, however, to capture several man-eating tigers that had essentially exercised a reign of terror in the Nan district of Siam and were commended by missionaries in that regard.

The making of Chang involved intense heat, cholera epidemics, and—whereas Cooper nearly died when his plane was shot down during WWI—Schoedsack frequently defied death during filming. In several scenes of Chang a tiger jumps up and fills the frame. Schoedsack was on a platform looking down. The platform was something like 13 feet high because the books had said that tigers didn't leap more than 11 feet; but, in this case, they found out the books were in error. What's so wonderful is that—despite such impending peril—Schoedsack calmly adjusted the focus on his camera even when the tiger was in his face.

Incidentally, the title Chang means "elephant" and, for the scene of the village stampede, the King of Siam and his brother the Prince secured a herd of elephants for Cooper and Schoedsack to use. They built a pit for Schoedsack to film up as the stampede of elephants ran over him. Logs were placed over the pit to ostensibly protect Schoedsack. Further, at this point Schoedsack had malaria and was suffering in the 100°+ heat to film the stampede. They thought the elephants would go around the logs; but, no, they stampeded over the logs. At one point an elephant leg went through the logs. Schoesdsack could have been crushed. Years later, Schoesdsack said he could still smell the elephant feet and the heat of the pit, which nearly became his grave.

An ironic accent to this drama is that—when Cooper went off to film Chang—he wasn't thinking much of it really; he was thinking more of flying an airplane to explore what was called the "Empty Quarter" in Arabia. That was his dream and he kept thinking about that. In letters he sent home, he nearly apologized for being distracted by filming Chang, which he saw as a made-up children's story. After a year and a half of filming in Siam, surviving malaria and ferocious wildlife, and once Chang was finished, Cooper had changed his mind. His letters home were more confident that he had captured something special, which indeed proved the case, as Chang led directly to King Kong. There are scenes in Kong that had—in effect—been rehearsed in Chang, including the elephant stampede, and Kong's rampage of the Skull Island village, right down to the dramatic moment when a mother rescues her threatened child from being crushed to death. What Chang basically meant to Cooper and Schoesdsack as filmmaking partners was that it showed them how to make a movie and how to develop their philosophy of slowly building the action, introducing characters, and then going full force ahead; a philosophy employed to great effect in Kong.

When they returned to New York, Chang was a major success. It debuted with a 60-piece orchestra and the elephant stampede sequence was filmed and projected in "Magnascope" where the curtains parted and this giant stampede enveloped the screen. At the time, Chang was a sensation, considered one of the most lucrative adventure films ever made, possibly even the most successful film ever made. The box office was incredible. But Cooper and Schoesdsack didn't rest on their laurels because a few months after Chang was released, they were off to Africa to work on their next movie The Four Feathers.

For Vaz, it's inexplicable that Chang was out of circulation for nearly 60 years and he had to commend a number of people who managed to keep Cooper and Schoesdsack and Chang alive, including film historians like Rudy Belmer, Kevin Brownlow, James D'Arc at Brigham Young University who collected the Merian C. Cooper papers, and of course Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, the team who started Milestone Films. In 1988, Dennis—with some barmitzvah money he'd saved up—bought the rights to Chang, which was his first major buy on the recommendation of Kevin Brownlow.

Vaz concluded by quoting a 1927 editorial in Asia Magazine, by which time Cooper and Schoesdsack had already secured archetypal iconicity as filmmaker-adventurers. Asia Magazine summed up the duo thus: "We've never heard Cooper and Schoesdsack mention art, beauty, the meaning of existence or utter any similar high-sounding praise. Life is too good for the living; beauty too enthralling in its realization, truth too natural a thing to the lives of both to be talked about. These men would spend their time expressing these things in mountains and jungles, far from drawing room discussion. So they move on with their dream. They steadfastly gaze on life as they live it, and they find it absorbing, dramatic and pictureable."

Here in the 21st Century, Vaz proposed, why should Chang matter to us? "I think it should. In one way this film is a record of a lost world; but, in another way, it really is timeless in the sense that it's about wonder, about adventure, about the spirit of adventure, and that's something that can stay with us always. It captures perfectly the motto of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: true art transcends time."

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