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An ERBapa Reprint
by Ted McKosky
With Supplementary Material from ERBzine
Bear with me as I plan to do some wondering in this installment. You may not find a direct connection to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it all comes from that part of my mind, so to me the relationship is tangible. I’m going to recommend two books and a documentary to you in the course of this meandering.
The first book was pointed out to me by Bill Hillman somewhere in his wonderful web offerings (ERB Eclectica: ERBzine 3998). It is the curious story of African explorer Paul Du Chaillu “Between Man and Beast, An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm” by Monte Reel. It is the life story of the man who really began our understanding of gorillas by bringing back taxidermy examples and observations of their natural behavior. (Frankly I was a bit surprised that for the most part gorillas were unknown prior to the mid 1800s). His works, per Bill Hillman’s listing, were located on Burroughs’ book shelves and there is some thought that they influenced the creation of Tarzan. Some of us even believe the creation of Paul D’Arnot, at least his name, may have been mixed in as well.
Reel makes the point that Du Chaillu played a roll in Arthur Conan Doyle's “The Lost World” and I have to agree with him. Du Chaillu is an explorer who makes fantastic claims which are criticized and even mocked by the establishment. So, Du Chaillu mounted a second expedition to prove to the world that he was telling the truth. To be sure Professor Challenger is a composite of people Doyle knew, but he did know Du Chaillu, and the overall story seems a lot like his.
African Explorer Paul Du Chaillu
While reading the book, something kept ringing a bell and when I got to the illustrations for Du Chaillu’s book, “Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial . . .” that bell went off. Years ago when looking into the mysteries of “King Kong” I remembered a story about Merian C. Cooper receiving a book from an Uncle that among other things inspired him to make “King Kong”. I dug out my old copy of “Living Dangerously The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper” by Mark Vaz, and sure enough this was the book!
When Cooper’s friend W. Douglas Burden brought back some Komodo dragons to exhibit, Cooper’s idea was to film them and real gorillas having at it. Unfortunately for the dragons, and fortunately for us, the dragons couldn’t handle our weather and died. Cooper met Willis O’Brien and the rest as they say is history.
The life that unfolds in Vaz’s book about Cooper is the stuff of legend. Someone should make this into a movie, but on second thought no one would believe it. Not only is Cooper a real life Carl Denham, but a lot of other things to boot. He was both a pioneer aviator in war and peace and a motion picture innovator.
I think my favorite story about him as a combat flyer is the first time he was shot down. Not only is it a good story but I think it tells a lot about Cooper’s character. His plane was in flames and he thought his observer Edmund Leonard was shot dead. As he was climbing out of his cockpit to escape the terrible inferno, he looked over at Leonard and saw some movement. Realizing he was not dead, Cooper climbed back into the plane and guided it to a safe landing using his elbows and knees because his hands were so badly burned.
After the war and several more adventures, he got into the picture business with Earnest Schoedsack. They did two documentaries: “Grass” about the Bakhtiari tribe of Persia, now Iran, on a wild migration and “Chang” about a family in Thailand dealing with tigers and elephant stampedes worthy of any Tarzan movie.
Of course his most famous film is “King Kong”, beloved by many but often overlooked as the technological accomplishment that it was. A great deal of the special effects in Kong were cutting edge, never having been done before and created to make this movie magic. It represents all kinds of advancements in sound, rear screen projection, matte painting integration and stop motion animation. Merian C. Cooper did not stop with Kong, being a force behind Cinerama and color motion pictures.
Cooper was approached twice in his career about doing something with Tarzan. I can only wonder what his take and abilities would have made of a movie about John Clayton.
One thing that Cooper insisted on in the making of King Kong was that it not be a man in a gorilla suit, which brings us to my third recommendation. If I can quote from the publicity for “Beast Wishes, the Fantastic World of Bob and Kathy Burns”, “The story of a man, a gorilla . . . and the woman who loves them both.” This new documentary by Frank Dietz and Trish Geiger is not only a tribute to their lives but a touching love story. They say behind every great man is a greater woman, let me add from personal experience, a tolerant one too. Bob Burns has had a remarkable life meeting many of the greats in the fantasy film industry.
One of the things that makes him near and dear to my heart is his career as a gorilla. He and his wife made his first suit and later on make-up great Rick Baker made his mask. While he never played in a Tarzan movie, he knew “Crash” Corrigan and Charles Gemora, men who have suited up to add a simian dimension to these jungle tales. Although he has hung up his suit, he is a living connection to these gorilla pioneers.
I think my favorite story comes from Bob and Kathy’s first date. He took her to see “The Charge at Feather River” (it is from this film the Whilhelm Scream gets its name) an early 50's 3D western. If you remember 3D from this period, they felt like they had to send a lot of stuff flying your way to make you happy. At one point, an arrow comes flying off the screen, Bob pulls one from hiding, pokes it in the general direction of his chest and makes some suitable noises. This of course results in screaming from the women in the row behind him and the police showing up. Of course at that point he had tucked the arrow back up his sleeve and pleaded ignorance. All in all it seems to me to be a good test for a future wife.
Frank Merrill and Charles Gemora
So these two books and documentary are my recommendations for a rainy day or good beach read. The books should satisfy any armchair explorer, while the documentary is for all of you fantasy film fans with tolerant partners.
MORE ERBzine REFERENCES
Between Man and Beast by Monte ReelA book about the Victorian era explorer Paul Du Chaillu.When Paul Du Chaillu set out to bag the gorilla in the name of science (and as a shortcut to academic credibility), it was still the quasi-mythical njena of the Western imagination: a savage, bloodthirsty beast deep in the forests of equatorial Africa, seen only by the tribes that dwelled within. He got his animal--he got many, by way of his rifle--but when he eventually made his way to England, he and his stuffed specimens became unlikely pawns at the center of the burgeoning debate over evolution in the wake of Darwin’s insurgent hypothesis. While jealous explorers questioned his bona fides and jaded scientists glibly dismissed his methods and observations, Du Chaillu's status as a death-defying killer of monsters granted him celebrity status, lifting the often bewildered hero to rarified levels of London society. With the unlikeliest of heroes at its center, Between Man and Beast is a fast-paced and fun blend of adventure and history. --Jon Foro
"Reel provides a robust intellectual history by embedding Du Chaillu’s story within the debate over evolution, the relationship among the human races, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, and the nasty backbiting that was common in the scientific arena of the time. He expertly probes the history of the enigmatic Du Chaillu, someone who purposefully shrouded his past from scrutiny....In Reel’s hands, Du Chaillu’s adventures in Africa, including his discovery of Pygmies and his part in a smallpox epidemic, were no less harrowing than his interactions with many of the world’s leading scientists and explorers."
EARLY AFRICA INFLUENCE ON EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS?
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