Cheeta: In Memoriam

A Florida animal sanctuary reports that Cheetah ( a/k/a Cheeta ), Johnny Weissmuller's chimpanzee sidekick in almost a dozen " Tarzan" films of the 1930s and 40s, died December 24 at age 80.  Rumors that the departed was not the authentic Cheeta merely season the legend.

For movie goers of a certain age or indeed anyone interested in knowing more about the rags to riches life of this remarkable primate and the Hollywood in which he lived the high ( and low ) life, I recommend " Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood,  " an irreverent, incisive, take-no-prisoners, laugh-out-loud pseudo-autobiography  of what one reviewer described as the " glamour, debauchery and jollity of Hollywood's golden age."

 " Me Cheeta " is a substance abusing, cigar-smoking, B-movie, second banana's side of the animal welfare story.

Cheeta is dismissive of animal rights activists like PETA who accuse pet owners, breeders, and zoos of cruelty to animals. Not without reason. Cheeta owed his life to the great animal importer Henry Trefflich who rescued him from the jungle of  Liberia in 1932. Later, his collaboration with Johnny Weismuller, his " young, untroubled, inarticulate "  co-star at MGM made him a star.

Cheeta's  " natural habitat" was...well...a jungle. Cheeta's odyssey begins with a gripping account of life in the jungle, where infanticide, cannibalism and the immediacy of sudden, violent death by friend and foe alike were constant companions. Cheeta's idyllic childhood was shattered the day his beloved mother, Mama, was brutally murdered by other chimps. He barely escaped the same fate. " Death had entered paradise. "

Cheeta is more of a realist than idealists like Jane Goodall (" the charming and still attractive ( though frequently wrongheaded English naturalist") and her " No Reel Apes" campaign to end the use of apes in movies. Were it not for animals in movies, Cheeta would have died in obscurity years ago. 

" What happened to us, dearest humans, was nothing special. It was just politics. Sooner or later, every creature that lives in a forest has to learn that there's only the hierarchy and alphadom, and the constant dance of death. Everything that lived, murdered. But everything was steeped in death: all creatures great and small." Cheeta evidences not the slightest desire to return to his " natural habitat."  

Cheeta takes particular delight in skewing the egomania, hypocrisy and folly of the pill-popping, drug-snorting, booze- swilling, preternaturally randy fellow inhabitants of the Hollywood jungle who believed themselves smarter than the average chimp.   

In a particularly delicious scene, he describes a party at Charlie Chaplin's estate in 1938 at which Chaplin humiliates the ape " just when Cheeta is getting some laughs from a group of attractive young women. Cheeta is employing 'a standard attention-grabber'--offering a cigarette, then snatching it back---when Chaplin interrupts. ' Girls! Is it not abominable to inflict the vices of mankind upon an animal?' he asks, proceeding to lecture them on the difference between the imitative comedy of chimpanzees and the genuine thing from humans. When the pretentious old bore is done, Cheeta dryly notes:  'I took a deep toke and gave him a brief round of ironic applause.'" Priceless.

"Me, Cheeta" is a celebration of " a lucky, lucky life" ...written in gratitude to and with love for your whole species and for everything you have done for animals and for me."  He doesn't gloss over the occasional tedium and cramped living conditions nor the " appalling and oafish ...behavior of certain people-such as Esther Williams, Errol Flynn, 'Red' Skelton, 'Duke' Wayne, Maureen O'Sullivan, Brenda Joyce."

Nonetheless, he writes " without bitterness, name-calling or score-settling. "

For those of a certain age and for those who merely want a rollicking laugh,  " Me, Cheeta" is a must read.   

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