Babylon with Bananas

Michael Newton

  • Me Cheeta: The Autobiography by Cheeta
    Fourth Estate, 320 pp, £16.99, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 00 727863 3

To make things clear, yes, Me Cheeta: The Autobiography is a celebrity memoir, to shelve alongside such classics as Mickey Rooney’s Life Is Too Short and Katharine Hepburn’s modestly entitled Me. The putative author is indeed Cheeta, the superannuated chimpanzee star of just short of a dozen Tarzan movies and the sidekick of American beefcake Johnny Weissmuller. Cheeta opens the story of his life by saying it will be a celebratory list, an expanded acknowledgments page. As it happens, the book works out rather differently.

Parody is a loving form of attack. Me Cheeta is a shaggy-dog story, one that self-consciously sabotages its chosen genre. It hates Hollywood, it hates its stars, and yet, like Cheeta and his keepers, at the end of the day it settles down to the silver nitrate glow of a classic American movie. Only a film buff would have been able to collect so many scraps of trivia and disappointment from the movie world they loved; only the most pious fan could have devoured so many saccharine showbiz chronicles.

If the book despises the dream factory, it honours the dreaming itself. Among its many virtues, not the least is that it sends you back to the best of the Tarzan movies. They are indeed magical films, and Cheeta (and his ghost-writer) are persuasive in illuminating their charm. Nonetheless, when you go back to them, you find yourself surprised by things that Me Cheeta skims over or distorts. Were these really the films we used to watch on Saturday morning television? The pre-Hays Code pictures seem much more erotic and vicious than I had remembered. The jungle is part idyll, part nightmare. Naturally envious perhaps, Cheeta downplays his rival Maureen O’Sullivan’s Art Deco sexiness. In those early films, she wears a costume so skimpy it keeps the viewer in a state of mild agitated expectation. As one roué visiting the jungle remarks, you keep believing you’ll see something more, but you never do. Though actually, you do. The scene in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) where O’Sullivan’s body-double (Jo McKim, we’re told) swims nude with Tarzan gives us a moment of pure beauty. They both seem so light, so effortless, so unforced. The later, censored films are set in a buttoned-up jungle; Jane’s hemlines drop, and she grows ever more brisk.

Violence is pervasive. Native helpers are dispatched in negligent abundance: consumed by cannibals, trampled by elephants, shot by disgruntled colonists. Even the whites aren’t safe. Tarzan’s jungle home is no place for pastoral softies. Each skinny-dipping spree ends in a struggle with a king-sized crocodile; rhinos disrupt picnics; love-trysts are interrupted by lions. How was this ever considered perfect entertainment for children?

Since this fake celebrity memoir makes fun of the form’s tendency to caress the subject’s ego, it’s apt that the writer of the text should have – for a while – so modestly concealed his own identity. Last October, however, the ghost-writer disappointingly had his cover blown, though I am hoping that this was merely another move in the literary hoax. Unequipped with revelations from the Times, the blissfully ignorant reader inevitably speculates: who could the ghost-writer be? A washed-up child actor? A chain-smoking media studies lecturer? An animal-rights activist with doubts?

Actually, the idea that the book might be ghost-written is one gag absent from its pages. Much of the enjoyment derives from suspending disbelief, and imagining that this chimpanzee, the last of the silent film comedians, has attained a voice. Or rather always had a voice, but kept shtum. The incongruity entails a continual second glance; what everyone in the book assumes to be a dumb beast, we know is an acerbic observer of the human beings he encounters. Seen but not heard in life, in print he takes his revenge.

Some of the best jokes are to be found in the words accompanying the photographs and, above all, in the index, which, for instance, suggests discreetly that both John McCain and Barack Obama indulged in adulterous liaisons with Lupe Vélez, the most fiery of Johnny Weissmuller’s five wives. The conceit is that the index was compiled before the lawyers looked at the manuscript, and remains unrevised after their ravages. So although Chapter 8 has been excised on legal grounds, the curious reader may infer its contents from the index entries on Esther Williams, the ‘million-dollar mermaid’. These include: ‘Williams, Esther, egomania of’, ‘nauseatingly self-justifying autobiography of’ and ‘vow of revenge taken by Cheeta’.

However, those expecting a contemporary version of Patrick Dennis and Cris Alexander’s fabulous spoof, Little Me (1961), the life of Belle Poitrine, will be disappointed. Poitrine’s memoir is pure absurdity, but gives a more accurate insight into the tone of the period. It helped perhaps that she was a fictional starlet. The factual basis of the chimp’s book has its benefits, however: Me Cheeta constantly raises doubts as to whether or not what we’re being told might be genuine; the reader is intrigued, and baffled. Often, it turns out to be true (or, at the least, that someone else started that rumour). The comedy is the outcome of research, an unsettling medley of biography and burlesque.

There are some very funny jokes, but the keynotes are melancholy and rage. Disgust tarnishes the glamour. Cheeta’s wisdom has two main sources: books on animal behaviour and sleazy anecdotes of the Hollywood Golden Age. That these two wells of inspiration should be so strikingly similar is the premise of the book. ‘Life ain’t perfect, as the one and only Wallace Beery supposedly told Gloria Swanson after raping her on their wedding night.’ In such asides we are told more than we ever wanted to know. Did Marlene Dietrich really wet herself whenever she laughed? What does it have to do with the splendour of Shanghai Express?

The book employs a tested literary device. Cheeta is Voltaire’s ingénu, the Huron outsider gazing on the strangeness of modern life with unimplicated eyes. Yet Cheeta is a compromised outsider, an animal irreducibly different from us, and also a Hollywood player, privy to secrets, witness to scandal. Me Cheeta is Hollywood Babylon with bananas. Is the misanthropy purely an impersonation, the kind of thing that an exploited and world-famous chimpanzee might feel, or evidence of the ghost-writer’s temperament? Either way, this is a puritanical book, dominated by righteous outrage. The quips work, but they leave a sour taste. There is a puzzling repugnance to sex, only one of the ways in which the book is reminiscent of Swift.

Cheeta reimagines the Tarzan films as buddy movies, memorials to an inter-species friendship. Between genders himself (he’s a boy but plays a girl), this chimp is an American dreamer, yearning for the timeless world of the jungle. Greedy whites may impinge on the sanctuary, but it remains, unchanging and glorious. The repeated use of stock footage in the early Tarzan films should not seem a money-saving flaw; rather, it’s the secret to the whole affair. It’s always the same battle, always the same play. The guys just like to hang out. The chief threat to this bliss turns out to be Jane. Why do girls have to come and spoil the fun? Women bring the domestic, the ordered, the civilised; and all Cheeta wants is comedy, idle intimacy, to play for ever with Tarzan.

In dwelling on the sexual debaucheries of half-remembered leading men and starlets, the book summons up some savage indignation. But, strangely, it mostly avoids the one subject more likely nowadays to arouse the ire of a viewer of the Tarzan movies: race. Cheeta is in his own way an African migrant, and the book makes some play with this idea. (At one point he compares himself to Hattie McDaniel.) But ultimately the racial politics of the movies, and of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books they are based on, recede into a few jokes about the Gaboni, the African tribe that live on the outskirts of Tarzan’s protected escarpment. As a child I naively believed that the films really were shot in Africa. Even now it amazes me that Hollywood had access to quite so many lions and elephants. Now I know that the whole series was made in California, it’s the extras that worry me. All those tribesmen – were they really from West Compton and Watts?

The book is more concerned with the enslavement and destruction of animals. The gloomiest aspect of the prevailing melancholy is Cheeta’s preoccupation with ‘Death’. It seems the author wanted this to be the true subject of the book, and it makes constant capital-lettered appearances, from the episode in which a Black Mamba is loose on the boat that brings Cheeta to America to dancer Tosca Roulien getting knocked down by John Huston’s car. According to Cheeta, and he should know, the contradictions in human feelings about Death appear most vividly in our paradoxical relationship to our fellow creatures. This relationship, Cheeta asserts, is based on a combination of extermination and conservation, tyranny and fondness. We eradicate a species in the wild, but preserve a few specimens in a zoo, a sealed-off sanctuary from the realities of death.

Cheeta, the longest-living chimpanzee on record, pursues a one-ape campaign against mortality. Death only comes, he argues, if you stop paying attention for a moment; it’s a giving-in. Safe in his model home, with Don the guardian to pet him, Cheeta lives out his long American retirement. It’s a twilight zone of Turner Classic Movies and hospital visits. While there’s only one end to a biography, a memoir finishes with its author alive and able to have the last word. The others have gone; but Cheeta is still here.

The chimp talks intriguingly about the process of cinema. Actors are paid to make believe; animals cannot do that. The Tarzan myth celebrates unselfconsciousness; growing up free in the jungle, away from civilisation’s discontents, Tarzan combines the superiority of the human with the vigour and grace of the beast. In those films of the early 1930s, Weissmuller was adept at conveying this unity; in watching him you sense the casual beauty of someone incapable of posing. It was fame as an Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer that brought Weissmuller to Hollywood. He wasn’t an actor; he was a physical presence. ‘He wasn’t bland. Rather, he had attained a hard-won shallowness where other humans never got beyond “depth”.’ Other Tarzans were never so good, least of all his successor, the louche ex-Princetonian and child-abuser, Lex Barker. Weissmuller was inimitable. He was relaxed enough even to use his own unfeigned woodenness as an expression of the role. Film favours such poise; the camera reveals not only what is staged, but also what cannot be hidden. Cheeta disdains the CGI-animated brutes that sometimes replace real animals in film: film should present the thereness of the animal, of the star, transposing a life onto the screen. The book plays freely with the ideas of imitation and spontaneity.

Me Cheeta laments the lost animal stars: Trigger, Rin Tin Tin, Asta, Pal and Champion the Wonder Horse, as well as anonymous beasts, like the 200 horses killed in the making of The Charge of the Light Brigade. If Weissmuller adopted Tarzan’s inarticulacy in real life in order to finesse away moments of awkwardness, then Cheeta more radically collapses the split between actor and role. Though he may be some ape called Jiggs, he is really undividedly Cheeta. He plays himself, and the ghost-writer plays him.

The movie star, the book’s epigraph tells us, is ‘not quite a human being’. Not less than human, not more – merely something different. With one exception, the stars as Cheeta sees them are decidedly less than human, more than a little bestial. They dress up as chimps, have sex like bonobos. Their smiles are automatic responses, ‘fear-grimaces’; their elaborate courtship rituals display the behaviour of alpha males. They are animals.

There are only two human beings in the book: Johnny Weissmuller and Cheeta. All the others are monsters of egotism, lecherous grotesques caught in the vivid glare of an anecdote, or cut down to size by a sharp gibe. The friends, the wives, the co-stars aren’t real to anyone. Everyone is shabby, reprehensible. All but one.

Me Cheeta is a record of a child star, a paean to the USA, an appropriation by an outsider of the American language, and, above all, a tale of unrequited love. The book is an ode to Johnny Weissmuller, a letter from an unknown chimpanzee. Johnny moves in another element, like a swimmer into cleanness leaping. He learned his characteristic head-held-high breaststroke as a boy swimming outside in Chicago, keeping his chin up to avoid the shit floating in the river. Film encyclopedias may label him a swinger, talking of the failed marriages, the Vegas years, but none of that matters; he rises above it all, wondered at by his hairy co-star, his buddy, the best friend he ever had. In this sense, the book is what it tells us it will be: an acknowledgment. In an act of pure generosity, Cheeta shifts the centre of his life to another: an American, an Olympic swimmer, a Hollywood star, a wild man so beautiful that he redeems our otherwise grubby species.