Death of an Ape

I don’t know if it will be one of those days that years later people will remember where they were when they heard the news, or if any flags will be flying at half-mast, but – hope you’re sitting down – Cheetah has died.

Unfortunately, Cheetah suffered from a chronic case of Monkey Mind

Yes, Cheetah, one of the chimps who played opposite Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) in the old MGM Tarzan series from the 1930s and 40s, passed away from kidney failure or liver failure (I’ve seen both cited). Personally, I am devastated. In fact, I’m surprised I can even pull it together to write this post.

Now, I should add this caveat, which is that it is claimed this chimp was one of Tarzan’s co-stars (a number of different chimps were used during the series) by Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida, who had cared for the monkey since receiving him back in 1960, apparently from Weismuller’s estate. I guess there is no way to prove this one is a bona fide Cheeta (the name in the movies) or not.

It’s estimated that this Cheetah was 80 years old. But Dr. Steve Ross, assistant director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, has his doubts. “To live into your 70s is really pushing the limits of chimp biology. Eighty is tough to swallow,” he says.

Well, there will always be doubters. And conspiracy theorists. Was this chimp the real Cheetah? Was there a switch? Did Cheetah die of natural causes as reported? Time will tell if we get answers to these pressing questions.

Well, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, in 2011 I was able to watch once again all the talking (as opposed to silent) Tarzan movies made up to 1969, save for two independent features. Needless to say, in spite of the fact that I’d probably seen each more times than I can count, I enjoyed every celluloid minute. In fact, I’m saving two movies starring Weismuller that I recorded via DVR for sometime when I feel the need to have a Tarzan fix. Maybe tonight, in memory of Cheetah . . .

Tarzan wasn't the only guy to go ape over Maureen O'Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, Tarzan was one cool dude, even if the premise was entirely unbelievable. You know, raised by apes, etc. In the books, as a teenager Tarzan taught himself how to read and speak English. Equally unbelievable. How was he able to do that? It was because he was a white man and thus possessed a superior intelligence. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan’s creator, subscribed to a sort of warped social Darwinism, where everyone was equal in terms of society but whites possessed superior capabilities. I don’t remember the books being overly racist, but this idea that whites are just a little more equal than everyone else wouldn’t fly today. Jack London had similar notions.

There was an interesting moral context to the MGM Tarzan films (1932-1941). Tarzan never directly caused the death of any person until the 7th Tarzan film (made at RKO). Before then, bad guys were dispatched by elephants, natives or by their own petard. In Tarzan Triumphs, the King of the Jungle single-handedly slays a whole bunch of bad guys. But they were Nazi’s and deserved it. Also according to this moral code, any character who kills an animal or another person white or black, or contributes or stands by and lets it happen, must die by the end of the picture.

Surprisingly, not everyone loved Cheetah. Mia Farrow, Maureen O’Sullivan’s daughter, tweeted: “Cheetah the chimp in Tarzan movies died this week at 80. My mom, who played Jane, invariably referred to Cheetah as ‘that bastard.’” Farrow also notes that “he bit her at every opportunity.” Yeah, but I bet those were love bites.

Cheeta vs The Nazis

from Tarzan Triumphs (RKO, 1942)