Me Cheeta: The Autobiography

cheeta 2.jpg
Published 2008
Author James Lever / Cheeta
Starring Cheeta, Everyone in 1930's Hollywood
Publisher Fourth Estate
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 6th August 2018

We’ve never quite got around to reviewing books here at BS Towers. To be honest, the amount of time it takes to watch movies and review them, books are a distant aspiration. That and our usual ‘we haven’t read the book, but….’ refrain from our many movie reviews. However, Sight and Sound published a wonderful guide to books about movies in August and we had a nose and, well, we found Me Cheeta: The Autobiography. So here we present our first book review, a bit tardy (it was published in 2008) but hell, this is a book that will not age.

The high level conceit for the book will have you in two minds. I’m pretty sure that whichever of those minds you’re in, the book will send you spinning off in a whole other direction. When I read the synopsis, I was overjoyed at the idea of a throwaway romp through the golden years of the Hollywood studio system. If you think of that idea and cringe at it, you’re equally as wrong as I was.

Me Cheeta does kind of start like that. The eponymous simian hero of the title begins his memoir lounging by a pool, wondering aloud how he had survived as long as he had and mulling over the wide (or at any rate, long) list of autobiography titles already taken. Though this is pretty knockabout, the winding way in which Cheeta arrives at the title gives you some idea of the tone the book will take. It is not merely an ignorant animal referring to ‘Me’, Cheeta has far more in his locker than that.

What follows was a genuine surprise, Cheeta (I somehow feel it is appropriate to refer to the chimp as the author, rather than James Lever - a potentially pseudonymous name anyway) swiftly winds back to an incredibly detailed and heartfelt first person view of his early years back on the escarpment. The jungle is a ruthless place for a young chimp and in-between the good times with his mother and sister, Cheeta senses constant danger. When a rival alpha starts a fight and the troop are split, it is only good fortune (from his point of view) that rescues him in the form of collectors from America. A long and fitfully entertaining voyage where the then nameless chimp earns his monkier from helping the crew cheat at cards, lands him in New York and after a brief stay and a near miss with a research lab, MGM finally comes calling. From there Cheeta meets the love of his life in the form of a young American swimmer, playing a man on his own escarpment.

And so the author joins up any number of actual chimps used across the Tarzan movies from Tarzan and His Mate (1934), through the RKO Tarzan movies of the 1940’s until a final last hurrah in Twentieth Century Fox’s disastrous (certainly as far as Cheeta is concerned) Doctor Dolittle in 1967. All through this period, Cheeta is joined by a dizzying array of talent, all casually dropped into conversation with some occasionally horrific asides. Suicide, rape, massive amounts of infidelity, catastrophic bankruptcy, fraud, bountiful drug taking - all dropped in as if they were the most normal things in the world. Cheeta is equally unstinting in his praise and condemnation of the talent involved, often in the same sentence. A particular distaste for Micky Rooney emerges early on with casually hilarious results.

It’s this brilliant mix of slapstick chimp nonsense (an entire section devoted to Cheeta pretending to drive Douglas Fairbanks's Rolls-Royce with Johnny Weissmulle, David Niven and some midgets is laugh out loud hilarious) and a measured outsider view of the great lies of Hollywood that raise this book above a casual read. The entire of chapter eight is redacted ‘on advice of lawyers’, though there are clues to what was contained within in subsequent chapters and the incredibly long index. Indeed, the index is well worth a read once you’ve finished the book, if only for its joyously repeated note on what is discussed in relation to Lupe Vélez on Page 154). The book is as scurrilous as all hell but not in a knowing way, Cheeta’s viewpoint is one of a kind of innocence. Unable to be the humans that he follows, he is left wryly and matter of factly observing their weird and wonderful behaviour, a mirror held to Hollywood’s wild face.

At its heart though, the book is a long and passionate love letter from Cheeta to Johnny Weissmuller, the true innocent abroad in the tale. Cheeta may be a different species from a different country, but it’s Johnny who is all at sea with sharks circling. Fortunately he has Cheeta to constantly save him, both on the escarpment and in his regular visits outside the ‘dreaming’ of movies. The chimp’s devotion to his human charge is so warmly felt throughout the book it sets up a genuinely crushing final meeting when the star has waned and the crooked agents and illnesses have taken their toll.

Cheeta’s faith in his humans never waivers, at least not until the very end where he seems to achieve some clarity on the matter. But for the most part, he believes entirely in the serial marriages, the ‘rehabilitation’ (his view of the time wild animals spend in captivity), attempts made by humans to make the wild safer for the animals (by slaughtering the larger animals en-masse), even the stuffed heads on the walls of mansions are judged as prized pets rescued forever. It would be entirely heartbreaking if it weren’t for Cheeta’s constant swearing, masturbation and rueful musings on his own situation.

Comfortably outliving all his contemporaries, both human and ape, it’s only in the final chapters that Cheeta’s world view starts to tilt. The final meeting with Johnny is utterly heartbreaking and beautifully illustrates the star’s relationship with the machine he once occupied so fully - “Bes’ damn frien’….I ever ha” Johnny manages as he and Cheeta sit in his semi-derelict pool. And if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you need to get your pulse checked.

In Short:

Me Cheeta is a book that could easily have been a novelty. It transcends that impressively. At once a lasting love letter, a scathing dissection of the great Hollywood lies and a touching ‘memoir’, the book plays on multiple levels as it zigzags in amongst some of the biggest names ever to hit the screens. A savage pant-hoot at the dying of the light from a creature ripped out of its natural surroundings into circumstances it could never control or truly understand. A statement that is equally true of both the chimp in question and many of the human stars of the book. 

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