The aged chimpanzee that died in Florida this week might or might not have been Cheetah, the simian sidekick from “Tarzan, the Ape Man.’’ But even if the truth couldn’t match the lore — could a chimp really live until 80? — it’s probably fitting. For while the Tarzan films are no one’s idea of deep, cerebral cinema, they perfectly exemplify a certain type of Hollywood filmmaking.
Shot in the bleak 1930s, the films took an Edgar Rice Burroughs character who struggled to learn the ways of civilization and rendered him as a buff, bare-chested noble savage, in the form of Johnny Weissmuller. The film polished up the public image of chimpanzees just as readily. Never mind that humans’ nearest relative can be disagreeable, even violent; the Cheetah of film was cute and helpful - like a cheery servant, only hairier.
News accounts of the putative Cheetah’s recent death captured a similar spirit. An official of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Florida, where the chimp died, described him as liking religious music and football. Maybe so, but claims about Cheetah should be taken carefully. There have been a lot of claims, involving a number of chimps.
Even if this Cheetah had more of a cameo role in the Tarzan world, or none at all, it’s easy to see why his keepers — and Tarzan fans — would cling to the myth. When an aged chimp lives out his retirement in the sun and develops hobbies, and even a spiritual side, that’s a perfect Hollywood ending.