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April 07, 2004

The Future of the Past


I spent last weekend in what we Angelenos call ‘the Desert’ with my in-laws celebrating Passover. At breakfast one day I stumbled across a mind-blowing story in the local paper, the Desert Sun. Apparently Cheeta, the chimpanzee star of the Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan “Tarzan” movies is still alive and hanging out in retirement somewhere in the Palm Springs area. Of course, I wouldn't swear that there was only one Cheeta, but apparently this chimp is one of those who graced the silver screen with the King of the Jungle. (Although I couldn’t find that story on the Desert Sun’s website, you can read a 2003 story about Cheeta’s retirement here. You can also see Cheeta’s own website, here.)

CheetaDanWestfall2.jpg World's Oldest Living Chimp and His Sidekick, Dan Westfall

Certified by Guinness as the oldest chimp in the world, at 72 Cheeta has nearly doubled the typical chimpanzee life-span. Admittedly, he hasn’t yet reached the duration of his co-stars (Weissmuller died in 1984 at the age of 80 and O’Sullivan died in 1998 at the age of 89) but the notion of a chimp being the last surviving actor of the series seems weirdly appropriate and poignant somehow. (A web-search on O’Sullivan revealed, somewhat amusingly, that she hated Cheeta because he apparently bit her on several occasions. Well, I guess he had the last laugh, so to speak.)

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan: Primordial Jungle Ancestors, 1930s-Style

As will probably come as no surprise, I watch a lot of kid-oriented fare with my nearly three-year-old son. I guess the news of Cheeta’s survival into the present hit me because at my son’s age I was watching scratchy black & white Tarzan movies on the tube. In contrast to modern products aimed primarily at children, the very decrepitude of the images, the struggle you had to engage in to decode what was going on—as well as the strikingly ugly-handsome face of Weissmuller himself and the not-quite-contemporary allure of O’Sullivan—all seemed part of the primordial atmosphere of those films. The Tarzan movies that flickered across my television seemed terribly foreign and moss encrusted, sort of a message from another continent, which was exactly appropriate for the subject matter. (Whenever I see a jungle setting obviously recreated on a sound stage it puts me into a dream-like state to this day. Check out "The Little Princess" sometime.) One reason I liked Tarzan movies was that my dad told me he had seen them as a child in theaters, so I guess I was trying to penetrate the mystery of what his life had been like as a kid, if even only in a small way.

I wonder if my son or children of his generation will have any veneration for old things just because they are old? Maybe there is a downside to what promises to be the ever-clear immortality of digital imagery.



P.S. I came across a great Johnny Weissmuller anecdote from a website you can check out here:

Many stories have been recounted of incidents befalling the Olympic athlete, some of them apocryphal, others true. And it becomes a tour de force to distinguish fact from fiction. One of my favourites tells of a celebrity golf tournament held in Havana, Cuba in 1959, during which the car in which he was driving was ambushed by Cuban rebels. According to the story, Weissmuller let out his Tarzan yell, and the rebel soldiers, after a stunned silence, recognized the movie hero, and gave him and his party safe conduct to the golf course.

Heck, if you had been a Cuban rebel in 1959, wouldn't you have let Johnny Weissmuller go--in return for a genuine Tarzan yell?

posted by Friedrich at April 7, 2004


The 2nd Weissmuller/O'Sullivan Tarzan movie is totally timeless, in its sex, in its violence.

And still popular,go to IMDB snd check comments. Yes, we are fallen into niches, but there are niches for Clara Bow and Louise Brooks fans, and tho small in relative numbers, in absolute numbers probably comparable to the original audiences.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 7, 2004 2:41 PM


Yo, Tarzan. I married into the family of the artist who created both the art and story lines for all Tarzan comics – daily, Sunday, comic books and special editions. It was an incredibly creative group and a fabulous life.

Heh. I know a lot of obscure, mostly-useless Tarzan lore. I’m not certain, but I believe the fabled Tarzan yell was cobbled together from three or four separate sounds and Mr. Weissmuller did not actually emit that fabled yell “as is.”

Tarzan has been good to me … Thanks for the great posting.

Posted by: Maureen on April 7, 2004 4:47 PM

Cheetah alive?!!! Imagine that. Thanks. Who'd have imagined? And imagine a world without Tarzan. Sexy stuff, for one thing, at least the early films. Did you ever read the original "Tarzan" novel? It's good!

I share the concern about "oldness" -- that patina can be eloquent. Have you ever looked at the filters available on digital-editing packages, though? You can click on one and it'll "age" your footage for you, introducing all kinds of flickers and scratches. Which is probably scarier than everything remaining eternally new, come to think of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 7, 2004 5:50 PM

Mr. Macmanus:

Yeah, I'm still kind of a Tarzan fan myself, although I recall as I got older realizing that they seemed to reuse various shots and whole sequences from one movie to another. Although my admiration does seem limited to the Weissmuller originals--all other Tarzans seems like, well, 'actors' while Johnny was The Man himself.


I'd love to hear more about your insider gossip on the Tarzan factory. I seem to remember at one point Frank Frazetta was really excited about doing a Tarzan comic strip, but couldn't come to terms with the estate. Heck, I wonder who the estate is, exactly? Of course, I say this as someone whose second child was born at Tarzana Medical Center--one of the few hospitals in my knowledge that is named after a fictional character!


I don't know, using computers to age film? Kind of a cubic zirconium thing, isn't it?

Also, I wasn't talking about things looking old, but rather being interested in things that revealed something about the past, and the passage of time, and all those echoes of mortality things. I don't think computers will help much there...except, I suppose, when Google turns up all those links that no longer work, which gives a little frisson of that same vibration.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 8, 2004 12:55 PM

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