You may have read about the recent death of Cheeta, the chimpanzee who starred in the Tarzan films alongside Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. Or starred in some of but not all of the Tarzan films. Or may have starred in some of the Tarzan films. You get the picture. Coincidentally, I recently read Me Cheeta, the simian thespian’s autobiography. Think I need more than this thin coincidence for a blog post? Think again.
Me Cheeta is a neat idea (chimp spills the beans on Hollywood’s Golden Age), studded with superb caricatures and tastefully bitter lines. What makes it more interesting then the name-dropping opponent-skewering memoirs from which it takes its cue is its sophisticated use of irony. Irony isn’t only a comic device, although that remains its most familiar employment. A useful way of thinking about irony is the manipulation or the effect of differences in points of view, and in particular differences in what is understood from each point of view. We know what Oedipus has done before he does, and this produces a very different effect than if it were to be revealed simultaneously to audience and character alike.
At least three different kinds of irony are at play in Me Cheeta. The most straightforward is the showbiz bitchiness, typically cast in jovial descriptions of cruelty and failure (my favourite example being, apropos Harold Lloyd, that “you can’t keep judging someone for destroying their wife”). The irony here comes from a knowing juxtaposition of tone and material. The different points of view are not that of reader and character, or character and narrator, but of the narrative and a kind of false point of view suggested by the upbeat tone (ironic understatement is another example of this device).
But the narrator is a chimp, and chimps can’t be expected to know everything. In between savage jabs at (mostly deceased) film stars, Cheeta enthuses about human endeavours to help other species, which of course are anything but. Here the irony is unknowing, and the other point of view is our own. This is a nice way to make a moral point without slipping into a moralising tone, and it’s used sparingly enough to be effective.
The third species (no pun intended) of irony is a little harder to pin down. It comes, I think, from the fact that it’s a chimp narrating the familiar story of the studio system as a gilded cage, and finding himself so at home there. This fact itself casts its own light on the lives of the rich and famous: the closer Cheeta can ape them, the further into the animal kingdom they are drawn. For this irony to work, the narrator need not be aware of it, but in this case he is. Witness his striking (and, for all I know, accurate) description of fame: “picture a human and a chimpanzee facing each other in awkward silence, with nothing to be said, the faint inanity of the interaction stealing over both of them. That's what fame is.” Now that’s what I call a great ape.