Famous Monkeys of Filmland
Whenever screenwriters run low on ideas, they often look to the animal kingdom for inspiration. Since there’s only so many shaggy dog stories, a clever (maybe) or desperate (more likely) writer will try to replace Benji with something else. This is how we get stuck movies about a boy and his whale, a girl and her seal, or a schmuck and his cockroaches. While the list goes on and on, monkeys have managed to escape the hackneyed role of fill-in Fido. Technically, however, most performing primates (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees) belong to the ape family. For the sake of thematic unity, let’s call them monkeys anyway. I’ll speak no evil if you won’t.
Concentration here will be on real monkeys rather than created ones. I’d love to give you the scratch on Magilla Gorilla, Dr. Zaius, and Mighty Joe Young, but complete coverage of simian-related cinema would take up a year’s worth of Ink Nineteen. Still, I couldn’t possibly write this without mentioning the Eighth Wonder of the World, the only chest-beater who ever kicked Godzilla’s ass and got away with it. Jessica Lange once called him a “male chauvinist ape,” but the natives of Skull Island knew him only as Kong. His performance in 1933 captivated audiences and kindled our strange primate passion. One should remember that during those simpler days, many people thought King Kong was real. They couldn’t tell the difference between a mechanical monkey and something real like, say, an alien autopsy. Nowadays, we’re so much more sophisticated.
When thinking about famous monkeys, Cheetah is usually the first to come to mind. I’ve no idea why. He co-starred in over 40 Tarzan movies, but I can’t remember a single thing he ever did. Of course, having more than two dozen different monkeys play him didn’t help any. (James Bond and Batman producers should take note.) If it weren’t for the strength of Tarzan’s myth, Cheetah would be less popular today than Tony the horse. (Who’s Tony? He belonged to Tom Mix. Who’s Tom Mix? Exactly.)
My vote for earliest famous monkey would go to the chimp in Divot Diggers, a classic Little Rascals short. I’m not talking about the cute little spider monkey who was always clapping and smiling as he caused mass destruction. He wasn’t in this one. Known simply as “the Monk,” this fully-dressed character played a caddie who liked to break golf clubs with his feet. He also had a wonderful dubbed-in voice that went, “Heep-bop-bo! Jiggy-de-doo-doo!” If you’ve seen the film, you know how funny he is. In just one appearance, the Monk made more of a dramatic impact than Cheetah did in 40. Too bad he was getting old and had to retire. He could have been a contender.
Chimpanzees pretty much ruled Hollywood for the next 40 years. Considered to be “the cwaziest people,” they once got to star in a B-Western, riding Great Danes instead of horses. One little scamp even tried to affect a presidential election.
Bedtime For Bonzo came out in 1951, ushering in a golden age for chimpanzees. During that same year, we got to meet Bingo on The Abbot and Costello Show. Fairly adept at slapstick, Bingo might have had a long career if he hadn’t bit Costello’s finger during a rehearsal. He was instantly fired and never worked again. (Tyson and Sprewell could learn a lesson from that. Act like an animal, get treated like an animal.)
Also debuting in 1951 was NBC’s The Today Show. Its level of journalistic integrity was evident from the start, as chimpanzee J. Fred Muggs was a featured member of its anchor team. Muggs’s popularity rivaled that of host Dave Garroway, which certainly says something about image over content. Muggs could also be seen as a member of the Marquis Chimps, a novelty act who managed to parlay enough Ed Sullivan appearances into their own TV series, The Hathaways. The show was like a Darwinian Partridge Family concerning a married couple who tried to raise three chimps as a normal family while juggling a showbiz career. It only lasted one season, and while reruns are rare, fans of The Lucy Show should remember an episode where Lucille Ball had to baby-sit the roller-skating trio. Pretty much the same shtick.
As the ’60s wore on, some monkeys tried to expand their consciousness. Little Bessie on The Beverly Hillbillies went from housekeeper to nurse to playing tambourine for cousin Roy Clark’s psychedelic combo. Lost In Space introduced Debbie, an intergalactic “gloop” with Spock ears and a Beatles haircut. Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, turned back the clock with a nameless stereotype who did nothing but throw plastic explosives around. It nearly caused irreparable harm to the image of modern monkey, but ABC saved the day with Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. Ever-suave Link worked for A.P.E. (the Agency to Prevent Evil) in an effort to defeat Baron Von Butcher and C.H.U.M.P. (Criminal Headquarters for Underground Master Plan). Incredibly, the show lasted two years, but chimpanzees were on their way out. The last one to make any kind of mark was Buttons. He co-starred with Ted Bessell on Me and the Chimp, but never clicked with Bessell the way Marlo Thomas did. (Should’ve called the show That Gorilla.) Buttons’ failure opened the door for a new breed. Right turn, Clyde.
In 1978, for some bizarre reason, Clint Eastwood decided to make a Burt Reynolds hick movie. Jerry Reed must have been busy that week, so Clint hired a chubby orangutan to be his sidekick. As “Clyde,” C.J. provided enough rubber-faced laughs to make Every Which Way But Loose a hit. Any Which Way You Can soon followed, and the writer of that particular bit of nonsense went on to direct Going Ape! with THREE orangutans and a very embarrassed Tony Danza. C.J. also got to play the ubiquitous Cheetah in Bo Derek’s remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man. Alas, the banana train came to a halt in 1983 when overexposure and a little TV series called Mr. Smith (a cross between Lancelot Link and Mr. Ed) forced C.J. into virtual retirement. He was last of the truly famous monkeys of filmland.
Since then, we haven’t had any breakthrough stars, only a couple of good movies starring different capuchin monkeys. In Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Terror, Ella has a perverse fatal attraction to a paralyzed man in a wheelchair. (She’s better than Glenn Close ever was.) And then there’s Finster, who played Harvey Keitel’s pet thief Dodger in Monkey Trouble. Finster seems to be really acting at times, showing genuine emotion and finesse. Too bad the same can’t be said for the stars of such recent bombs as Buddy and Ed. Admittedly, C.J. and Fred Muggs together couldn’t have saved those two, but I’m hoping these setbacks won’t keep Hollywood from continuing to offer new and challenging roles to our swinging little ancestors. After all, if Pauly Shore can still find work, why not Finster? ◼