As portrayed by Johnny Sheffield in 12 low-budget backlot/Bronson Canyon jungle adventures produced for Monogram Pictures from 1949 to 1955, Bomba the Jungle Boy is the most unlikely inhabitant of Africa since the okapi or aardvark.
A scrubbed, cleanshaven, essentially hairless (except for his head of tight curls), basically sexless and frequently clueless hunk of man-boy beefcake in a leopard-skin loincloth, Bomba looks more like a Pasadena lifeguard than a tragic orphan who managed to survive a childhood in the jungle, “beyond the big rift.” Perhaps that’s because Bomba’s Africa, for all its perils, seems closer to painter Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom” than to the pygmy-stalked, Nazi-threatened, croc-crowded Dark Continent of the best of the MGM and RKO Tarzan adventures that introduced Sheffield to Hollywood and vine — and to eager audiences — in the role of the Ape Man’s literally swinging protégé, Boy.
When RKO decided Boy had outgrown his name and dropped Sheffield from the final film in the Johnny Weissmuller series, “Tarzan and the Mermaids” (1948), savvy fledging producer Walter Mirisch recruited the on-the-edge-of-18 star for a profitable low-budget franchise inspired by the 20 “Bomba” novels published between 1926 and 1938. (The books were credited to “Roy Rockwood,” a pseduonym for ghostwriters created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which used a similar strategy for its Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and Hardy Boys novels). Sheffield’s movie career ended with Bomba, but Mirisch left B-movies behind and became one of Hollywood’s most successful and lauded A-list producers, with a roll call of credits that includes “Some Like It Hot,” “West Side Story,” “The Pink Panther” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The movies present Bomba as even more a tree-hugger and animal activist than his Edgar Rice Burroughs predecessor. He’s like a Greenpeace eco-warrior as Tiger Beat pinup, but although he appears physically mature (and, significantly, is never far from his spear) he’s boyishly innocent, probably because the movies, like the books, were aimed at youngsters — and young boys, in particular, were notoriously impatient with “mush.” As a result, the attractive young starlets thrown at Bomba in each film interest our hero less than his “jungle friends,” the animals. “Don’t you like me just a little?” asks stacked and flirty Zita (Sue England) in “The Hidden City” (1950). Responds Bomba: “No.”
Bomba appears happy in his Thoreauesque isolation. While most movies insist on the primacy of community, Bomba is unfamiliar with the concept. “What ‘family’?” he asks, in his signature broken English, after hearing the strange word for the first time in the inaugural film in the series, “Bomba the Jungle Boy” (1949). The white people in that movie want to return Bomba to so-called civilization and end his loneliness, but Bomba insists: “Not alone. With jungle friends. Always home.” Notes Allene Roberts, the spunky young female lead of “Bomba on Panther Island” (1949): “Well, independent seems to be the word for Bomba!”
This freedom probably appealed to the films’ young fans, who could fantasize about their own Bombaesque Edens, away from bothersome brothers and sisters and scolding parents. An ideal fantasy companion for kid moviegoers, Bomba is even more a “boy” than Tarzan’s Boy was by the end of that series. As a young kid says of Bomba in “The Lost Volcanco” (1950): “He doesn’t like grownups.” Bomba’s connection to children is reinforced in “Elephant Stampede” (1951), when exotic village girl Lola (Donna Martell) teaches him his ABC’s; even Lola’s tight sarong doesn’t distract Bomba from the excitement of learning to spell L-I-O-N.
Rarely screened on Memphis television (unlike the ubiquitous Tarzan movies) and never released on DVD, the first six Bomba movies now are available in “Bomba the Jungle Boy Volume 1,” a three-disc set issued by the estimable Warner Archive Collection, the manufactured-on-demand “classic movie” initiative of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. The six movies in the set, in chronological order, are “Bomba the Jungle Boy,” “Bomba on Panther Island,” “The Lost Volcano,” “The Hidden City,” “The Lion Hunters” and “Elephant Stampede.” No doubt a concluding second volume will arrive later this year.
Directed and frequently written by B-veteran Ford Beebe, the Bomba movies aren’t exactly progressive, but the pro-environment, anti-exploitation themes of the simple scripts are so overt and accessible that they almost contradict the pro-growth, pro-business spirit of the postwar period in which the films were produced. (“Africa resists intrusions,” a developer who wants to raze the forest for a “mechanized plantation” is told in “Bomba on Panther Island.”) In fact, Bomba’s very happiness is almost an affront to capitalism and so-called Western civilization. “‘Work’? What is ‘work’?” he asks, repeating another new word.”‘Pay’? What is ‘pay’?… ‘Buy’?” Bomba is incorruptible as well as unseduceable.
Meanwhile, the “natives” in the films are generally helpful and intelligent, while the white “bwanas” often are impatient and arrogant. When the developer in the “Panther Island” developer is warned that his plan to clear timber with fire is likely to “burn off half of Africa,” he snorts: “Small losse, if you ask me.” Of course, these racial generalizations are sometimes contradicted. The village chief (Martin Wilkins) in “Elephant Stampede” welcomes the intrusion of education; he tells an “old maid” missionary-type school teacher (Edith Evanson) that his tribespeople are “like children… They’ll never have a better way of life without the white man’s help.”
Bomba’s gentleness extends beyond his treatment of women. Unlike some other jungle heroes, he is a reluctant killer; unlike Tarzan, he doesn’t beat his chest or celebrate after emerging victorious from a brawl with a crocodile or a leopard. In “Elephant Stampede” (1951), Bomba tosses a killer python from a tree rather than fighting it; Beebe show the snake slithering away, unharmed.
You don’t kill your pals and neighbors, apparently, and Bomba identifies strongly with his “jungle friends.” He frequently is accompanied by a capuchin monkey (a species actually found only in the New World) or hawk; in fact, he communicates with birds via squawks and caws. This Doctor Dolittle-esque vocal talent may be less impressive than Weissmuller’s bloodcurdling ape yell but it is throroughly in keeping with the Bomba franchise’s lowkey, almost pacifistic vibe.
In the first film in the series, “Bomba the Jungle Boy,” Bomba introduces a girl photographer (Peggy Ann Garner) to his cozy cave in the jungle beyond the rift, a place of “no people. Only friends. Animal friends. Home.” Inexplicably, he owns a form-fitting female leopardskin dress, which the young woman dons for innocent swims with her primitive new friend. She calls Bomba’s home “a real paradise.” The movie briefly becomes a sort of tropical idyll, like “The Blue Lagoon” (1980), but without the sex. (And what curly-topped Christopher Atkins in that film but an eighties revamp of Sheffield?)
In “Elephant Stampede,” which requires the Jungle Boy to thwart some ivory poachers, Bomba testifies to the wonderfulness of the title pachyderms: “They’re so big and strong and yet so gentle. They’re my friends. Sometimes at night I sleep between their feet.” (In other words, Bomba’s jungle is so blessed it lacks even offensive odors.)
In “The Lion Hunters” (1951), Bomba invades a safari camp and frees several big cats that have been captured for sale to zoos. (This is the type of animal rights activity that could get Bomba banned in Tennessee by the 2013 state legislature.) He confronts pretty, well-meaning Jean (Ann Todd), the daughter of a lion-trapper, and ask her to consider the plight of the captured beasts. “You think lions like that? Jungle animals need freedom. I’d rather die than be put in a cage. Lions are my friend. They like freedom.” Later, he forces a conniving white hunter (Douglas Kennedy) into one of the bamboo pens. “Maybe animals like look at people in cage,” Bomba says; sure enough, his remark is followed by a montage of stock-footage animal closeups repurposed as reaction shots, as if the forest creatures have gathered to gawk and hoot at the unfortunate captive.
Onscreen, Bomba’s origin is sketchy, and few of the films have any real continuity. Generally, Bomba’s presence is a surprise to the safaris that intrude on his jungle, deep within “a land that was old when the rest of the world rose steaming from the slimy sea,” in the words of a Scottish game commissioner (Charles Irwin) in “Bomba the Jungle Boy.” The Scot returns in “Bomba on Panther Island,” to describe Bomba to the members of a safari as “one of those African legends you wouldn’t believe.” Others are less poetic. Says an African guide (series regular Smoki Whitfield) in “The Lion Hunters”: “Men say him jungle devil, say live with animals.” The bad guy in “The Lion Hunters” derides Bomba as a “jungle brat” and “breechclothed jungle kid.”
Occasionally, the films indirectly acknowledge Bomba’s predecessors, Tarzan and Mowgli. “Every corner of Africa has its story about a white woods devil raised by the apes or something,” scoffs sinister Douglas Kennedy in “The Lion Hunters.” In “The Lost Volcano,” a frustrated father (Donald Woods) dismisses the stories of Bomba told by his young son (Tommy Ivo), refusing to believe in the reality of a jungle boy “raised by apes or wolves or woodchucks or something.”
Making ample use of familiar stock footage (including that slow-motion shot of macaques leaping through the trees that seems to appear in every low-budget jungle movie of the era), the Bomba movies are low-wattage but pleasing adventures that are particularly interesting as artifacts of their era and as examples of B-movie ingenuity. (Most run about 70 minutes, making them, surprisingly, a bit longer than Monogram’s more complicated Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys films.) “The Lost Volcano” may be the most suspenseful series entry, as greedy treasure-plunderers force Bomba to lead them to a hidden ancient city just as the title geological anomaly begins to vent (literally) its wrath, spraying process-shot ash and smoke over the image; one volcano victim magically transforms into a cavemen at the moment of his death thanks to the use of a smothered-by-lava shot from “One Million B.C.” (1940).
“Bomba on Panther Island” also is interesting, thanks to the eyefilling va-va-voom presence of Lita Baron as wily Losana, who claims to be from France. Says the appreciative game commissioner, assessing Losana’s exotic and overtly sexual appeal: “French, no doubt — and Portuguese and Italian, with a dish of Arab, most likely. A rare combination.” The locals believe Losana, with her “evil eyes,” may be connected to the “taboo cat” — a killer panther — stalking the jungle; “I have been called kitten before, but never cat,” purrs Losana. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), this supernatural “Cat People” twist doesn’t pan out. Bomba, for his part, remains more interested in Oto the monkey than Losana the kitten. Maybe he’ll wise up in Volume 2.