Bomba of Hollywood
When Tarzan got too fat for films,
Bomba the Jungle Boy took over
By RON MILLER
In 1949, when I was just 10 years old, I had this terrible craving for the jungle. No, I wasn't thinking of stowing away on a freighter to Capetown or shipping myself C.O.D. to Ceylon. Basically, I just wanted to spend most of my time swinging on vines in a nice, well-manicured jungle where snakes, crocodiles and man-eating big cats were forbidden to roam.
In other words, I longed for the Hollywood jungle where the wild animals were leased for a week at a time, the tangled jungle growth was all in big pots with wheels under them and the natives all spoke English with a Harlem accent when they weren't saying "Umgawa!"
Sure, a kid could turn the overgrown lot next door into a "jungle" with enough imagination, but your memory bank needed to be fed frequently with fresh images from Hollywood jungle movies. That was the problem in 1949.You see, the local movie theaters just wouldn't cooperate. They weren't that interested in booking jungle movies anymore.
In retrospect, I can't blame them. In 1949, the jungle flick was a moribund genre now that Johnny Weissmuller was too fat for his loincloth and a pretender named Lex Barker had taken over the role of Tarzan. Weissmuller's new "Jungle Jim" series at Columbia was a washout because all he seemed to do was fight the same stuffed crocodile over and over while his chimp mugged for the camera. Frank Buck was already too old to "bring 'em back alive" and Clyde Beatty was also getting pretty long in the tooth, so they were reduced to cameo roles. Osa Johnson, the famous lady explorer, had been in seclusion ever since her jungle-trekking husband, Martin, died in a plane crash, so all we got from her were re-releases of "Congorilla" and "Borneo." Jungle serials were even in the toilet ever since 1948 when comic book hero Congo Bill had tanked in his screen debut.
Eventually, the situation would change, of course, but we still were a year away from MGM's "King Solomon's Mines," the huge box office hit of 1950. It brought the big budget jungle movie into its own, paving the way for "Mogambo," "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," "White Witch Doctor" and all the rest.
Meanwhile, what was a 10-year-old boy to do for a jungle role model - go see Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in "Africa Screams"? Hardly. I was raised on Tarzan and his stalwart son, Boy; on Jungle Comics featuring sexy Sheena, jungle gatefold girl; on the movie serials of Nyoka, the Jungle Girl; on the comic strip adventures of The Phantom, the jungle "ghost who walks like a man," and all those spacey gorilla movies like "White Pongo" and "Nabonga." But I needed fresh jungle images to keep my imagination stoked up.
And then came Bomba!
Imagine my excitement when my local theater ran a trailer for a new picture called "Bomba the Jungle Boy," starring Johnny Sheffield, the former "Boy" to Tarzan, now a robust 19-year-old with rippling muscles and a head of thick curls that looked like he'd just come out from under the hair dryer after a permanent wave at the new Vidal Sassoon salon just the other side of the Zambesi Escarpment.
I already knew a little about "Bomba." My Grandma had bought me a "Bomba" book "for boys" many years earlier, but I didn't get too excited about it. It seemed like warmed-over Edgar Rice Burroughs, the low-voltage variety like "Jungle Tales of Tarzan" when the Ape-Man was just a kid who wondered why he didn't have a prehensile tail like all the other "kids" on the block. The Bomba books were pretty racist, too, as I recall. In my adult years, I finally learned their author, "Roy Rockwood," was a made-up person and the books really were written by different hack writers, some male, some female.
But the movie Bomba was a big improvement. Though he didn't do anything all that new and exciting in his first adventure for Monogram pictures, he obviously lived the kind of life every kid in my age group wanted to live -without adult supervision. He was young and healthy, didn't have to go to school and lived in a critter-free jungle where you just avoided the big cats, the crocs and the hostile natives and you were home free.
I should also mention that Bomba also got to check out a different good-looking girl in every new movie, starting in 1949 with Peggy Ann Garner, a former kid actor who actually beat out Elizabeth Taylor to win the junior Oscar in 1945 for her acting in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "Junior Miss." Like Sheffield, Peggy was 19 and had matured into a very foxy young lady.
Naturally, Bomba notices Peggy as soon as she turns up in his remote jungle hideaway, located somewhere "beyond the rift," in the original "Bomba the Jungle Boy." You can see right away he's pleased with what he sees by the way he clutches his spear.
In the story, Peggy is on an expedition with her dad, helping him film wildlife. Still, when Bomba approaches her with a flower in his hand, she pulls a gun on him and tells him to keep his distance. Clearly, she has been warned to beware of curly-headed, half naked boys who come waving posies.
But Bomba knows all about patience while stalking one's quarry. By the end of the day, Peggy is lost and Bomba gets to take her home to his cave. Along the way, her skirt gets torn and she politely asks him if he happens to have another leopard-skin loincloth like the one he's wearing, "only bigger." Eager to please, Bomba starts to take his off so he can give it to her.
"Oh, no, Bomba," she tells him rather hastily. "You keep that one."
Eventually, Bomba rummages around in his closet and comes up with a high fashion leopard skin dress. While Peggy's changing, Bomba's pet monkey steals her underwear and starts trying it on. Though I'm sure I didn't notice at age 10, I now wonder if the clear signs of a cross-dressing monkey tells us something about the relationship the lonely Bomba has been having with his simian pal.
Anyway, Bomba saves Peggy from various wild animals, a locust storm and a band of hostiles before the movie is over. He even starts a fire by spinning a stick, which means he might have made Eagle Scout back in the States. He survives a bullet wound, any number of thorn injuries to his bare feet and, ultimately, the heartbreak of losing his first girl friend before they even get to the petting stage.
"Not bad be alone," Bomba tells Peggy without tears, but then he probably knew all along that the producers had lined up a whole string of hot-looking starlets (Lita Baron, Karen Sharpe, Laurette Luez, etc.) to keep him company through a lot more films, finally coming to an end in 1955 with "Lord of the Jungle."
Cut-rate Tarzan or not, Bomba was just what I needed to get me through puberty and into my teens, a time of life when boys may behave like they belong in a jungle, but really don't need to see movies about them quite as often as they once did. It turned out to be the last great poverty row jungle series and I saw every freakin' one of 'em.
I'll also have to admit I really admired Johnny Sheffield for his sterling work as the Bomba of my youth. I knew he was a better man than I could ever be, under the circumstances. I might have been able to survive in his jungle, which looked an awful lot like a giant fern bar, but with all those foxy starlets running around, I think I'd have needed a much roomier loincloth and a good deal more salt peter in my chow.
© 2000 by Ron Miller
THE BOMBA FILMS:
1. "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," 1949; 2. "Bomba on Panther Island," 1949; 3. "The Lost Volcano," 1950; 4. "The Hidden City," 1950; 5. "The Lion Hunters," 1951; 6. "Elephant Stampede," 1951; 7. "African Treasure," 1952; 8. "Bomba and the Jungle Girl," 1952; 9. "Safari Drums," 1953; 10. "The Golden Idol," 1954; 11. "Killer Leopard," 1954; 12. "Lord of the Jungle," 1955.
Johnny Sheffield and TheColumnists.com are making a special offer for readers to obtain VHS copies of "Bantu," the rare, never-before-shown 1955 pilot for a jungle TV series starring Johnny. For details, click on our Shopping Page.
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