The Psychotronic Zone
By Ed Garea
Johnny Sheffield was best known as “Boy” in the Tarzan series. As the series went on, however, he naturally grew older, and subsequently, outgrew the part. His last movie in the series was Tarzan and the Huntress in 1947. A couple of years later, in 1949, producer Walter Mirisch, taking stock of how well Johnny Weissmuller was doing after stepping down as Tarzan and starring as Jungle Jim in producer Sam Katzman’s series of jungle quickies for Columbia, figured he might be able to do the same at Monogram. Playing on Weissmuller’s success, Katzman quickly signed Sheffield to a contract. Now all he needed was vehicle for his new employee. It was already decided that Sheffield would be a type of younger Tarzan, playing to the Saturday matinee crowd that proved quite profitable for Monogram over the years. However, the question was what sort of vehicle would be right for Sheffield, i.e., make the most money for the investment?
Mirisch found his subject material when he acquired the rights to a series of novels aimed at younger readers: the “Bomba the Jungle Boy” series. A popular series based on the success of the Tarzan stories, it was started in 1926 by the Statemeyer Syndicate. Attributed to “Roy Rockwood,” the novels were actually produced by writers on the publisher’s staff. They followed the adventures of Bomba (Swahili for “small package”), a young boy separated from his parents and raised by an aged naturalist. The first 10 books in the series take place in South America and were often focused on Bomba’s search for his true identity. The last 10 books find an older Bomba enjoying adventures in Africa. The series lasted until 1938. Because of the blatant racism of the originals (a common theme of the “Bomba” books is that Bomba, because he is white, has a soul that is awake, while the dark-skinned natives have souls that are sleeping), Mirisch decided on another direction, and except for the first in the series, the rest were based on original screenplays.
Even though they were produced in the usual low-budget, shoddy style that was a Monogram trademark, they proved to be a big hit with Saturday matinee crowd and, along with the Bowery Boys series, became the biggest moneymakers for the studio. In fact, the films were so popular that publishers Grosset and Dunlap reprinted the first 10 “Bomba” books. Clover books, a short-lived outfit in the ‘50s, reprinted the entire series. According to a November 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item, the series was to have been filmed in color.
The Bomba series came to an end in 1955. Mirisch attempted to sell the series as a television show, but there were no takers. With it also came the end of Johnny Sheffield’s career; he never made another film. He died in October 15, 2010, of a heart attack hours after falling off a ladder while attempting to prune a palm tree.
The Bomba series may have ended but there was still life in the franchise. In 1962, independent station WGN in Chicago repackaged the Bomba films as a prime time summer series called Zim Bomba. WGN executive Fred Silverman (remember him?) stated that “Zim” meant “Son of” in Swahili. They proved a local ratings sensation in a season where their only competition was reruns and baseball games. In 1967, DC Comics published a series of seven comic books based on the character.
The Bomba films reflect their low-budget environs. Besides the ubiquitous stock footage, taken mainly from Africa Speaks, a 1930 documentary, the films were shot at Malibu and Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and Bronson Canyon. The scenes where Bomba fights rubber crocodiles were shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, which began life in 1875 as Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin's Ranch. Indoor scenes were shot at Monogram studios.
Bomba, The Jungle Boy (Monogram, 1949) – Director: Ford Beebe. Writers: Jack DeWitt (s/p). Roy Rockwood (books). Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Peggy Ann Garner, Onslow Stevens, Charles Irwin, Smoki Whitfield, & Martin Wilkins. B&W, 70 minutes.
George Harland (Stevens) and his daughter Patricia (Garner) are photographers hoping to capture the local wildlife on film. Andy Barnes (Irwin), an old friend whose house they visit, is their guide, and, along with his assistant Eli (Whitfield), leads them into the jungle. Garner is the first to meet Bomba. She becomes lost, and her gun-bearer is killed by a leopard who, in turn, is killed by Bomba. At first, she’s frightened by Bomba and pulls her pistol on him. He disarms her and leaves. Alone, she runs after Bomba, who eventually takes her to his home, a cave overlooking the Great Rift. He explains that his parents are deceased and an aged naturalist by the name of Cody Cason (since deceased) raised him.
Pat would like to stay, but she has to find her father. Unknown to both of them, Harland is hot on their trail, intending to kill Bomba as a kidnapper, but his plan goes awry when a plague of locusts descends upon him and Barnes. By this point in the movie, Patricia has changed from her former garb into a well-fitting leopard skin, courtesy of bad screenwriting. Bomba then helps build a raft so the party can take a shortcut back to Andy’s place via a river crossing. Invited to come along to America by the Harlands, Bomba demurs, as he’s unwilling to leave his jungle friends.
Bomba on Panther Island (Monogram, 1949) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Allene Roberts, Lita Moran, Charles Irwin, Harry Lewis, Smoki Whitfield, Martin Wilkins, & Bill Walker. B&W, 70 minutes.
Developer Robert Maitland (Lewis) brings his sister, Judy (Roberts), with him to Africa with plans to build a plantation. Commissioner Barnes (now played by Irwin) and Eli (Whitfield) are back again to lend a hand. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, though, a rogue panther is on the loose.
Bomba is after the panther that killed his pet monkey. He problem is that the locals believe the animal is sacred and fear it. During his hunt, he meets Judy Maitland (Roberts) and Losana (Baron), her maid and traveling companion. Judy’s father, Robert (Lewis), is building a plantation to provide a living for himself and Judy. Judy hates the jungle and is forever whining about it while Robert is thick in his attitude toward the natives and his mission.
Maitland starts a fire to clear the area, but a sudden windstorm sends the flames out of control and Bomba takes Judy to a cave for refuge. The panther is also conveniently there, and after a fierce struggle, Bomba kills it. When they emerge from the cave, the fire has miraculously stopped. Maitland blames himself for the fire and says he will return to Canada, but Judy has become a convert to the beauties of Africa and encourages her brother to see his project through. Bomba says goodbye to Judy and melts back into the jungle.
The Lost Volcano (Monogram, 1950) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Story by Jack DeWitt. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Donald Woods, Marjorie Lord, John Ridgely, Tommy Ivo, Elena Verdugo, Don C. Harvey, Grandon Rhodes, & Robert Lewis. B&W, 76 minutes.
Bomba comes across the camp of zoologist Paul Gordon (Woods) and his family. Gordon catches animals for zoos. Being the animal lover he is, Bomba frees the animals. The natives tell Gordon that Bomba did it, but Gordon believes Bomba to be something of an urban myth.
Gordon discovers that his young son, David (Ivo) is friends with Bomba. He tells David that the young boy must bring his friend home to meet the folks. If not, they can no longer play together. Only Nona (Verdugo), the family maid, believes David, and one day follows the boy into the jungle, where she sees him bring forth Bomba with a series of bird calls. David strips down to a loincloth and he and Bomba go for a swing on the vines.
Dr. Charles Langley (Rhodes), along with his guides, Fred Higgins (Harvey) and Fred Barton (Ridgley), call on Paul and his wife, Ruth (Lord), telling them seismograph records point to the existence of a large volcano in the area. He wants Paul to help him find it. Paul declines, telling his guest that he and Ruth feel it’s time to return to civilization and enroll David in school.
Back in the jungle, David tells Bomba about what his father said, but Bomba, who dislikes those that cage animals, refuses the offer, so they part. Bomba later runs into Nona gives her the loincloth and knife that David keeps hidden in a tree at their special meeting place.
Nona shows the loincloth and knife, which is made of gold and embedded with emeralds, to the Gordons. David tells his father that Bomba found the knife in the hills and has taken him to the secret place he found it, but made David promise not to tell or show anybody where it is. Langley presses Paul to take him to the volcano, and Barton and Higgins offer to take David to school in Capetown. Paul agrees, but that night, as David and Nona leave, Barton and Higgins kidnap them planning to force David to take them to the volcano. Nona escapes and runs into Bomba. He sends Nona home to get help while he trails David.
While the kidnappers are asleep, Bomba sneaks in and unties David as the two of them slip off into the night. In the morning, Barton and Higgins recapture Bomba and tie him up, but a python drops from a tree and attacks Higgins, allowing Bomba to free himself and escape with David. While fording the river, a rubber crocodile attacks. While Bomba is wrestling the rubbery creature, the kidnappers arrive and grab David.
When the search party approaches, Barton opens fire, killing Langley and wounding Paul. Barton and Higgins escape with David, who reluctantly guides them on foot to the lost volcano. As the larger volcano near the mountains begins to erupt, Bomba catches up with group on a rocky ridge and leads them through the lost volcano, which is full of treasure. Barton slips away to greedily fill his pockets with jewels, but meets his end when he’s caught in a rockslide. The search party finally arrives, and Higgins grabs for Paul's gun, but he falls off the ridge into the path of the molten lava, courtesy of a stock footage shot of a cavemen being smothered by lava in Hal Roach’s 1940 epic, One Million Years, B.C. With David and his family reunited, Bomba bids farewell to his new friends and promises visit soon.
The volcano footage was obtained from the film files of the National Geographic and the Encyclopædia Britannica, and is actually footage of an Italian volcano erupting. The footage would be used later in Safari Drums.
Bomba and The Hidden City (Monogram, 1950) – Director: Ford Beebe. Screenplay: Carroll Young. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Sue England, Paul Guilfoyle, Damian O’Flynn, Leon Belasco, Charles La Torre, Smoki Whitfield, & Franl Lackteen. B&W, 71 minutes.
While snapping photos of jungle wildlife near the Hidden City, American Dennis Johnson (O’Flynn) notices a young man swinging on a vine. He asks his driver, Hadji (Whitfield), who comments that he has heard stories about Bomba, a jungle boy who lives in the trees. Johnson decides to consult the emir, Hassan (Guilfoyle), about the matter.
Hassan is collecting taxes when Johnson arrives, and explains that he became emir after invaders killed his successor during a war. While they are talking, Raschid (Belasco), a poor man from a neighboring village, interrupts, offering to give Hassan his daughter Zidah (England) so that she can take the place of a harem girl who recently escaped. Hassan accepts the offer.
Johnson asks Hassan for permission to find Bomba. Hassan gives his permission and offers to help. After Johnson leaves, Hassan takes his aide Abdullah (La Torre) aside and tells him of his concerns, namely that Bomba had earlier witnesses Hassan killing the rightful ruler and his wife. Abdullah tells Hassan not to worry, for Bomba will not be taken alive.
The search party locates Bomba and tries to kill him. Wounded, Bomba escapes to a nearby village, where a woman named Zidah (England) tends to his wounds. Zidah has been promised by her father as a wife for Hassan, who has come to the village to take her back with him.
Hassan takes Zidah back to the Hidden City, which seems inexplicably familiar to her. Bomba arrives to rescue Zidah, but is taken prisoner by Hassan. Johnson and a party rescues Bomba, who tells them he saw Hassan shoot a man and woman, whom he identifies from a photograph on the storeroom floor. Johnson recognizes them as the former emir and his wife, and Zidah realizes they were her parents, and Hassan wanted to take her back to the Hidden City to kill her.
With Hassan and his men now in hot pursuit, Johnson and the others flee to the jungle, where Hassan conveniently falls into the lake to become crocodile lunch. As they prepare to depart for the coast, Johnson and Hadji tell the grateful citizens of the Hidden City that Zidah will be their temporary ruler. Promising to come back to visit her, Bomba returns to his home in the jungle.
Although the character played by Sue England is referred to as "Leah" in the reviews, she is called "Zidah" in the film.
The Lion Hunters (Monogram, 1951) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Morris Ankrum, Ann E. Todd, Douglas Kennedy, Smoki Whitfield, Davis Roberts & Woody Strode. B&W, 75 minutes.
As the movie opens, Bomba sneaks into hunter Martin’s (Kennedy) camp at night and frees four lions trapped there. The next morning, native guide Jonas (Whitfield) discovers Bomba's tracks and shares this information with lion trapper Forbes (Ankrum) and his daughter Jean (Todd), who are on their way to meet Martin.
Soon afterward, Bomba comes upon Jean in the jungle and explains that he found a wounded lion cruelly left to die. Jean tells him the lions are being sent to zoos for educational purposes, but Bomba, friend to all animals in the jungle, tells her that the animals should not be removed from their homes. After hearing this, Jean promises to tell her father about Bomba's reservations.
The next day, Forbes and Jean arrive at the encampment to find Martin has caged over a dozen lions. Martin is fit to be tied when he hears the other lions have been freed, but refuses to believe the Bomba legend. When Forbes suggests to him they find other happy hunting grounds and avoid this mess, Martin turns him down flat.
Finding Jean alone, Bomba leads her to the cubs of the murdered lion where Jean is touched by the vulnerable babies. She confronts her father and Martin about their lion hunting, but they ignore her. Bomba heads for the camp to free the lions. Martin takes aim, but Jean pushes Martin's gun, spoiling his aim. Martin's men refuse to go after Bomba, and Jonas suggests that Martin approach the nearby Massai Tribe, who keep lions for protection against other tribes.
On their way to speak with the Massai, Forbes, Jean and Martin spot Lohu (Roberts), son of a Massai chief, hunting a lion. When the lion attacks the boy, Martin takes several shots, killing not only the lion, but also the boy. In a ruse to secure the Massai’s help, Martin takes the boy's body to the chief, claiming the lion killed his son. The chief agrees to help, but after Martin leaves, it’s discovered that bullets that killed the boy. When the chief orders his men to kill one of the white people in Martin's group for revenge, Bomba offers instead to disarm the white men and drive them out of the area in two days.
Jean discovers that Martin has set up a fatal trap for Bomba and races into the jungle to warn him. Bomba calls to birds and monkeys, who tell the lions to leave the area. Within minutes, dozens of lions flee the jungle. Fearing the lions might attack Jean, Bomba escorts her back to the encampment, where Martin shoots at him. Bomba jumps into the river to escape with Martin following in a boat. When a crocodile attacks Martin, Bomba kills the animal in a fierce knife battle.
Despite Bomba having saved his life, Martin is going to to continue trapping. Holding Martin at spear point, Bomba cages him in a lion trap and calls to his animal friends: chimpanzees, baboons, hyenas, leopards, monkeys and birds to mock Martin. Jean soon finds Martin and laughs at Bomba's joke.
Meanwhile, the Massai chief sends his warriors to drive the lions into Martin's encampment. Early the next morning, Jean and Bomba in the jungle hear the Massai warrior drums driving the lions toward the camp. Bomba rushes to save the men, but Martin, Jonas and Forbes have locked themselves in a hut for protection. A lion breaks into the hut and kills Martin. Bomba kills him with a knife, saving Forbes and Jonas, and when the Massai warriors arrive at the village, Bomba sends them back to their chief and promises that the white man will be gone in two days. Soon after, as agreed, Forbes, Jonas and Jean leave by boat to return home. Bomba waves goodbye and melts back into the jungle.
The Lion Hunters was Woody Strode’s first screen credit and like other black actors, he found himself in the standard role: that of “African native.” With his career slow to take off, Strode returned to the Bomba series a year later, working an uncredited role in African Treasure (1952). It would be several years before he broke through to decent roles in top productions.
Ann E. Todd, who played Jean, added the “E” to her name so as not to be confused with the British actress of the same name best known for Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947) and opposite James Mason in The Seventh Veil (1945). Ann E. Todd was a child star who made her debut at seven years old as “Toto” in George Cukor's Zaza (1938). She also appeared as Berthe in All This, and Heaven Too with Bette Davis (1940). She played Ceinwen in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) and the young Ann Sheridan in Kings Row (1942). The Lion Hunters was her last film. She appeared for a few years in the TV sitcom The Stu Erwin Show (1950-1954) before leaving show business and returning to school, where she earned a master's degree in music history. After trying her hand at teaching, Todd went on to serve as the music librarian at the University of California at Berkeley for 21 years. In 1984, she founded a music publishing company, Fallen Leaf Press, which operated until her retirement in 2000.
Elephant Stampede (Monogram, 1951) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Donna Martell, John Kellogg, Myron Healey, Edith Evanson, Leonard Mudie, Martin Wilkins, Guy Kingsford. B&W, 71 minutes.
Elephant poachers Bob Warren (Kellogg) and Joe Collins (Healey) kill game warden Mark Phillips (Kingsford) when he catches Collins shooting an elephant. They hide the body and take Phillips’s papers so Warren can pose as Mark and use the credentials to continue to hunt ivory.
In a nearby village, schoolteacher Miss Banks (Evanson) instructs the villagers in English while her young assistant Lola (Martell) teaches Bomba how to read on the outskirts of the village. Lola wants romance, but Bomba’s more interested in learning, especially in spelling "elephant," his favorite animal and friend in the jungle. Miss Banks tells deputy commissioner Andy Barnes that she knew Phillips, and the man passing himself off as Phillips is an imposter.
Barnes then decides he must return to the station to telegraph the commissioner, and tells Bomba to keep an eye on the suspicious duo. When Bomba discovers what Collins and Warren are doing, he calls to the elephants and leads them out of the area, away from the hunters' range. The hunters then see Bomba, who has just discovered Phillips’s body, and decide they must get rid of him before they can continue.
In the village, Banks tells tribal chief Nagalia that she is being transferred, but the chief believing that education is the only way to help his people, offers to sell hidden ivory, procured before the law forbidding ivory hunting, to generate a salary for her and buy valuable goods for his people.
Collins and Warren find Bomba and Lola by the lake and shoot, wounding Lola, but Bomba's elephants run Warren into the lake and Collins up a tree. The poachers decide to get out while the getting’s good and return to the village to collect their things. Nagalia tells Warren about the ivory, and the poacher, who wants the ivory for himself, offers to help transport it with his jeep. When Collins hears about the ivory, he figures a double cross and chases after Warren on foot.
Nagala admits to Bomba that he told Warren about the ivory. Bomba leaves for the cave and finds the villagers carrying the tusks back to the village. He advises them to hide the ivory in the lake while confronting the poachers. The poachers capture Bomba, Nagalia, Banks, and Lola interrogating them at gunpoint back in the village. Collins wants to leave, but Warren kills him. Just before he can kill the others, the elephants stampede and kill Warren. Andy arrives soon after and, with Nagalia, supervises the villagers in pulling the ivory from the lake. Andy comments on "the curse of the native tribes of Africa," and Banks adds that it "will be the means for helping these people to a better way of life." Lola looks longingly at chimps kissing in the trees, hoping that Bomba will return to say goodbye, but Bomba is watching nearby as his friends leave the jungle.
There’s more Bomba to come in Part Two.