This gets a bit complicated so bear with me. Back in 1932, Johnny Weissmuller began playing Tarzan in what's now regarded as the "official" Tarzan movie series. First at MGM, the series peaked early with Tarzan and His Mate (1934), partly because enforcement of the Production Code tamed the uninhibited sexuality and graphic violence present in the first two pictures. Studio head Louis B. Mayer was also keen to make more "family friendly" movies at MGM, and these factors influenced Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), which introduced precocious seven-year-old Johnny Sheffield as Tarzan and Jane's adopted offspring, whom they name "Boy."
When the Tarzan series moved from MGM to RKO in 1942 both Weissmuller and Sheffield went with it, though Maureen O'Sullivan, who had played Jane in all the MGM films, bowed out. The underrated RKO Tarzans initially featured Tarzan and Boy only, with Jane supposedly out of Africa and helping the war effort back in England. She eventually returned, this time played by Brenda Joyce, my favorite among the various Janes. (Yes, even over Maureen O'Sullivan.) As Sheffield grew into a teenager, the plots of these films sometimes were driven by friction between Tarzan and Boy. Often Boy, anxious to prove he'd outgrown that name, would get into trouble after disobeying Tarzan.
Sheffield left the series after Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), as did Weissmuller himself following the next entry, Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). Lex Barker took over the role for the next several years while Weissmuller moved over to Columbia. There he began starring as Jungle Jim, essentially Tarzan with his clothes on*, in 16 movies made between 1948 and 1956.
Johnny Sheffield, meanwhile, was promoted to the lead of his own movie series, "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," loosely based on the twenty books published under the pseudonym "Roy Rockwood," but actually ghost-written by several different authors including John William Duffield, all working for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, between 1926-1938.
Sheffield starred in 12 Bomba movies in all, the product of Monogram Studios (later Allied Artists) between 1949-55, of which the last six are collected in Bomba - The Jungle Boy - Volume 2. The movies included here are African Treasure, Bomba and the Jungle Girl (both 1952), Safari Drums (1953), The Golden Idol, Killer Leopard (both 1954), and Lord of the Jungle (1955).
A Warner Archive release the films are spread across three DVD-Rs, the films have decent transfers, with the last three in their correct 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen. No extras.
In that narrow range between good and bad jungle movies, the Bomba movies rate at the lower end of the scale. The Tarzan pictures, even the early RKO ones with Weissmuller and the Lex Barker movies made during Bomba's run, were the Mercedes-Benz of jungle adventures. RKO made an average of just one Tarzan movie per year (and, before that, one every two years at MGM), and clearly put more time and money into those than practically all other jungle films. Weissmuller's Jungle Jim movies at Columbia were significantly cheaper but still lively and entertaining, partly because they incorporated fantasy elements, including half-human monsters and even some ‘50s sci-fi genre elements.
If Columbia's Jungle Jims were bottom-of-the-bill B movies, then Monogram's Bomba films were of even lesser repute. The Bomba movies probably had budgets not much lower than the Jungle Jims and aren't desperately cheap, but neither are they ever remotely ambitious.
Therein lies Bomba's basic problem. The movies are adequately if cheaply made, but are basically unimaginative imitation Tarzan movies. Bomba, for instance, has a Cheeta-like companion in Kimbbo, another chimpanzee. In the last couple of films, Kimbbo is nearly the same size as the adult Sheffield, resulting in considerable awkwardness when Bomba tries to carry Kimbbo like a baby chimp. Anyway like Tarzan, Bomba is warm and unpretentious around friends, speaking to them in simplified English ("Bomba not worried!") like the Weissmuller Tarzan, but as with his inspiration Bomba is instinctively distrustful of strangers to his domain. Like Tarzan Bomba is Caucasian, raised in the jungle after the untimely death of parents he never knew.
But where Tarzan was noble, the intelligent primitive, and at one with the jungle world and all the animals residing there, Bomba is just an ordinary young man who happens to wear a loincloth and live in the jungle. Weissmuller had been a five-time gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer. At his physical peak Weissmuller wasn't merely athletic but a thing of beauty. He had the grace of a gazelle and the looks of a Greek god. There was always a mystique about Weissmuller's Tarzan - he always seemed to have complex emotions lurking beneath that simple exterior - and as a man living in Darkest Africa able to communicate with his animal friends he was always strangely believable.
If Weissmuller had a swimmer's grace, Sheffield is more like the captain of the high school Greco-Roman wrestling team. He's fleshy, even stocky, and clomp-clomp-clomps around the jungle like a wind-up toy. I was never a fan of Sheffield's Boy, though his later entries with Weissmuller were interesting because of the imperfect relationship between father and adopted son. By these later Bomba films, however, Sheffield was in his early 20s, had long ago lost his child star cuteness: wiry hair, beady pale eyes, lantern jaw, Terry-Thomas like gapped teeth. Sheffield made virtually no other films beyond the Tarzan and Bomba movies, and none at all after Lord of the Jungle. He died in 2010 at age 79.
Unlike the cheap but lively Jungle Jim movies, the Bomba films almost never deviated from standard jungle movie plots: unscrupulous diamond seekers, unscrupulous gold idol seekers, the hunt for a rogue leopard, the hunt for a rogue elephant. All of the films were written, directed, and sometimes (with Walter Mirisch) produced by Ford Beebe, best remembered as the co-director of the three Flash Gordon serials (1936-40) as well as Buck Rogers (1938), all starring Buster Crabbe. Beebe directed numerous other chapter-plays, then helmed miscellaneous B Westerns before turning his attentions to the Bomba films, his last films before retiring. Beebe's direction isn't bad but his screenplays are tame and dull.
On the plus side the Bomba films have a certain continuity thanks to series regulars Leonard Mudie as Scottish Commissioner Andy Barnes and Smoki Whitfield as Eli, Mr. Barnes's African assistant. (The Bomba books are regarded as comparatively racist next to Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan stories, but the Bomba movies are merely routine, white and black actors playing heroes and villains without much regard for their race.) The Bomba movies all run about 70 minutes and have less varied locations than the Jungle Jims. Most of the Bombas seem to have been filmed on the grounds at and in the lake of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.
The cheapness of the series becomes more obvious when, as I did, the viewer watches the films in quick succession. In Lord of the Jungle, for instance, ingénue Nancy Hale goes swimming in a nearby lake, at one point resting on a floating log which Bomba playfully overturns. Nearly all this footage consists of stock shots from The Golden Idol**, featuring sexy actress Anne Kimbell, who's quite identifiable in several long shots.
The movies have decent casts for such low-budget movies. Veteran character players Lyle Talbot, Arthur Space, Walter Sande, Emory Parnell, Douglas Kennedy, and Wayne Morris join ingénues Laurette Luez, Karen Sharpe (cute as a button), Barbara Bestar, Beverly Garland, and black actors, often uncredited, such as Woody Strode, Amanda Randolph and Juanita Moore.
Video & Audio
The first three Bomba movies are presented in their original full-frame format while the last three are in 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen. The films, two on each of the three discs, are in okay, not great shape, but certainly a far cry from the myriad jungle movies available as murky public domain releases. The mono audio (English only, no subtitle options) is also fine on this region-free disc. No Extra Features and even the menu screen has a generic Warner Bros. background plate.
A bit grueling even at 70 minutes apiece, Bomba The Jungle Boy, Volume 2 exemplifies the last gasps of the classical Hollywood jungle movie, a tired genre overdue for a major shake-up, which is what eventually happened with the Tarzan series. The Bomba films aren't terrible, just worn out and uninspired. Still, for those with an interest, the decent transfers and geniality of the series make this very mildly Recommended.
* Sergei Hasenecz rightly points out, "Yes, Weissmuller played both characters, and both have a jungle setting, but there are important differences between Tarzan and Jungle Jim. Tarzan is born to the jungle, and raised by and with the animals in it. He knows this world in a way no other human being could. It is Tarzan's world. Jungle Jim, for all of his experience and knowledge, is still essentially an outsider in the jungle, born and raised in civilzation. Jungle Jim is never free from the shackles of civilization. Tarzan is a true 'natural man.' On a different level, Tarzan is also a vigorously sexual being, especially in the first two MGM movies. This is an element that, while later de-emphasized, never entirely disappears. Just ask Jane. Jungle Jim, always intended on a kiddie level, simply has no sex life."
** Also in the cast is Paul Guilfoyle as Prince Ali Ben Mamoud. This is not the same Paul Guilfoyle as the longtime C.S.I. cast member.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.