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African Treasure

African Treasure(1952)

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teaser African Treasure (1952)

Given that "Bomba, the Jungle Boy" was created specifically as competition for Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic "Tarzan of the Apes", it was only fitting that Hollywood should cast as the loin-clothed teen do-gooder an alumnus of the long-running, studio-hopping series of Tarzan films that began at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932 and ended (at least for star Johnny Weissmuller) in 1947 with Tarzan and the Huntress at RKO. A white orphan raised by beasts in the South American bush, Bomba swung through twenty novels from the New York-based Stratemeyer Syndicate, beginning in 1926 and ending twelve years later. Founded by Edward Stratemeyer in 1905, the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate changed the game of book publishing in the early 20th Century, targeting children with works that focused less on moral instruction than tales of adventure, mystery and derring-do. In addition to the Bomba saga, Stratemeyer created the popular "Nancy Drew," "Hardy Boys" and "Bobbsey Twins" books. All the Bomba novels were signed by the pseudonymous Roy Rockwood, a nom de plum adopted by Edward Stratemeyer for the publication of his 1900 maritime fantasy The Wizard of the Sea, a thinly-veiled imitation of the 1873 British magazine serial Dick Lightheart; or, the Scapegrace at Sea (1876) which was itself patterned after Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (published in the States in 1872).

Born on April 11, 1931, and winner of a national contest to find a surrogate son for Tarzan, child actor Johnny Sheffield aged from 7 to 16 while playing "Boy" to Johnny Weissmuller's King of the Apes. (Sheffield's audition entailed a swim test with "Big John" in the pool of the Hollywood Athletic Club.) In 1949, Sheffield was invited to the "Poverty Row" offices of the Monogram Picture Corporation at the behest of fledgling film producer Walter Mirisch, who had acquired the rights to the Bomba novels, and studio head Samuel "Steve" Broidy, who okayed Sheffield to play Bomba (Swahili for "small package"). The shift of the Tarzan series from MGM to RKO had entailed an appreciable loss of prestige and wherewithal for those involved and it would be another step down in quality for the Bomba films, which were conceived around existing stock footage. Nonetheless, the series proved successful enough to spawn eleven sequels to Bomba, the Jungle Boy (1949), the last of them released in 1955.

Produced mid-series, African Treasure (1952) finds Bomba protecting his white and native friends from a gang of gem smugglers. Par for the course for the budget-conscious series, interiors were filmed on cramped Monogram soundstages, with location footage captured at Hollywood's Bronson Canyon and on the Iverson Ranch in nearby Chatsworth. African Treasure was written and directed by Ford Beebe, who stayed with the series from beginning to end. Director and star worked well together through six years of continuous production, with Beebe crediting Sheffield's professionalism by bestowing upon him the nickname "One Take Johnny."

Appearing briefly in African Treasure is Woody Strode, then a former decathlete and UCLA All American. (At UCLA, Strode attended classes with the niece of Douglas Fairbanks and played ball alongside Jackie Robinson.) Born Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode in 1914, Strode is credited with helping to break the "color line" of the National Football League when he was signed by the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Strode later played for the Canadian Football League and was a professional wrestler before his entry into films. (Strode alleged that the Rams had forced his abdication to the Calgary Stampeders by dumping him after a season due to his interracial marriage to Luana Kalaeloa, a Hawaiian princess.) Of African and Native American decent, Strode's impressive, 6'5" physique and Blackfoot cheekbones won him bits in Hollywood films as African chieftains and imposing domestics. He was pushing 40 when Ford Beebe cast him as a "Native Mail Boy" in African Treasure, a role that provided little more than a paycheck. The LA native's fortunes changed via his association with director John Ford, who cast him as Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and slotted Strode into three more pictures. Strode enjoyed a diverse European career as well, beginning with an immortal cameo in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Woody Strode published his memoirs in 1990, four years before his death from lung cancer, at age 80, on New Year's Eve, 1994.

Producer: Walter Mirisch
Director: Ford Beebe
Screenplay: Ford Beebe (screenplay and story); Roy Rockwood (based upon his "Bomba Books")
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Art Direction: Martin Obzina
Music: Raoul Kraushaar
Film Editing: Bruce Schoengarth
Cast: Johnny Sheffield (Bomba), Laurette Luez (Lita Sebastian), Leonard Mudie (Andy Barnes), Arthur Space (Greg), Lane Bradford (Hardy), Martin Garralaga (Pedro Sebastian), Lyle Talbot (Roy DeHaven, alias Pat Gilroy), Robert 'Smoki' Whitfield (Eli), Kimbbo the Chimp (Bomba's Chimp).

by Richard Harland Smith

"Bomba Speaks: An Interview with Johnny Sheffield," by Matt Winans (1997),
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Goal Dust: The Warm and Candid Memoirs of a Pioneer Black Athlete and Actor by Woody Strode with Sam Young (Madison Books, 1993)

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