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The Lion Hunters

The Lion Hunters(1951)

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teaser The Lion Hunters (1951)

Woody Strode earned his first credited screen role (as Woodrow Strode) in the adventure flick The Lion Hunters (1951), playing a part that was standard for black actors at the time: an "African native" in the fifth of twelve films based on the Tarzan-like character Bomba the Jungle Boy. Strode found himself back in the Bomba series a year later in an uncredited role in African Treasure (1952). It would be several years before he broke through to roles of any significance in top productions.

The focus of this story is not Strode's role, of course, but Johnny Sheffield as Bomba. The character was taken from a popular (if blatantly racist) series of boy's adventure books published between 1926 and 1938 and credited to the writer Roy Rockwood, a pseudonym for a number of writers employed by the publishers, Stratemeyer Syndicate. Clearly intended to capitalize on the success of the Tarzan series, the tales followed the exploits of a boy separated from his parents and brought up in the jungle by an aged naturalist. The first ten books of the series take place in South America and often focused on Bomba's search for his true identity. The other ten episodes find an older Bomba having jungle adventures in Africa.

Monogram Pictures, one of the most successful of the so-called Poverty Row studios that cranked out mostly B pictures, programmers, and serials, made the first of its Bomba pictures in 1949 starring Sheffield, who had played Boy in the Tarzan series. The son of actor Reginald Sheffield, Johnny first appeared on stage as a very young boy. When Maureen O'Sullivan wanted out of her recurring role as Tarzan's mate Jane, MGM decided to give the couple an adopted child in Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). O'Sullivan was supposed to have been killed off at the close of that movie but ended up staying with the series a little longer. As for the character of Boy, he proved popular enough to keep Sheffield employed for a total of eight Tarzan films through 1947 (in addition to small parts in other movies, including an appearance as the young Knute Rockne in the 1940 biopic of the famous college football coach). By 1949, the actor was 18 and getting too old to play Tarzan's kid. When Monogram found out he had been dropped from the series, they snatched him up and built the new Bomba films around him. From that point on, it was the only role he would play for the remainder of his career until his retirement at the age of 24 in 1955.

In The Lion Hunters, Bomba comes into conflict with unscrupulous lion hunters and finds himself attracted to Jean Forbes, the daughter of one of them (an echo of the original Tarzan-Jane courtship). But in the end, having made the jungle safe once again for animals and Massai tribesmen, Bomba bids her goodbye.

The part of Jean was played by Ann Todd, 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). The American actress, often credited as Ann E. Todd, was a child star who made her debut at seven years old in George Cukor's Zaza (1938) and also appeared in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) and as 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 (1950-54) before leaving show business. She returned to school, earning a master's degree in music history and teaching for a time. She served as the music librarian at the University of California at Berkeley for twenty-one years and in 1984, founded a music publishing company, Fallen Leaf Press, which operated until her retirement in 2000.

Thanks to the popularity of the Bomba films, the first ten books in the series were reprinted in the 1950s, and in the late 60s, DC Comics released seven comic books based on the character. In 1962, Chicago's WGN television station repackaged the movies as a local hit broadcast series called Zim Bomba. The show was the brainstorm of WGN's program director Fred Silverman, who eventually became head of the CBS network and responsible for such shows as All in the Family, M.A.S.H., Sonny & Cher, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He later had highly successful careers at ABC, NBC, and as an independent producer.

Monogram entrusted most of the Bomba series to fledgling producer Walter Mirisch, who along with his brothers Marvin and Harold, would become one of Hollywood's most successful producers and a trailblazing independent in the days following the collapse of the old studio system. Among Mirisch's later hits are The Magnificent Seven (1960), West Side Story (1961), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Same Time, Next Year (1978).

Director: Ford Beebe
Producer: Walter Mirisch
Screenplay: Ford Beebe, based on characters created by "Roy Rockwood"
Cinematography: William Sickner
Editing: Otho Lovering
Art Direction: David Milton
Original Music: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Johnny Sheffield (Bomba), Morris Ankrum (Tom Forbes), Ann Todd (Jean Forbes), Douglas Kennedy (Marty Martin), Woodrow Strode (Walu).

by Rob Nixon

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