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Johnny Sheffield, Jungle Boy - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

April 2008

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Even among child actors, Johnny Sheffield had an unusual career, because during his entire career, he was pretty much stuck to one movie genre and one alone - and as a result, one could see Johnny Sheffield growing up in the jungle (not the real jungle of course, just the studio backlot, numerous indoor sets, and some outdoor sets made to look like some sort of jungle including the ever-present Bronson Canyon) from age 8 onwards, and as if that wasn't enough, you saw him growing up next to Tarzan (as played by Johnny Weissmuller [Johnny Weissmuller bio - click here]) who was his on-screen father until he was 16. And once Johnny Sheffield reached manhood, he would not leave the jungle. He might have left Tarzan, but he remained true to his character in his post-Tarzan films and went on to play Bomba the Jungle Boy - which was pretty much a mixture of a continuation of his character in the Tarzan films on one hand and quite simply a young Tarzan on the other (at least in the films, the books the Bomba films were based on were a bit of a different matter).

All of this is of course not to say that Sheffield did not play in films outside the Tarzan- and Bomba-series - he did (especially early in his career, when he went to play Bomba, he pretty much stuck with the character).

Johnny Sheffield however was not the best, most versatile actor to play just any role, and after the Bomba-series folded and a TV-pilot for - you guessed it - another jungle series did not catch on, he, then only 24, made the right decision, went to college and became a(n according to all reports rather successful) businessman, leaving behind almost two dozens of jungle movies ranging from the dull to the wild to the pretty good, and many of them must-haves for jungle movie lovers (like myself).



Early Life, Early Career


Johnny Shheffield was born Jon Matthew Sheffield Cassan in 1931 in Pasadena, California. His father was British actor Reginald Sheffield, who much like Johnny himself, started his acting career when he was still a child - father Reginald's film career lasted a good deal longer than Johnny's though, from 1913 to his death in 1957, when Johnny's career had already been over for two years. That said though, other than Johnny, Reginald Sheffield never really made it to leading man status - father Sheffield's most prominent role might be that of the recurring character Professor Mayberry on the Rocky Jones, Space Ranger tv-series in 1954.


In 1938, when he was no older than 7, young Johnny, both encouraged and trained by his father, made his first experiences on a theatre stage in the West Coast adaptation of the Broadway hit On Borrowed Time, in which he played the juvenile lead. He was good enough in the role that he was eventually called to the Broadway to reprise the role as a replacement.

In 1938, Johnny also made his first screen appearance, as Napoleon's son in The Man on the Rock (Edward L.Cahn) a short of MGM's Historical Mysteries-series. Johnny's breakthrough as a child actor was still one year away though, and it was in a role Johnny got simply because his father answered a casting call ...



Tarzan at MGM (and other films)


After three films of their Tarzan-series starring Johnny Weissmuller [Johnny Weissmuller bio - click here] and Maureen O'Sullivan, the powers-that-be at MGM must have realized they had pretty much exhausted the basic formula as it is, so it was high time to add something new to the franchise - and that something was a(n adoptive) son for Tarzan and Jane, to be called Boy.

By the way, Boy was not a creation of Tarzan-creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, in his novels, Tarzan and Jane had a real son, Korak, but in the 1930's, it was unthinkable for an unmarried couple like Tarzan and Jane (who were married in the books) to have a real son.


So MGM sent out a casting call allegedly reading "Have you a Tarzan Jr. in your backyard ?", which Reginald Sheffield enthusiastically answered as he thought little Johnny did not only bring the acting experience necessary for the role but also a certain physical prowess a role like that of Boy would demand - after all father Sheffiled saw to it that his son did a (rather rigid) exercise-program every day.


About 300 boys answered MGM's casting call, but the role finally went to Johnny Sheffield, allegedly also thanks to the intervention of Johnny Weissmuller himself who took an instant liking in the kid and even helped young Johnny cover up the fact that he couldn't swim - something he was required to do in Tarzan Finds a Son (1939, Richard Thorpe), the first Tarzan-film Johnny Sheffield was in, and almost all of the subsequent films. But Weissmuller reportedly took it upon himself to train the boy - and who better to have as a swimming teacher at that day and age than Johnny Weissmuller ?


Taken by its own merits, Tarzan Finds a Son is actually less than great, a rather cheesy story about a boy (Sheffield of course) who loses his parents in a planecrash and who is soon adopted by Tarzan and Jane, and the three soon emerge into being the perfect nuclear family ... until some greedy relatives of Boy stop by and try to take him from his foster parents - in order to do away with him and get their hands on his inheritance of course. All ends happily though, as you might have expected. By and large, the film suffers from its emphasis on young Boy's shenanigans and family values rather than exotic adventures.

However, its rather simplistic and cheesy plot aside, Tarzan Finds a Son really did breath new air into the Tarzan-series that has gone from good (Tarzan the Ape Man [1932, W.S.Van Dyke]) to great (Tarzan and his Mate [1934, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway]) to stale (Tarzan Escapes [1936, Richard Thorpe]) in the course of a mere three movies, and it sparked new audience interest - so it came as no surprise that MGM kept Boy in the cast of future Tarzan-films ...


In the late 1930's/early 40's, MGM was as big a studio as it could get, a studio that provided big budgets even for its lesser films, that had an impressive studio-lot with various soundstages and backlots for outdoor shoots, an own zoo plus animal trainer, and that had many a big star under contract including quite a few child actors - including Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland -, and to accomodate its child stars, MGM even had its own school on the lot.


Above-mentioned Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, who went to the same (studio-owned) school as Johnny Sheffield (though both of them were quite a bit older than him), played the leads in Sheffield's next film, the Busby Berkeley-musical Babes in Arms (1939) - but Sheffields role in this film that was totally tailored for Garland and Rooney was (naturally) much smaller and less important than in Tarzan Finds a Son.


In Little Orvie (1940, Ray McCarey), a comedy/drama of the B-variety Sheffield made on loan to RKO,  Sheffield would play the title role on the other hand, but by now the film is largely forgotten.


Over at Twentieth Century Fox, Sheffield played another supporting role in the B-Western Lucky Cisco Kid (1940, H.Bruce Humberstone), the third Cisco Kid-movie starring Cesar Romero (after Warner Baxter had played the role in four films).


In the Warner Brothers-produced sports drama/bio pic Knute Rockne All American (1940, Lloyd Bacon) with Pat O'Brien as the famed titular footballer and Ronald Reagan, Sheffield, by now 9 years of age, plays Rockne aged 7 while his younger brother Billy plays Rockne aged 4.


Ronald Reagan also starred in Johnny's next film, Million Dollar Baby (1941, Curtis Bernhardt), another Warner Brothers-production, a comedy/romance also starring Priscilla Lane, Jeffrey Lynn and May Robson, but as with most of his non-Tarzan-films from that era, Sheffield's role in this one is rather small and neglectable.


Finally, in 1941, Sheffield returned to the Tarzan-series, and for the remainder of his career he would only all too rarely strain from the series and later the Bomba-series and only for uncredited roles in films like Roughly Speaking (1945, Michael Curtiz) and the Lassie-film The Sun Comes Up (1949, Richard Thorpe).


Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941, Richard Thorpe), to be quite honest, is not all that great a movie, it's pretty much a rehash of all the previous films, presenting us with greedy white men (yet again) who invade Tarzan's territory, and in the end, he has his hands full to save everyone, especially Jane and Boy, from some savage natives. Sheffield's Boy is less essential to Tarzan's Secret Treasure's plot than he was to Tarzan Finds a Son, and he does little more than increase the film's cuteness factor with a series of skits with his animal friends - even if cuteness and adventure don't necessarily go well with each other.


Somehow, the powers-that-be at MGM must have felt that their Tarzan-formula was growing pretty tired pretty quickly, so for their final Tarzan-film (for a while) they decided to take a novel and interesting approach: Transplant the jungle man and his family from Africa to New York City. The film in question is of course Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942, Richard Thorpe), and it actually turned out to be the freshest Tarzan-film in quite some time.

In this one, a white hunter stumbles upon Boy - Sheffield of course - and is amazed by his animal training skills - so much so that he decides it would be a good idea to get the boy to New York and have him work at a circus ... and to that end, he has to kidnap Boy. Tarzan and Jane of course go after Boy to save him, but when they fight over hm in a court of law, they even lose custody - but of course, everything ends happily once again.

Why this one works better than the previous films of the series has several reasons: First of all, it's of course amusing to see Tarzan as such in the metropolis of New York City, and fortunately, director Thorpe put his emphasis on the comedy aspects of the film. Another reason for the film to work - and especially Johnny Sheffield's character in the film - is that Boy is fully integrated into the proceedings, and his animal training skits, that seemed a tad out of place in Tarzan's Secret Treasure, have become an important plot element in this one, so much so that they are no longer annoying.

All of this makes the movie work of course, and it was a reasonable success at the box office too and has since become a fan favourite ... yet after Tarzan's New York Adventure, MGM decided to sell the Tarzan-property to producer Sol Lesser, who moved the franchise, and Weissmuller and Sheffield with it, over to RKO.



Sol Lesser and RKO


In the 1930's, producer Sol Lesser made two attempts to rival MGM's Tarzan-series, the cheap but thrilling serial Tarzan the Fearless (1933, Robert F.Hill) starring Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe bio - click here] and the rather atrocious feature Tarzan's Revenge (1938, D.Ross Lederman) starring Glenn Morris. Neither of these however even remotely matched the success of the MGM-Tarzans - so when Lesser somehow got his hands on the rights for the series, he grabbed them - and only one year after Tarzan's New York Adventure, he produced his first Tarzan-film starring Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield in their usual roles for RKO.


The first of the RKO-Tarzans was Tarzan Triumphs (1943, Wilhelm Thiele), and it immediately shows that these films could not match the MGM-Tarzans in scope: The film was comparatively cheaply made and thus lacked lavish production values one has gotten used to at MGM, and especially the zoo the studio and Johnny Sheffield's Boy had at their their disposal was a thing of the past. Also in Tarzan Triumphs and all subsequent Tarzan-films featuring Johnny Sheffield, Africa was weirdly devoid of black natives, a piece of very obvious racism I simply fail to understand - I mean it's Africa, why are all the natives white ?

That all said however, Tarzan Triumphs is not a bad movie as such, it's no masterpiece but it actually manages to infuse new blood into the series simply by diverting from the MGM-formula, and instead of a relatively straight-forward jungle tale you get a pulpy plot about a lost ancient city (inhabited by an all-white populace) and Nazis doing their usual evil things - and all of that is fun in a trashy sort of way.

Sheffield's Boy, lacking the animals he had at his disposal at MGM, gets less scenes to himself but is totally integrated into the plot. Oh and by the way, in Tarzan Triumphs there is no Jane since Maureen O'Sullivan did not follow Weissmuller and Sheffield over to RKO, and RKO probably didn't think it was too wise to immediately introduce a new Jane - and besides that, the film's plot does not require Jane to be around, actually she would have been in the way of the plot. In the film her absence was explained away by her helping the Allied Forces in their war efforts (remember, in 1943, World War II was still on).


Jane was also absent from the next RKO-Tarzan, Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943, Wilhelm Thiele), a film that plays pretty much like an Arabian Nights adventure, but with science fiction monsters (giant spiders, giant lizards, giant man-eating plants) tagged onto it, just for good measure. Of course, the film is totally silly, but it's actually fun if you just don't take it seriously.


Tarzan and the Amazons (1945, Kurt Neumann) brought Jane back in the form of Brenda Joyce, but she doesn't feature too prominently in the film's plot. Actually, it's Sheffield's Boy who carries much of the plot here, as he in his naivity is persuaded by some scientists to take them to some hidden city mainly populated by amazons - even though the amazons want to remain hidden and the guide (Barton MacLane) of the scientists turns out to be a baddie. At the climax of the movie, Boy is even condemned to death ... but of course Tarzan saves the day. The film could have been a kitsch masterpiece, but some unfortunate pacing (like spending too much time with reintroducing Jane into the series and too little time with the amazons and their hidden city) keep it from really coming into its own. But at least Johnny Sheffield's Boy is really integrated into the film this time.


By the time Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946, Kurt Neumann) was made, Johnny Sheffield was already about 15 years of age and therefore no longer able to add the cuteness factor to the proceedings he was originally cast for - so in this film a new kid was added to the proceedings, Tommy Cook, playing one of those white native boys who seem to run around in Africa in no short supply. Cook plays a young boy whom Tarzan and Jane readily adopt (in addition to Sheffield's Boy), not knowing of course that he is actually a member of the evil leopard cult wanting to make his first kill - and he has chosen Jane to be his victim.

The whole film of course is not to be taken seriously, maybe less so than the previous films, to be entertaining, another piece of high camp with a far-fetched plot, evil cultists doing bizarre cult-dances and wearing silly outfits, and cult fave Acquanetta playing their leader - which sure enough might not be to everyone's taste.

Another thing: With Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, Tarzan, Jane and Boy have finally become your typical nuclear family, with Brenda Joyce's Jane being nothing more than a dull housewife, Weissmuller's Tarzan her slobby husband who always finds excuses to not do repairs around the house, and Sheffield's Boy playing your typical kind-hearted but troublesome teenage son - none of this a too welcome development if you take the series seriously, but rather humourous if you don't.


Tarzan and the Huntress (1947, Kurt Neumann), an at best so-so story about greedy hunters invading Tarzan's jungle '(yet again), was Sheffield's last film as Boy, and when watching the movie it's not hard to see why: He is by now taller than Jane, his voice has already broken, and his physique, quite hunky for a sixteen-year-old and almost rivaling Weissmuller's, does no longer signal cuteness in any sense - in a word, Boy has become a man. 

And since he no longer fitted the requirements of the role, Sheffield was dropped from the series with Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948, Robert Florey), which incidently was Weissmuller's last film as Tarzan (while Brenda Joyce would stay with the series for yet one more film, Tarzan's Magic Fountain [1949, Lee Sholem], now with Lex Barker in the title role [Lex Barker bio - click here]). Boy's/Sheffield's absence from the plot was explained away with "Boy has gone to school in England" in Tarzan and the Mermaids, but watching Tarzan and the Huntress, you couldn't help but notice that in a certain way, Weissmuller's Tarzan has gotten competition in his own ranks, and one couldn't help but wondering what became of the now very adult Boy ...



Bomba the Jungle Boy


After his demise from the Tarzan-series, it wasn't exactly easy for Johnny Sheffield to find other film work, especially since he has become famous as a character rather than as an actor, and to be quite honest, his acting skills were limited.

However, by 1949, Monogram had acquired the rights to the Bomba the Jungle Boy-series, a series of boy's adventure books by one Roy Rockwood - who was actually a collective of writers in the employ of the Stratemeyer Syndicate -, which was especially popular in the 1920's and 30's. The powers-that-be at Monogram changed around the original concepts of the series a bit and gave the lead role in the film Bomba, the Jungle Boy (1949, Ford L.Beebe) to Johnny Sheffield, who now played the role as a mix of  Tarzan's Boy all grown up and, well, Tarzan himself.


Of course, on a budget level, Bomba, the Jungle Boy was one or two steps down even from RKO let alone from Sheffield's days with MGM, but the film is actually a rather compact and enjoyably unpretentious jungle adventure, as is the whole series which is often ridiculed on the basis of its cheapness alone.


Interestingly enough, 1949 did not only see the release of Bomba, the Jungle Boy (and thus the launch of the Bomba the Jungle Boy-series) but also the debut of a new Tarzan, Lex Barker [Lex Barker bio - click here] in Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949, Lee Sholem), and just the previous year, Johnny Weissmuller [Johnny Weissmuller bio - click here] had launched his Jungle Jim-series with Jungle Jim (1948, William Berke) - and comparing these three films (and the series each spawned), Bomba, the Jungle Boy doesn't fare bad at all. Sure, it's by far the cheapest film and lacks production values of the other two flicks, but at the same time it's also the only film that actually pays respect to Africa, where all three films are set (but neither was shot, of course), the only film that features black natives, and they, too, are treated with respect like all black characters in the film. And the story, while being a tad simplistic, certainly doesn't insult the audience's intelligence.


While Bomba obviously mimicks Tarzan though, there are some slight but significant differences between the two characters. More than Tarzan ever was, Bomba is guided by his primal instincts, so much so that he seems rude, but also wise in other instances. Especially in early films, Bomba is often physically attracted to the female lead (in later films, the erotic tension was toned down and Bomba became more domesticated). Bomba is no notorious do-gooder as Tarzan is, often leaving characters to their own fate - or at least trying to do so, invariably he gets mixed up in their affairs nevertheless. Bomba is also more straight forward than Tarzan and lacks his cunning, as well as his almost superhuman strength and fighting abilities (Bomba is overcome by his adversary in many a film, but usually wins the upper hand in the finale of course).


Bomba, the Jungle Boy was actually successful enough to spawn the Bomba-series of 12 films to all be directed by serial- and B-movie specialist Ford L.Beebe and produced by Monogram and later Allied Artists (which actually was nothing other than Monogram under a different name), and all of course starring Johnny Sheffield.


Still in 1949, Bomba, the Jungle Boy got its first sequel, Bomba on Panther Island (Ford L.Beebe), which though is nothing more than more of the same, and where the first film at least felt somehow fresh, this one is just boring.


The real low of the series though is The Lost Volcano (Ford L.Beebe) from 1950, a film in which Sheffield's Bomba, mirroring Tarzan adopting Sheffield's Boy, takes care of a jungle boy of his own (though this jungle boy's origins differ from Boy's significantly). Add to this especially sloppy jungle sets (including one background painting supposed to show the wide horizon on which actors almost constantly cast their shadows, putting it quite literally into [or out of ?] perspective) and you're left with very little.

(Interestingly enough, as of this writing - April 2008 -  of all the Bomba-films, only The Lost Volcano has been officially released on DVD.)


As mentioned above, the Bomba-series in general does respect its African setting and shines a mainly positive light on its natives who are uniformly black - in all but The Hidden City (1950, Ford L.Beebe), which is less of a jungle- and more of an Arabian nights-tale and which only features one black character, played by Smoki Whitfield, a series regular who appeared in 9 of the 12 Bomba-films. The Hidden City was written by Carroll Young, who also wrote some of the wilder and weirder Tarzan- and Jungle Jim-films.


In later films, Bomba is moved away from the image of the monosyllabic primitive, like in Elephant Stampede (1951, Ford L.Beebe), in which he has persuaded a native girl (Donna Martell) to teach him to read and write, and in Bomba and the Jungle Girl (1952, Ford L.Beebe), he is not only able to speak in whole, even complex, sentences, he also seems to have philosophical questions about his own existence on his mind and goes searching for his own origins. Don't let this slightly lofty description put you off Bomba and the Jungle Girl though, actually, despite being already the 8th entry, it is probably the best, tensest and most atmospheric film of the series, with Bomba's questions about his own origins only serving as character motivation (and moving him even further away from being nothing more than a selfless do-gooder).


By the mid-1950's, the production company Monogram was no more - but only by name, actually Monogram continued to operate as Allied Artists, which initially was founded as a subdivision of Monogram to produce prestige pictures (as opposed to Monogram's B-output) but soon was found fishing in the exactly same waters as its mother company. So eventually, one of the two brands had to go, and the powers-that-be decided it was time for Monogram to fold while Allied Artists carried on - and quite successfully so - until the mid-1970's.


Like other filmseries, the Bomba-series was taken over by Allied Artists and went on for four  more pictures, Safari Drums (1953), The Golden Idol and Killer Leopard (both 1954), and Lord of the Jungle (1955), all (of course) directed Ford L.Beebe, and apart from a different logo at the beginning of the movies, remarkably little had changed. And actually, The Golden Idol even incorporated footage from an earlier, Monogram-produced Bomba-film, The Hidden City.



All Good Things Come to an End


By the mid-1950's, the movieworld (and especially the B-movieworld) had changed, thanks to the widespread acceptance of television, and thus the traditional B-movie aimed particularly at kids was a thing of the past, replaced by a new brand of B-picture, the drive-in flick, targeted at predominately teenage audiences. Accordingly, many B-movie series found a new lease of life on television, indlucing Jungle Jim starring Johnny Weissmuller and Dick Tracy starring Ralph Byrd, plus B-movie cowboys like Roy Rogers [Roy Rogers bio - click here] and Gene Autry also launched successful TV-shows that resembled their B-Westerns.

In this light it is hardly surprising that Reginald Sheffield, Johnny's father, tried to launch a series of his own with Johnny in the lead, which would actually be set in the jungle - and thus, Bantu the Zebra Boy saw the light of day in 1955, created, produced and directed by Reginald Sheffield. Bantu was pretty much Bomba all over again, only that he now rode a zebra and wore a zebra loincloth. But apart from being derivative (aren't all jungle series ?), Bantu the Zebra Boy was actually quite a decent effort with much outdoors footage and nice sets, and it looks better than most contemporary jungle series ... however, the film was never turned into a series, maybe because Sheffield didn't have enough drawing power to carry the series on his own, maybe because there were already enough jungle series around at the time, or maybe the series did simply require too high a budget, who knows.


In 1955, Johnny Sheffield was 24 years old - and he had to realize there was no more room for him in the movie business: As an actor he lacked charisma and versatility to break into other genres, the jungle pictures he made had become a thing of the past, and television found no spot fro his series ... so Johnny Sheffield, instead of desperately trying to cling onto his declining career and living in the past, made the right decision, turned his back on the film industry and instead turned his attention to studying at UCLA where he completed a business degree. Over the years, he handled a variety of businesses, quite successfully, according to reports, and lived in the past only inasmuch as he wrote articles about his movie reminicences every now and again for a variety of publications as well as selling videos of Bantu the Zebra Boy directly to fans.

Johnny Sheffield got married in 1959, and he and his wife had three children. Nowadays he is happily retired and lives in Southern California with his wife.


True, Johnny Sheffield was not the most important actor there was, and in cinema history he is regarded as a mere footnote at best, but that said, he was probably one of the more entertaining footnotes around, and at least fans of cheap and cheesy jungle movies like myself would not want to miss him.


[Epilogue: Though Bantu the Zebra Boy was never picked up as a series, Johnny Sheffield eventually made it to television with the series Zim Bomba in 1962 - but this series was merely made up from edited-down footage from his Bomba the Jungle Boy-series and did feature no new material.]


© by Mike Haberfelner

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In times of uncertainty of a possible zombie outbreak, a woman has to decide between two men - only one of them's one of the undead.


There's No Such Thing as Zombies
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