Sheena was created by a 19 year old comics artist, Will Eisner, in 1938, & was the first successful female action-comic. She went on to have a single issue of a pulp magazine issued in her honor & a television series starring one of the most popular pin-up girls of the day.
Will Eisner stated that he derived Sheena's name from H. Rider Haggard's novel She, as well as the whole idea of the White Goddess in Africa. At first Sheena was something of a jungle scourge, scary much as Haggard's She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed was frightening though beautiful, but Sheena soon settled down into a heroic female Tarzan role, protectress of tribal life & animals.
In the original comic books of the 1940s Sheena visited a lost race in a hidden valley of temples with all the usual Allan Quatermain & Tarzan themes, but John Guillermin's film version Sheena (1984) does not include this element & is a vastly less thrilling version of the character.
Tanya Roberts plays Sheena, a fair-skinned orphan raised by a kindly Zambouli priestess (Elizabeth of Toro, a real-life African queen) in a remote village where Sheena was trained in the ancient arts of make-up, Hollywood hair-styling, & telepathic communication with animals. Shot entirely in Kenya.
The definitive "screen" Sheena was for the small screen, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle which ran twenty-six episodes 1955-1956. It starred the strapping six-foot one-inch Irish McCalla, who simply exuded energentic jungle girl authority.
The first generation of kids raised on television -- the boomers & a little before -- generally remember this series with great clarity. For boys Irish McCalla was indeed a Goddess sprung to life & inspired many an adolescent sensual fantasy.
For girls Sheena was very nearly the only expression of beauty & woman power in the 1950s, when woman's post-war place was in the home & most lingering images of strong women were a bit crusty, as in the contemporaneous television series Tugboat Annie starring a gravel-voiced Marjorie Mane. Sheena was proof girls could both rule & remain beautiful.
Plotlines for individual episodes occasionally verged into fantasy, as in "The Magic Bag" with Sheena helping to track down a native potion that can revive the dead, but mostly Sheena spent her time saving almost-boyfriend Bob (Christian Drake) from getting himself killed, or stopping ivory poachers or gun runners. Depictions of tribal peoples was mostly unfortunate, or this series might otherwise have really been timeless.
A new television version of Sheena, the Jungle Queen debuted October 8, 2000 & ran two seasons 35 45-minute episodes (an hour each with commercials).
Starring Gena Lee Nolan as the Congo's most glamorous jungle girl, this was based more on the awful Tanya Roberts movie than on Irish McCalla's television version or the original comic book heroine. Shot mainly in Orlando to cement the Disneyesque quality, so even Tanya Robert's film was cooler because of authentic Kenya settings.
This time out Sheena not only communicates with animals a la the dreary Beastmaster television series, but she's also a were-beast morphs into sundry computer generated beasties. Athletic stand-ins occasionally faked more interesting stunts than could the bathing beauty left to her own ability.
There was a dissonance about a Baywatch Babe or Hustler style nudie-model having adventures in plots aimed at undiscerning eight year olds. One episode has the preschool plot of Sheena saving from a fate worse than death several small domestic pet gerbils which are stand-ins for some wild jirds purportedly worth thousands & thousands of dollars apiece.
The wee kiddies would love Sheena saving something as familiar as a gerbil or hamster -- but right in the middle of this Saturday Morning Cartoon storyline our leading man has a hot erotic dream of Sheena doing him -- with close-up of Gena Lee Nolan's porn-familiar humping bum. In my local market the programmers realized it was a show to put into the 1:00 a.m. after-Leno slot so that kids won't accidentally watch it.
Gena's not so unconvincing she might not be great if the scripts were any good, & there is at least a "horny old farts defined" attempt to make Sheena seem powerful & mystically cool. But scene for scene the show could not but strike any adult as laughable, unless he's just wacking off to Gena & could care less if the story itself makes any sense.
In a typical scene, the main cast runs through hail of machine-gun fire unscathed (which is already stupid enough) when suddenly jungle-wise Sheena breaks open a rock & there are, oo!, crystals inside, which improbably reflect sunlight just like any old highly polished flat-surfaced make-up mirror, blinding the machine-gunners who already couldn't hit an elephant if they were sitting on one.
Rather more effective if no less nonsensical are scenes (occurring in both of the first two episodes I saw) that have Sheena smear what looks like axel grease all over her body so that she can morph into a supernatural were-monkey capable of running upside down on the underside of a bridge, or permitting a stand-in to do monkey-girl vs. bad-guys karate sequences.
The show was totally inadequate as a replacement for Xena, Warrior Woman which was the audience it presumedly chased after. The series was cancelled without further syndication. The 1950s television series remains the epitome of Sheena action.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl