The career of a child actor — especially one from the Golden Era of filmmaking — is always a fascinating yarn. The latest release from The Criterion Collection’s budget label Eclipse brings us three titled from the limited résumé of child star Indian child star known to the world as Sabu. Eclipse Series 30: Sabu! features three of the four earliest films the famous The Thief of Bagdad (1940) star made in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s with producer Alexander Korda and his brother, director Zoltan Korda: Elephant Boy from 1937, The Drum from 1938, and the 1942 classic The Jungle Book. The third of Sabu’s early works, the aforementioned The Thief of Bagdad, is not included in this set, but was released by The Criterion Collection with their usual full treatment in 2008.
Disc One features Elephant Boy (1937), which was also Sabu’s film debut. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s short story Toomai of the Elephants, the movie brings us the plight of young Toomai (Sabu), a lad in India who dreams of being a great hunter, and who helps his father out by acting as an elephant driver. A man named Petersen (Walter Hudd) wanders into the area in order to round up a herd of elephant for the government and hires out Toomai’s father and his family’s faithful elephant Kala Nag. Toomai accompanies. After an accident takes the life of his father, Toomai subdues an angry Kala Nag, and barely escapes with the great beast when a malicious mahout (Bruce Gordon) makes up his mind to kill the animal. Wilfrid Hyde-White turns in an early onscreen performance in this adventure drama co-directed by documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (which explains why the film tends to play off like fact instead of fiction).
Disc Two’s feature, The Drum (1938), promised its viewers a cast of 3,000 and delivered something rather controversial instead. Its story, set during the days of the British Raj, features Sabu as young Prince Azim, whose father has been murdered by his evil Kahn of a brother, Prince Ghul (Raymond Massey in brownface). Actually, according to this Korda Brothers feature, all Indians are evil (hence the controversy: reportedly, the film caused rioting upon its premiere in India) — with the exception of young Azim, who is befriended by British Captain Carruthers (Roger Livesay) and a young drummer boy (Desmond Tester), whose instrument of choice fascinates our young would-be king. The finale of the film Ghul planning to massacre all of Carruthers’ infantry during a grand “Hey, let’s be friends!” banquet; a scheme that is thankfully thwarted by our young hero. Valerie Hobson co-stars as Mrs. Carruthers.