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.
Finally, we reach Disc Three: 1942’s Jungle Book, which was based off of several different stories from Rudyard Kipling’s timeless series. This tale is told via flashbacks by an elderly Buldeo (the great Joseph Calleia) to a young adventuress (Faith Brook). After his father is mauled to death by the fierce tiger Shere Khan (OK, what was the obsession with killing off Sabu’s onscreen dad?), infant Mowgli wandered out into the jungle and was raised by a pack of wolves. 12 years later, a surprisingly 18-year-old Sabu returns to the village from whence he disappeared, where he is cared for by his birth mother (Rosemary DeCamp), but shunned by bad guy Buldeo — until he learns Mowgli knows the whereabouts of a lost city filled with gold, that is! Dick Tracy himself, Ralph Byrd, has a small part as one of the many Indians portrayed by American actors. Several animals communicate with Mowgli via actual noises, while others are dubbed over (and I swear that’s Paul Frees providing the voice of Kaa, the python!).
Each disc is housed in a clear slim case, with rather extensive liner notes on the inner cover. The notes give viewers a more detailed history of the somewhat tragic life of Sabu (his career all-but died after he made Jungle Book and moved to America shortly thereafter, and he died of a heart attack 21 years later at the still-tender age of 39). As is usual in the Eclipse series, there are no special features here. The transfers for Jungle Book and Elephant Boy were both mastered from British Film Institute prints and are quite nice, while The Drum looks like it has been culled from a more “common” print. All three films are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios of 1.37:1 and feature mono soundtracks and English (SDH) subtitles.
For those of you who love vintage exotic adventures from that precarious point in time wherein white folks portrayed all kinds of ethnicities (often quite outrageously, to boot), the Eclipse Series 30: Sabu! is a delightful pick from our friends at The Criterion Collection.