Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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By Philip Leibfried
(Films in Review - October 1989)
With a smile as broad as the Ganges and charm enough to lure
the stripes off a tiger, the young Indian became an instant star
with the release of Elephant Boy in 1937.
In April, 1937, the film marking the first collaboration between noted documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, creator of Nanook of the North, Moana, and Man of Aran, and a major studio, Alexander Korda's London Films, was released. Based on a tale from The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, "Toomai of the Elephants", and called Elephant Boy, it introduced one of the most refreshing personalities to appear on the screen in years.
Discovered by Flaherty during a search for the lead in Elephant Boy, 11 year old Selar Shaik Sabu (Sabu's true name. The name "Dastagir", found in so many reference works, is actually his brother's first name. This error was made when the family passed through Customs in England.) was serving the Maharajah of Mysore as a mahout (elephant driver), just as his father had done before him.
Sabu was born on Jan. 27, 1924, in Karapur, Mysore, in southern India. His mother's family (she died shortly after his birth) had come from Assam in north eastern India, where the people are part Mongolian. His father took over the task of raising Sabu, even teaching his elephant to rock the little boy's cradle. When his father died in 1931, Sabu was made the Maharajah's ward.
Four years later, Sabu was chosen as the lead in Elephant Boy. Filming began in the spring of 1935, but bad weather held up any real work until later that year.
A.K. Sett, honorary personal assistant to the prime minister of Mysore, recalled his meeting with Flaherty in a letter to Paul Rotha, Flaherty's biographer, [Was it a nice biography, full of Flaherty flattery? (sorry, couldn't resist it)] in 1958: "My most treasured memory of this day is of Sabu ... he made his appearance slowly, astride an elephant, and there they stood in the middle of the very large compound for all the world to see. Very thin and naked save a small lungi wound round his legs and his head tightly covered with a white turban in the typical southern way ... The manner in which he handled the ponderous, lumbering elephant was enough to stir one's confidence and trust in him."
Later in the same letter, he stated: "Years later, Sabu dined with me informally and alone ... I told him how and where I first saw him ... This time he did not make his appearance on an elephant. He arrived in a luxurious Cadillac. He was most elegantly clad, not in a tight turban and skimpy lungi, I can assure you. And he spoke with a distinct American accent."
Indeed, Sabu's cleverness and charm were what most impressed Flaherty and his wife Frances, who wrote of their Indian sojourn in her book, Elephant Dance, published in 1937.
Though it received mixed reviews, Elephant Boy was popular with the public, due mainly to Sabu, who became an instant star. With a smile as broad as the Ganges and charm enough to lure the stripes off a tiger, the young Indian also added the authenticity needed in the lead role. The fledgling performer was taken to England to promote the film, which was the official British entry at the Venice Film Festival that year where it won the award for best direction (shared by Flaherty and Zoltan Korda, who directed the studio sequences shot in London.) He was taken on a tour of the British capital; there he broadcast over the BBC, televised at Alexandra Palace, sat for a sculpture by Lady Kennet and a portrait by Egerton Cooper.
On the basis of this initial success, Sabu was rushed into his second film, The Drum, based on the novel by A.E. Mason. Filmed in the hills of South Wales, The Drum is the story of the friendship of an English drummer boy and an Indian prince whose father is assassinated by the boy's uncle, who plans a massacre of the British troops at a banquet. The prince discovers the plot and alerts the British by signalling his friend on a large drum. Shot in Technicolor and directed by Zoltan Korda, it holds up very well today.
Sabu's third picture is undoubtedly his finest vehicle. Similar in story to the Douglas Fairbanks film of the same name, The Thief of Bagdad is one of the most wonderfully realized fantasy films ever produced. It contains all the elements of which dreams are made: a beautiful princess (June Duprez), a malevolent vizier (played to the hilt by Conrad Veidt), a genie in a bottle (superbly portrayed by black actor Rex Ingram), a fabulous jewel, a hidden temple, a giant spider, and a flying carpet - all presented in vivid Technicolor by design experts William Cameron Menzies (who had worked on the original film) and Vincent Korda. Directorial credit was shared by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan.
Sabu played Abu, a young orphan who lives by his wits and nimble fingers. He becomes involved in aiding a deposed king (John Justin) regain his throne and win the hand of the princess. He experiences several adventures involving the aforementioned characters before he meets a group of sages in a golden tent in a wilderness. They inform him that he is the prince for whom they've been waiting for centuries, ever since men lost their sense of wonder. "All things are possible when seen through the eyes of youth." the head illuminate tells him. He then presents Abu with a magic crossbow to assist him in his mission. The young thief then performs his final theft when he purloins the sapient's flying carpet to get him to Bagdad as quickly as possible. he arrives back in the nick of time, saving the king from decapitation and dispatching Veidt 's vizier with a bolt from the crossbow. In the end he is offered a fine education and a position at court, but opts for fun and freedom. He then rides off into a rainbow aboard the flying carpet.
No actor ever enjoyed a role more than Sabu did his in The Thief of Bagdad, and his enjoyment is infectious. In truth, he was a youth, living a fantasy and knew it, so he reacted, rather than acted.
Filing of The Thief of Bagdad took over two years, due to Britain's entry into World War II. Operations had to be shifted to Hollywood in order to complete the production. (Some location shooting was also done, notably at the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert.) This delay precluded Sabu's accepting the title role in RKO's 1939 release, Gunga Din; the part went to Sam Jaffe. (So aware was Jaffe of the appropriateness of the personality he was replacing that he admitted that in order to give the best performance possible, he kept two words always in mind: "Think Sabu.")
When finally released on Christmas Day, 1940, The Thief of Bagdad was deservedly a smash hit, as well as winning Oscars for color cinematography, color art direction, and visual and sound special effects.
The former mahout's final film for Korda was another excursion into Kipling. The Jungle Book, released in 1942. Sabu was a natural for Mowgli, the feral child raised by a wolf pack. Animal footage was cleverly integrated with that of the humans so that the beasts seemed directly involved with the humans; only the snakes were models. As bibliophiles know, there are two Jungle Books, although they are often published as one volume, and together they comprise fifteen tales. This being too many for one film, and with "Toomai of the Elephants" having been treated in Elephant Boy , other stories had to be chosen selectively. They are: "Mowgli's Brothers", "How Fear Came", "Tiger! Tiger!" and "The King's Ankus". Woven into a story about man's avarice (told by Joseph Calleia's character at the beginning and end, and in voice-over throughout), they give an idea of the flavor of Kipling's words as they retain the names and personalities of the various creatures. The forest conflagration at the conclusion is as beautiful as such a destructive force can be, surpassing that of 20th Century-Fox's The Blue Bird of two years earlier. The score by Miklos Rozsa also holds the distinction of being the first such to be released as a record album.
That same year Sabu was signed by Universal, where he appeared in four films in support of "The Queen of Technicolor", Maria Montez. The first was Arabian Nights, released in 1942. Sabu received third billing for the first time. However, he did get to lead a cavalry charge at the film's conclusion, arriving in time to save the hero and heroine. For the next three pictures, White Savage ('43), Cobra Woman ('44) and Tangier (46), his role was essentially the same, friend of the hero and contributor of mild comic relief. The last named movie differed only in that the setting was updated to World War II.
The war years were busy ones for the young actor. When not cavorting on the Universal back lot, he participated in the Treasury Department's defense bond sales campaign. He toured 30 cities and appeared on radio. On January 4, 1944 Selar Shaik Sabu became an American citizen. Not long after, he entered the Army Air Force Basic Training Center at Greensboro, North Carolina. He served as a tail gunner for the remainder of the war, flying over forty missions in the Pacific, and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross among other decorations. He was mustered out of the army a Staff sergeant.
After completing his work on Tangier, Sabu returned to England for his ninth film, Black Narcissus, the Archer's 1947 award-winner for color cinematography (by Jack Cardiff) and directed by Michael Powell His role was not major, though, as the son of an Indian general who attempts to improve his knowledge by attending a school run by Anglican nuns headed by Deborah Kerr, it was an important one. Set in the Himalayas (but shot at Pinewood Studios and Horsham in Sussex), Black Narcissus tells of the various problems the nuns have coping with the environment and the populace, as well as the inner turmoil caused by Sister Ruth's (Kathleen Byron) losing her religious calling and succumbing to lust. Sabu appears about midway, wearing the scent that gives the story its title. He promptly becomes the object of desire of a young pupil played by Jean Simmons (complete with nose-ring) and shortly thereafter runs off with her. [and who can blame him? :) ] He returns much later to explain the situation to Sister Clodagh (Kerr), and then is off again. [Well the film is just about ended when he returns]
The make believe union didn't last, as Sabu was conspicuously Jean-less in his next picture, End of the River ('47), also for the Archers, but directed by Derek Twist instead of Powell, and the poorer for that fact. The river of the title is the Amazon, and though a genuine Brazilian celebrity (Bibi Ferreira) was chosen to play Sabu's wife, the result was a short, but dull feature.
Sabu returned to the United States for his last Universal effort, a programmer called Man-Eater of Kumaon ('48), which is best forgotten. The actor went over to Columbia for his next picture, and another rendezvous with destiny. On the set of Song of India, in July, 1948, he met a young actress named Marilyn Cooper, who had been called upon without notice to replace an ailing Gail Russell in the female lead. However she received no screen credit for her work. On October 19 they were married and would become the parents of two children, Paul and Jasmine. (Paul now heads a very successful rock band called "Only Child"; he also produces records for other artists. Jasmine is a writer and trainer of Arabian hybrid horses, two of which appeared in Warner Bros.' Blade Runner ('82). [as the Unicorns?] Mrs. Sabu now resides in southern California.
Sabu was a practical and realistic person. Early on he realized that his appeal would wane as he grew older. However, he had no intention of becoming a mahout again, so around 1950 he began a contracting and real estate business which occupied most of his time when he was not acting. Time proved him to be correct; his popularity did lessen. he took what film work came his way, even though jungle and fantasy films had fallen out of favor by the Fifties. The results were less than satisfying, however.
In 1952 he returned to his homeland for a film called Bagdad. this time he did not portray a thief. Toward the end of that year he was back in England, starring in the Harringay Circus with an exciting Elephant act. Initially, he appeared in his finery from the conclusion of The Thief of Bagdad, but audience response was low, so he was forced to wear the more traditional dhoti (loincloth), and consequently suffered a great deal from the cold. He also toured Europe with the circus in the following year.
After the tour, Sabu appeared with Vittorio DeSica in the 1954 Italian production, Hello, Elephant! 1956 was the nadir of his career. First came a short entitled Black Panther, produced by Ron and June Ormond, purveyors of such classics as Outlaw Woman and The Girl from Tobacco Row . Not long after its release by Howco, the Ormond's traded their interest in another film for the rights to Black Panther minus Sabu's footage. They replaced it with some nonsense about a girl raised by gorillas and re-titled it Untamed Mistress prior to its release. Enough said. Next came Jungle Hell, an unauthorized picture mainly of stock travelogue footage (including more elephants than in any six Tarzan movies, and a fight between a crocodile and a tiger, obviously lifted from one of Frank Buck's films.) Sabu's twenty scenes seem to be an afterthought included to give the film a name actor and some sort of story line; in the latter it fails miserably. This footage was apparently taken from some aborted picture without the actor's knowledge, for he sued the producer with the intention of blocking its release. The decision handed down was in Sabu's favor; the film was forbidden to ever be shown publicly. (A print bearing the logo of Medallion TV exists; whether or not it has ever been shown on the small screen I do not know.)
Despite this brace of disasters (or maybe due to their limited distribution) Allied Artists must have felt that the former child star's name still had drawing power, for they cast him in a 1957 vehicle entitled Sabu and the Magic Ring. making him one of a select few to have their real names appear in a film title. [Especially one that they appeared in and wasn't a posthumous bio-pic]
Following that, Sabu made but three pictures; a German-Italian co-production directed by William Dieterle called Mistress of the World ('59); a love triangle story concerning big game hunters in India with Robert Mitchum and Jack Hawkins in which he played an Indian guide (Rampage, '63); and a film fir Disney about a tiger that escapes from a circus (A Tiger Walks, '64).
On December 2, 1963, India's only international film star was stricken by a fatal heart attack in Chatsworth, California. His body was interred in Forest Lawn cemetery among many other film personalities.
Though the young Indian boy who charmed his way around the world is gone, his film legacy keeps him alive, proof that "All things are possible when seen through the eyes of youth."
(The author wishes to express his sincere gratitude to Mrs. Marilyn Sabu for her gracious assistance in supplying information for this article. Thanks also to artist/historian Gary Zaboly for his contributions.)
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