Sabu invents an entirely new kind of acting.
From the Korda production ELEPHANT BOY.
Directed by Robert Flaherty, then RE-directed by Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan, after Flaherty’s more purist documentary style was rejected as uncommercial (a similar problem had resulted in Flaherty’s removal from WHITE SHADOWS ON THE SOUTH SEAS, where he was replaced by “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke. How did Hollywood turn the dry documentary into boffo B.O.? “Boys, I’ve an idea — let’s fill the screen with tits!”). Much of E-BOY’s elephant stampede footage was staged in England with circus animals (it looks phoney as heck). Flaherty was certainly not above staging things (it was normal practice in ’30s documentary) but he had his own code of standards that would never have permitted geographic fraudulence of this kind.
Editor Charles Crichton, later director of comedies like THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and A FISH CALLED WANDA, used to tell a story about the production that may well be untrue (one hopes it is). When Flaherty went out to India, he telegrammed the studio:
ARRIVED INDIA FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT AND BOY
A week or two passed, then the studio received another message.
FOUND BOY FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT
Two more weeks, then:
FOUND ELEPHANT FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY
Then, the next day:
ELEPHANT SAT ON BOY FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY WE FIND NEW BOY
As I say, hopefully a humorous anecdote rather than a real-life tragedy. Now to Sabu!
What’s he doing in the clip? I don’t know, but it’s clearly VERY GREAT. While his lines emerge very much as if imperfectly memorized, his enthusiasm in delivering them is so overwhelming that the whole thing is just a delight. I challenge you not to grin. In addition, his eyeline is all over the place, as if he’s looking from one crewmember to the other, or as if they wanted to give the impression he’s looking around the cinema at first one patron, then another. Most of the time he’s looking straight ahead at the circle seats, the cheap seats, rather than down at the front rows, which seems appropriate for a working class lad. He’s talking to the elephant boys of England.
It’s quite amazing to me that there was an Indian juvenile star in Britain in the ’30s and ’40s. There hasn’t been one since. “Invented” for this one film (he had been working in the elephant stables of the Maharajah of Mysore), Sabu was so obviously captivating that producers didn’t hesitate to come up with new projects he could appear in. You might think he would be considered “hard to cast”, but projects like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and BLACK NARCISSUS, while not constructed around him, were able to make use of his vigour, beauty, and unique acting style.
My late friend Lawrie Knight worked on BLACK NARCISSUS as an A.D. He reported that the young star had a disconcerting habit of welcoming messengers into his dressing room while he was on the toilet. I don’t think this is Indian S.O.P., so maybe it was movie star contempt for underlings, or some kind of exhibitionism. John Ford used to do the same thing with journalists (“Send him in — I can deal with two shits at the same time,”), a scene recreated in CATCH 22 with an enthroned Martin Balsam greeting padre Anthony Perkins with a glimpse of Hades. Funny scene. Ford was also fond of greeting guests naked, having emerged from the shower, so I do suspect a bit of exhibitionism there, especially what with Maureen O’Hara’s revelations about Ford’s same-sex-loving side.
Sabu again! Lawrie also said that Sabu was very interested in co-star Jean Simmons, but that the young starlet’s mother discouraged any co-mingling. This seems less like simple motherly protection than prejudice, since Lawrie was able to wash the brown body makeup off Jean in the bath every evening, and THAT was fine. Sabu contented himself with Jean’s stand-in, according to Lawrie (Billy Wilder always suggested sleeping with stand-ins rather than movie stars — all the benefits, none of the stress), and soon had her pregnant.
Now, I don’t know for a fact this is true, but all of Lawrie’s stories that I’ve been able to check out, have checked out. And at the time of his tragically early death, aged 39, Sabu had been plagued by paternity suits, so either Lawrie was being completely factual, or he incorporated the news stories into his anecdote. But as I say, I’ve never found any of Lawrie’s stories to be inaccurate, unless they were stories told to him by somebody else (like the one about Jayne Mansfield’s head rolling down the street).
Sabu’s Hollywood career took in the outrageous COBRA WOMAN: highly recommended B-movie madness with Maria Montez as twins (one Good! One evil!), Lon Chaney Jnr and an aging chimp. See it! While this material lacks the class and budgetary level of his Korda productions in Britain, Sabu was able to spin out his career as a juvenile lead far beyond his actual puberty, thanks to his diminutive height and natural exuberance.
I’ve heard that Sabu’s youthful looks faded with his career, but in the latest footage I’ve seen of him, an appearance on somebody’s This Is Your Life, he’s still a very handsome guy, although now obviously no longer a boy. Strange that western cinema could find roles for a beautiful Indian boy, but not a beautiful Indian man…
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD even inspired a SABU ACTION FIGURE, of sorts. I found it at www.dollreference.com.
*Lawrie’s other pet peeve: Laurence Harvey urinating out the window of a moving car.