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:


A week or two passed, then the studio received another message.


Two more weeks, then:


Then, the next day:


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

*Lawrie’s other pet peeve: Laurence Harvey urinating out the window of a moving car.

14 Responses to “Sabu invents an entirely new kind of acting.”

  1. Beautiful piece!

  2. Merci!

    Funny, but we were talking about adolescent angst in here just the other day re Superbad. In The Thief of Bagdad Sabu explicitly rejects puberty. He defeats the evil Connie Veidt and helps John Justin’s handsome Prince win the beautiful June Duprez. But that’s that for him. He wants adventure and excitement, and he won’t have it if he stays put in the Palace. So off he goes on his magic carpet — a true hero for all-time.

    The Thief of Bagdad had so many directors because it was a production on the run. London was being bombed , so Korda decamped to Los Angeles — with Rex Ingram’s genie appearing before Sabu’s astonished eyes on the beach in Santa Monica where years later Chris would meet Don.

    But that’s another story. In this one Hitler is vanquished by two children

    — Anne Frank and Sabu.

  3. I think the ending of The Thief fairly explicitly connects Sabu’s character to Peter Pan, rejecting civilsation and maturity in favour of eternal childhood adventure. (And I’m fairly sure JM Barrie describes PP as “dark”).

  4. Ah but he’s a Peter without a Wendy or a “Lost Boys.” In that he’s closer to Huck Finn (but without a Jim.)

    But for me the impact of the film as a whole is an explicitly (even to a large degree militantly) anti-fascist work. It was made for the children who were being displaced and orphaned by the Third Reich, even as the cameras were rolling.

  5. Well it certainly makes sense of Conrad Veidt’s casting, not that one needs any excuse to cast him. It wears its propoganda intent very lightly, which is to its credit.

    Now, has anyone ever published a breakdown of which director shot what?

  6. Powell lays claim to ordering the giant eye painted on the ship’s prow and much of the genie scenes. I believe Ludwig Berger presided over the mechanical doll. As for everything else it’s hard to say. Yet for a dish with so many cooks it’s surprisingly consistent and tasty — unlike say Casino Royale (1967)

  7. For sure. I guess a sharp script and a producer with vision helps!

    Speaking of multi-authored films, looks like I’m finally getting my hands on the Ferrer/Heisler/Ophuls/Sturges Howard Hughes production Vendetta… watch this space.

  8. Lawrie washed Jean Simmons’ body makeup off?

  9. Yes. The job of assistant director has many perks!

    I think I mentioned this in my earlier Jean Simmons post, inspired by a viewing of the excellent and almost-unknown Uncle Silas.

  10. Thanks to your excellent tagging system, I just looked it up. But how did such a thing happen? Even assuming Jean couldn’t wash herself, wouldn’t a production send a woman crew member to do the job? Or is the U.K. more sexually open than we Americans can possibly suspect?

  11. I think Lawrie got the job unofficially, by private arrangement with Jean, though I’m not sure. After all, he was a young man, just out of the air force, Jean was 17 or so, and not yet a massive star, and I guess he already met her on Caesar and Cleopatra, the first film he worked on.

    You’re right, Rank wouldn’t assign this job to a man!

  12. I appreciate the article, but I have to say I disagree with some of the assertions about Jean Simmons. Implying she didn’t want to date Sabu because she was racist is pretty unfair. Maybe she just didn’t like the guy? By all accounts, he was a womanizer. So why would her mother want her teen daughter dating him? What’s that got to do with racism? I second the notion that I simply don’t believe a man was assigned to wash dye off a teenaged kid with her mother’s approval.

  13. I didn’t actually say anything about Jean Simmons not being into Sabu. It was her mother who disapproved. My reason for thinking that might be Mrs. Simmons being prejudiced is that she did not object to her daughter seeing Lawrie. Agree that if this was simply Jean’s preference, there would be not be any grounds for suspecting prejudice, just a young girl making her own choice.

    As to whether Lawrie was assigned by the production, or by Jean, or made the whole thing up, pretty much all of his other stories have been confirmed, but it’s always possible this one was wishful thinking. But he was a dashing rogue in his day…

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