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Case Number 22895: Small Claims Court

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Sabu!

Elephant Boy
1937 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
The Drum
1938 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Jungle Book
1942 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Criterion
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 8th, 2011

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All Rise...

Coincidentally, Judge Clark Douglas is also based on a story by Rudyard Kipling.

The Charge

Commanding the screen with effortless grace and humor!

The Case

The 30th installment in Criterion's Eclipse series (which offers no-frills, low-budget versions of titles perhaps a bit too obscure or insignificant for the Criterion Collection) boasts a simple and striking title: Sabu! It's the first time an exclamation point has been included in the title of an Eclipse set; not even Raffaello Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas merited such punctuation. It's also the first time an Eclipse collection has spotlighted an actor, as the other collections have spotlighted directors (The First Films of Akira Kurosawa), writers (George Bernard Shaw on Film), producers (Alexander Korda's Private Lives) or studios (Nikkatsu Noir).

Spotlighting Sabu as the connective tissue between the three films in this collection (Elephant Boy, The Drum, and Jungle Book) seems like the obvious way to go until you consider that there are plenty of other connections between them. For starters, all three movies were directed by Zoltan Korda, who seems precisely the sort of modestly well-regarded director who might be given his own Eclipse set. Additionally, all three films explore the complicated relationship between India and the British Empire (albeit in a rather preposterous fashion). If you remove The Drum from the equation, you have a pair of films based on the writings of Rudyard Kipling. Even so, the charismatic Sabu has been spotlighted for the same reason he is given first billing in The Drum (despite the fact that he's very much a supporting character): he's easily the best and most memorable thing about all of these movies.

Sabu was a child actor who offered a radiant authenticity in an era built on artifice. That's particularly evident in these movies, which surround the young actor with a host of British actors sporting brownface makeup and terrible Indian accents. Sabu brightens up the screen every time he appears and enlivens Korda's otherwise stiff productions with ease. However, it should be noted that while this set offers a charming demonstration of Sabu's unique screen presence, the films themselves aren't quite up to the standard he sets.

Things kick of with Elephant Boy, a somewhat shapeless adaptation of Kipling's short story Toomai of the Elephants. The story follows a young boy (Sabu) leading an expedition to find a herd of elephants, but the film is largely comprised of attractive jungle footage shot by co-director Robert J. Flaherty (best-known for Nanook of the North). Korda directs the more conventional, plot-driven scenes in fairly underwhelming fashion; only Sabu's presence generates much interest. The film also digs into some uncomfortable territory in the relationship between the British and the Indians, as the Indians are treated as inferiors and seem to be happy with their status as servants to the boisterous Peterson (Walter Hudd, Look Back in Anger). The film works as an amiable travelogue, but as a short story adaptation it feels terribly bloated.

The politically incorrect elements of Elephant Boy pale dramatically in contrast to the flat-out offensive material in The Drum, which presents the Indians as hiss-worthy villains attempting to destroy the noble, pure-hearted British. Raymond Massey (Santa Fe Trail) plays the savage Prince Ghul, whose plot to kill the British oppressors is thwarted by colonialist sympathizer Prince Azim (Sabu). The film angered Indian audiences upon its release; there were reports of riots in the theatres (I can only imagine how citizens of British-occupied India must have felt upon witnessing the scene in which Sabu waxes eloquent about the majesty of the British uniform). Sabu receives first billing, but has a surprisingly small amount of screen time as he often takes a back seat to ill-advised comic sequences and endless scenes of plotting and scheming.

The collection concludes with Korda's adaptation of Kipling's Jungle Book, which is easily the best of the flicks included in this set. The packaging proudly claims this Jungle Book as the definitive adaptation of the tale, but that's only true because the other versions veered so very far away from Kipling's original work (and there's no doubt in my mind that Disney's swinging animated version is the best film on its own terms). Still, this Jungle Book gives Sabu a slightly meatier role (he plays an athletic, charming, slightly feral Mowgli) and offers some enchanting production design, jungle footage and large-scale set pieces. The tone is fractured and the assorted subplots don't mesh as well as they ought to, but it's still a charming viewing experience. The film also benefits from an evocative Miklos Rozsa score; a distinctive effort which perfectly captures the atmosphere Jungle Book attempts to create.

The DVD transfers are a mixed bag. Elephant Boy is generally impressive, as the black-and-white photography is mostly crisp and clean (there are occasional scratches and flecks, but nothing too distracting). The Drum is easily the worst-looking of the bunch, with loads of color bleeding, poor detail, very distracting horizontal lines and lots of flickering. The essay included praises the film's technicolor cinematography, but that's difficult to appreciate when the print looks this rough. Things get much better with Jungle Book, which looks considerably richer, cleaner and sharper. Visually and otherwise, it's the highlight of the collection. The mono tracks are all adequate, though there's some hiss, crackling and popping at various points throughout each of them. The biggest disappointment is that Rozsa's splendid Jungle Book score never quite has the punch it ought to. Supplements are limited to a brief essay inside the case of each DVD.

Sabu! gives a beloved movie star a chance to jump into the spotlight, but the films aren't quite up to his level. As an alternative, I'd advise checking out Criterion's releases of The Thief of Bagdad and Black Narcissus.

The Verdict

Sabu and Jungle Book are free to go, Elephant Boy is released on parole and The Drum is guilty.

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Scales of Justice, Elephant Boy

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, Elephant Boy

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1937
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Elephant Boy

• Essay

Scales of Justice, The Drum

Judgment: 60

Perp Profile, The Drum

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Drum

• Essay

Scales of Justice, Jungle Book

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Jungle Book

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Jungle Book

• Essay








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