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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

ELEPHANT BOY (1937)

An enchantment. It’s easy to see how the world fell for Sabu, the orphaned Indian boy who made his debut in this neat adaptation of Kipling’s short story. Along with his bull elephant, Sabu signs up with his father & a team of locals to search the jungle for elephant herds, led by a great white hunter. (Allergic to British Raj stories? The non-PC factor is pretty low here.) Naturally, dangers & hardships are encountered, but Sabu has been told that if he sees the elephants dance, he’ll be reckoned a true hunter, like his father & father’s father. Documentarian Robert Flaherty (of NANOOK OF THE NORTH/’22 fame) had failed to complete two previous mainstream collaborations (WHITE SHADOWS IN THE SOUTH SEAS/’28 w/ Woody Van Dyke and TABU/’31 w/ F. W. Murnau), but he & Zoltan Korda worked on the same wave length, sharing a romanticized naturalism along with a love of location shooting. Spliced together, the slightly choppy quality of mixed footage only increases the general feeling of verisimilitude. You can feel how hard this was to get on film, now all the more precious & poignant with the loss of so much Indian wildlife. There are more elephants in some shots than survive in all of India. And now that Criterion has restored the Sabu/Vincent Korda productions, you can really see them. Sabu learned his part phonetically, and his speech can be a little difficult to understand, but he’d never be so unimaginably pure again, with triumphs & tragedies that can still make your heart swell.

DOUBLE-BILL: For another fictional jungle adventure shot with a documentarian’s tools, you can’t beat Cooper & Schoeodsack’s CHANG/’27. (Look for the Milestone DVD.) It’s also a great intro to silent pics. Or try the other great Kipling pics of 1937: WEE WILLIE WINKIE from that most unexpected filmmaking duo - John Ford & Shirley Temple! (Warning: lots of hearty British Raj stuff in this one.) Or Victor Fleming’s masterful CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS with Spencer Tracy & Master Freddie Bartholomew breaking all hearts.

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