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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Past Is A Foreign Country: Sabu

These were my first impressions of Sabu:  1) When I was in the sixth grade I became obsessed with a book called The Best of Life,  a glossy coffee table book featuring photos from the then recently deceased Life Magazine.  One of the pictures I was most drawn to was of a dark-haired boy about to be trod upon by an incredibly fake-looking giant clawed foot.  The boy was Sabu, and the photo was a publicity still from Thief of Bagdad; in fact, it was this very picture:

and I just knew that I had to see that movie.  

2) The Cedar Rapids Public Library, where I spent as much time as possible as a tween, loaned out movies.  Not VHS tapes or DVDs, for these were still dreams of the future, but 8 millimeter silent films, which you could thread onto your home projector and shine upon a screen in your living room.  Above the shelf where these gems were stored was a poster picturing such personages as W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and inexplicably to me,  a very handsome dark-haired young man, shirtless and wearing a sarong. I could not stop looking at it. Although I didn't know it yet, It was Sabu in The Jungle Book.

3) I'm at a news stand leafing through a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine I loved as a twelve-year-old, but teenaged me believed it to be a bit too unsophisticated for someone of my refined taste.  I happen upon a photo of a very handsome, muscular, dark-haired, shirtless young man, trapped in a giant spider's web.  In fact it is this very photo (minus the watermarks): 

I immediately buy the magazine and take it home. For later. Nudge, nudge. By this point I know perfectly well that this is Sabu,  in Thief of Bagdad again, but I have never seen one of his movies. Sabu was sixteen years old in that photo, but by the time I saw it he had already been dead for fifteen years.

And then cable TV happened, and KAPOW! I finally got to see Sabu's movies, which I preferred to watch in a private place.

In case you didn't know, Sabu was the first actor from India to become an international film star,  starting at age thirteen,  in British films produced by Alexander Korda, who then brought him to America after the second world war broke in Europe . These are the best films of his career: Elephant Boy, The Drum (a.k.a. Drums), Thief of Bagdad, and The Jungle Book.  


Sabu then went under contract to Universal Pictures and made a series of campy,  escapist adventures with Jon Hall and Maria Montez, including Cobra Woman, and Arabian Knights.

He was really something;  young and beautiful, not what you'd call an great actor, but with a winning personality, real spark. And also this: he was almost always semi-naked. Don't imagine that I'm the only one who noticed the semi-naked thing.

In 1944,  at just twenty years old, he became a U.S. citizen, joined the United States Army Air Force and served with distinction, but by the time the WWII was over, the bloom was off the rose.  Aside from a supporting role in the classic Black Narcissus, it was all down hill from there. He was typecast as an "elephant boy," a role that no longer suited him.  He continued working in B movies, made a failed TV pilot, and opened a furniture store. He died at a the age of thirty-nine, having just completed his last movie,  a Disney film entitled A Tiger Walks.

Incidentally,  while searching for pictures for this post, I learned that there was a popular Argentinian singer/actor of the 1970s who called himself Sabu, although his real name was Héctor Jorge Ruiz.  He chose his stage name after seeing Thief of Bagdad, citing his resemblance to the late star. What do you think? Twinsies? 

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