Sunday, September 23, 2012

Elephant Boy (London Films/United Artists, produced 1935-36, released 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got back from the Genetic Roulette screening to have time to watch another movie: Elephant Boy, the 1935-37 film from Alexander Korda’s London Films that marked the screen debut of Sabu — and a movie I had just mentioned in these pages because Charles and I had just watched his second film, The Drum, also a Korda production and also set in Sabu’s native country, India (though the locale of The Drum is the Northwest Frontier country that is now part of Pakistan). Elephant Boy had an odd beginning and a troubled production history. It began in 1935, with the great American documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty living in the U.K. and needing a job after the financial failure of his previous movie, Man of Aran (1934), a documentary filmed off the coast of Galway Bay in Ireland and dealing — like his star-making film, Nanook of the North (1922) — with desperately poor individuals fighting nature to survive. He hired a British agent named T. Hayes Hunter (who occasionally dabbled in the creative side of directing, notably making the quite remarkable 1933 film The Ghoul with Boris Karloff), and Hunter scored him a contract with Korda.

“Flaherty agreed without a murmur to a contract which gave Korda overriding supervisory powers,” said Flaherty’s biographer, Arthur Calder-Marshall. “With the enthusiasm generated by every big-money venture, he believed that this time he had really found the producer to understand him. … The truth is that Elephant Boy … was Flaherty’s one sustained effort to make a box-office feature picture. … Elephant Boy sprang from Flaherty’s profound need to make a lot of money; and Korda, instead of thinking of a modest-budget prestige picture, planned to make a large-scale production, based on Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants. Flaherty thought he could get the best out of Korda, while Korda thought he could get the best out of him; but their methods were so incompatible that they brought out the worst in each other.” The first obvious difference between Elephant Boy and every film Flaherty had made before that was it started with an already written story — by Rudyard Kipling, whose name itself had box-office appeal — rather than Flaherty going out to his location, assembling his cast members and looking for a story on the fly. He also went out with a huge crew — previously he had relied on himself as the cinematographer, used his wife Frances and his brother David as his assistants, and trained indigenous people from his location to handle the technical end, including doing the grunt work of actually developing and printing the film. Instead Flaherty accepted the invitation of the Maharajah of Mysore, an independent principality in southern India that was part of the confederation of Indian states ruled by the British under the Raj, to make the film there. The Maharajah’s government made available to Flaherty and his crew the animals in the Royal Zoo and loaned him an unused palace, the Chittaranjan Mahal, as headquarters for the film crew and the lab where the picture film was developed. (Flaherty shot some sequences with synchronized sound — the first time he’d ever done so — but the soundtracks were processed in Bombay, now Mumbai.) “You would think we were a bloody factory!” Frances Flaherty wrote to her daughters from the Indian location, noting how many hundreds of people had come out from Britain and/or been hired in India instead of the skeleton crews she and her husband were used to using.

Unfortunately, Korda was neither willing nor able to wait for Flaherty to follow his usual modus operandi of using unprofessional actors as his cast members, shooting months of tests and finally evolving the story and structure of his film. Part of the problem was that London Films was in financial trouble; Korda had put his little British studio on the map in 1933 with The Private Life of Henry VIII, an enormous international hit (and the first non-U.S. film to win a major Academy Award: Charles Laughton for Best Actor) but, as Calder-Marshall put it, “the brilliance of the cheap success of The Private Life of Henry VIII had been dulled by many costlier failures.” Flaherty didn’t communicate with Korda until he’d been in India seven months, by which time he’d discovered Sabu (whose full name is given in various sources as Selar Shaik Sabu or Sabu Dastagir), who’d been a sort of mascot for the royal elephant stables in Mysore — and he was the answer to Flaherty’s dreams: he was photogenic, he radiated charisma on screen, and since he’d been living with the Maharajah’s elephants since his father (a mahout, or elephant driver) died at age nine he would have no trouble handling an elephant on screen, and he also could easily play an orphan. (Toomai’s mother is dead before the film begins and his father is killed by a tiger midway through the action.) Unfortunately, Korda couldn’t leave well enough alone, and he kept sending Flaherty “helpers” who just got in the way. First was Lajos Biró, a playwright from Korda’s native Hungary who was his all-purpose script doctor. Then there was Monta Bell, a Hollywood hack (Calder-Marshall derisively notes that his credits included titles like West Point of the Air and The Worst Woman in Paris; he also directed Greta Garbo’s first American film, The Torrent, but that was a success in spite of its director), who got the “brilliant” idea to scrap the Kipling story and substitute one from a book by Maurice Collis called Siamese White even though it had nothing to do with Toomai of the Elephants — for one thing, it took place in Siam (modern-day Thailand); also it was about a man named Samuel White, a British native who was appointed a mandarin of Siam during the reign of British King James II; and the aspect that attracted Bell to it was it featured a ghost elephant. Bell actually had a live elephant white-washed to play a ghost one, but, according to Calder-Marshall, “All the footage shot on this blunder — and a good chunk it was — went into the ash-can.” Finally Korda sent his ace troubleshooter: his brother, Zoltan Korda, and according to Calder-Marshall, “In the spring of 1936 there was a steady build-up of Denham [Korda’s British home base] technicians, cameramen and production staffs, until at the end there were … three different units shooting madly to three different scripts.”

In June 1936 Alexander Korda finally pulled the plug on shooting Elephant Boy and hired yet another troubleshooter, writer John Collier, to see if he could make sense of all the footage. Flaherty, said Collier, “had shot some marvelous backgrounds and we ran 17,000 feet of them. The absence of a story was noticeable. It was suggested that a very simple story could be devised, such as could be shot (in the studio and on the lot) in about 5,000 feet of screen time and that this should be grafted into an equal amount of Bob’s material. Korda declared that this involved 29 impossibilities; however, it was done.” The studio portions of the movie were written by Collier and directed by Zoltan Korda; the key role of Petersen Sahib — the white hunter who was sent out into the Indian jungle to capture wild elephants and round them up into a kheddah, also referred to as a “stockade” but really a giant outdoor pen, and who took along young Toomai and treated him better than his countrymen — was recast with a professional actor, Walter Hudd, instead of the non-professional who had played him in Flaherty’s footage; and the studio recruited zoo elephants and made dummy elephant feet to bolster the footage of the so-called “elephant dance” (actually a group of elephants in the jungle getting restive and looking like they’re about to stampede) because Toomai has been told he won’t be allowed to be a hunter until he sees the elephants dance. What Korda ended up with was a messy but often brilliant film and an excellent launch for the brief but stellar movie career of Sabu, who comes across as a sort of male Indian version of Shirley Temple. Just as Marjorie Rosen argued in her book Popcorn Venus that Shirley Temple was the most liberated female in 1930’s movies precisely because, as a child, she didn’t pose a sexual threat, so Sabu got away with playing a wise-beyond-his-years character instead of the usual casting of people of color in American or British movies as either doofuses or villains precisely because he was prepubescent and therefore unthreatening. Indeed, as I argued when Charles and I watched The Drum, it seems likely that Sabu’s career declined as quickly as it did (as did Temple’s, come to think of it!) because once he got older and his physical age started to match his on-screen maturity, the act lost its appeal and he dropped to being just another supporting player of color.

Elephant Boy begins with an embarrassing opening — Sabu standing in front of a white screen and declaiming for about three minutes about the story and his role in it — and once the film proper begins it’s all too easy to tell what footage was shot by Robert Flaherty in India, what was shot by Zoltan Korda in the U.K., what scenes are Korda’s foregrounds with Flaherty’s footage as process-screen backgrounds (one could make a case that on Elephant Boy Flaherty was the highest-paid second-unit director in history) and what lines Sabu spoke in India and what lines he spoke in England — this film has far more “wild” lines (dubbed in during scenes in which the actor or actors speaking have their backs to the camera so the editors and mixers didn’t have to worry about lip-synch) than just about anything made since the earliest days of the talkies. The story is a pretty obvious but still charming tale about young Toomai — his father and grandfather were also called that — and his deep love for his elephant, Kala-Nag, about whom he is ferociously protective. “There was a genuine Flaherty theme in the oneness of created life, the love of boy and elephant,” Calder-Marshall wrote. “But apart from the general theme, if he was going to film an elephant-boy story, there was a great deal of rehearsal. The love had to be built up. The elephant had to be taught how to act, to pick Sabu up and place him on head or back according to the script. Even the blondest film actress from Scandinavia can learn faster than an elephant.” As the film unfolds, the older mahouts and the Indian characters in general are amazed that Toomai has taught his elephant that trick, and the MacGuffin is an elephant hunt being organized by Petersen Sahib (incidentally Sabu pronounces Sahib as “Sahb” — it’s usually pronounced “Sah-HEEB” but since Sabu was a native of Mysore, I’m going to trust him on this one), a great white hunter (yes, the character is as clichéd as my description) who’s setting off in the jungle in search of between 50 and 200 wild elephants, and he needs a party of 40 tame elephants to pull this off. He rejects an elephant whose legs are chained together because that’s a sign that he’s run off before and gone amok, and he hires Toomai’s father to drive Kala-Nag on the big hunt — and of course, this being a movie, Petersen also allows Toomai to accompany the expedition.

Alas, the hunting party goes deeper and deeper into the forest without finding the wild elephants, and the dialogue drops hints that the elephants are doing a mass congregation in the depths of the jungle that only happens once every 100 years. (The script includes the fact that elephants have a life expectancy about three times that of people; we’re told that Kala-Nag has been in Toomai’s family for at least four human generations.) Then a tiger menaces the camp, and rather than seek help — which would alert the Indian members of his party to its presence and might get them to flee in panic — Petersen and Toomai, Sr. decide to go after the tiger themselves, just the two of them. Petersen shoots the tiger, the tiger drops, Toomai, Sr. congratulates Petersen on his marksmanship — and just then the tiger, unhurt, leaps up and claws Toomai, Sr. to death. There’s a beautiful, moving sequence in which the elephant keens in mourning for its master, and Petersen worries that Kala-Nag might go feral — though the actual cause of the elephant’s subsequent rampage is Rham Lhal (Bruce Gordon), who demands to take over as Kala-Nag’s driver and whips the poor elephant until he goes crazy and starts stomping out the buildings on the campsite. Needless to say, only Toomai, Jr. can calm the crazy elephant, but according to Indian law an elephant that attacks a human is supposed to be put to death. Toomai, pretending to sleep, overhears that Petersen, like Captain Vere in Billy Budd, is going to order the execution even though he doesn’t believe in it, so Toomai steals Kala-Nag, hides him out in the jungle — and he comes across the wild elephants Petersen’s party has been looking for in vain throughout the movie, making dance-like motions as they prepare to stampede. The next morning Toomai returns to camp to let Petersen know where the wild elephants are, and the film’s climax shows the members of Petersen’s party herding the elephants and driving them into the stockade, and Toomai getting not only his hunting merit badge (so to speak) but being hailed with the honorific “Toomai of the Elephants.”

Elephant Boy is a film that virtually defines “uneven.” Flaherty’s footage — Toomai’s prayer to an enormous statue of the god Jain (one of the few scenes in which we see Sabu without his almost omnipresent turban and in which Sabu’s voice is heard in the Indian footage; though the voice is recognizable throughout, when the company returned to the U.K. Korda’s voice coaches worked on Sabu to improve his English and the difference is noticeable); the construction of the elephant stockade (with the tame elephants used as beasts of burden to hoist the beams used to trap their wild brethren); the scenes with Toomai and Kala-Nag bonding; the “elephant dance” itself; and the big final sequence of the elephant drive — is magisterial, but the gap between it and the rest of the movie, with its scenes of “Indians” (including W. E. Holloway as Toomai, Sr.) wearing tacky “dark” face makeup and obviously false beards, is as great as the gap between the beauty of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance numbers and the lumbering plots within which they were contained. And yet it’s highly likely that an Elephant Boy consisting entirely of Flaherty’s footage would have been less watchable than the one we have, largely because (as Calder-Marshall acknowledged in his biography) Flaherty had never learned to shoot a film bearing in mind that it was going to have a soundtrack: “Flaherty’s original weakness of continuity had been covered in silent days by the sub-title, which provided an optical break and a logical join between one sequence and the next. He had clung to the old silent technique even in Man of Aran; sound was an afterthought, a form of fashionable ornamentation rather than part of the structure of the film.” As it is, we watch Elephant Boy much as we would a pre-Wagnerian opera, sitting through Zoltan Korda’s and John Collier’s recitatives so we can be charmed and moved by Robert Flaherty’s magnificent arias. It’s also lovely to see a jungle movie that is refreshingly free from stock footage (although there is at least one pretty blatant stock clip — a shot of an elephant approaching the camera that has a white scratch through it) and is, indeed, the sort of movie that probably served as a source for stock footage! Charles was utterly astonished at the fact that there were no women whatsoever in the dramatis personae — since Sabu was prepubescent there couldn’t be a young damsel in distress awarded to him as a prize at the end, but aside from a reference to his having a dead mother this movie was so female-free (at least as far as the human characters) that Charles joked that Toomai and his father appeared to be products of parthenogenesis.