Maybe you saw the Disney version of the film with Cab Calloway scatting with the monkeys, asking Mowgli for the secret of fire, maybe not.
Maybe you had the pictorial LP of the soundtrack from that version of the film (merchandizing!) and you put it on the record player and you made a jungle out of blankets and furniture in your living room on a rainy day and you pretended you were Bagheera…maybe you have no idea what I’m blathering on about.
Anyhow, THIS is not that Jungle Book. This is the film version from 1942 directed by Zoltan Korda, and starring Sabu. Very rare for the age, Sabu (AKA Sabu Dastagir, or Selar Shaik Sabu) was an actor who was not only from India, but of Indian heritage. A combination of factors brought him to fame in his first film, Elephant Boy, also beginning his working relationship with Alexander Korda. Sabu was a mahout, and his comfort with animals is put to great use in these films of his youth, and is readily visible in The Jungle Book.
While the Disney version focuses on Mowgli’s time in the Jungle, getting him to the village at the end, this version has only a brief glimpse of his jungle time before he returns to the village, chased by Shere Khan.
Mowgli does return to visit his jungle brothers regularly, however, and we get to see Sabu’s comfort with animals as he rides Hathi the elephant’s back, talks to monkeys, and keeps tabs on Shere Khan by howling with the wolves.
Which brings us the animals themselves. To be fair, Kipling included a range of animals in his books that don’t share space on the same continent. But this film seemingly rounded up all the animals available, along with all the biggest “tropical” looking plants, and put them on a soundstage together. The collection of monkeys and apes is particularly motley (including spider monkeys, various macaques, a orangutan, and a few baboons). There’s also at least two (if not three) tigers playing Shere Khan, and one of them is decidedly female.
That said, some of the effects are rather decently done, especially for the time. The Crocodile in the water, while slow, is realistic in appearance and swishes its tail convincingly. And while the python Kaa on land is kind of cheesy, his movement in the water is a much more believable serpentine motion.
As far as the people go, there’s a mix of skill and accents. Sabu is rather relaxed and natural, which is what garnered him such favor in the industry. Joseph Calleia as Buldeo is every inch the Bad Guy, and John Qualen as the Barber is ready to go along with whatever he says as his Toady. Rosemary DeCamp as Messua, Mowgli’s mother, has the ability to let emotion shine through her voice. There aren’t many other notable cast members.
One thing I find interesting about the film, as I do a number of films from the era, is the costuming as defined by the Hays Code. The basic tenets of the codes were to keep offensive things out of films. This included nudity or the suggestion of it. Including navels. Well, women’s navels.
If you watch films of this era (1930 – 1968ish), no matter how scantily clad the ladies get, their belly buttons will be covered. Men suffered no such stigma, however.
Sabu as Mowgli and Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan were welcome to run around in a couple of scraps of fabric barely covering their buns. Ah, good old family values.
To get back to the film: The quality of the stock itself is, I’m sorry to say, grainy. It’s also fairly dark most of the time. I normally conserve battery power by keeping my screen glow at a low setting, and I had to bump it to nearly full in order to make out most of the film. The sound is a bit tinny but otherwise fully audible, though the soundtrack itself has some jarring jump-cuts. The “jungle noises” are fairly stock, but to the mixers credit they never overpower the dialogue.
If you’d like to view it yourself for FREE, here is where you can view The Jungle Book starring Sabu.
You can also view one of Sabu’s other films, Elephant Boy.
If you fancy reading, Feedbooks has both The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book for FREE. Or you can listen to any of several versions over at Librivox.