Alexander Korda



 Sabu became in the 1930s Britain's first leading film star of Indian origin, who achieved international fame as well. His first big break came when the veteran documentary film maker Robert Flaherty cast him as Toomai, the lead role in the Alexander Korda-produced Elephant Boy (1937) based on Kipling’s story ‘Toomai of the Elephants’.

Sabu was born on 27 January 1924 in Karapur, Mysore. He was orphaned at an early age – his mother died when he was very young and he was raised by his father, a mahout, or elephant driver, who died in 1931. The six-year-old Sabu became the ward of the Maharaja of Mysore, where he worked first as a stable boy, then as a mahout. Elephant Boy had a troubled two-year gestation, with Flaherty being replaced by Zoltán Korda as director and Sabu brought to England for further filming. Although the film received mixed reviews, it made Sabu an instant star and the film was a big box-office hit. The film was the official British entry at the Venice Film Festival and won the award for best direction. While in London, Sabu was taken on a tour of the British capital, broadcast over the BBC, televised at Alexandra Palace, sat for a sculpture by Lady Kennet and a portrait by Egerton Cooper. Alexander Korda quickly signed him up to a long-term contract. He starred for Korda in The Drum (d. Zoltán Korda, 1938) based on the novel by A. E. Mason, in which he plays young Prince Azim.

He went on to star as Abu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Sabu remained in Hollywood for the duration of World War II. He made a final film for Korda and London Films, The Jungle Book (1942), in which he played Mowgli. He remained in Hollywood after his contract expired; signing with Universal Pictures. He adopted US citizenship in 1944 and joined the US Air Force, flying several missions as a tail-gunner towards the end of the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He returned to Britain in 1946, where he joined the director/producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for his last two British films. In Black Narcissus (1947), in which Sabu gives his most nuanced performance, he plays a young general. The End of the River (1947) gave him another leading role. In 1952/53 he returned briefly to the UK, to perform an elephant act at the Haringey Circus. Sabu spent the rest of his career making relatively undistinguished Hollywood films and building a successful career in property. He died of a heart attack at the age of 39, shortly after completing the film A Tiger Walks (1963) with Disney

Published works: 

Select Filmography:

Elephant Boy (1937)

The Drum (1938)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Arabian Nights (1942)

Jungle Book (1942)

Black Narcissus (1947)

End of the River (1947)

Date of birth: 
27 Jan 1924

Robert J. Flaherty, Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda, Merle Oberon.

London Films

Secondary works: 

Chowdhry, Prem, Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology, Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)

Flaherty, Frances and Leacock, Ursula, Sabu the Elephant Boy (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1937)

Jaikumar, Priya, Cinema at the End of Emipre: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006)

Whittingham, Jack, Sabu of the Elephants (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1938)

City of birth: 
Karapur, Mysore
Country of birth: 
Other names: 

Selar Shaik Sabu, Sabu Dastagir

Date of death: 
02 Dec 1963
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Aug 1936
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

c. 1936-40


London, Beaconsfield (school)

Tags for Making Britain: 

Merle Oberon


Merle Oberon was born in India to a Welsh father, Arthur Thompson, who worked in Bombay as a railway engineer and his Ceylonese wife Constance. She was educated in India until the age of 17, when she left for London, where she worked as a hostess in the Café de Paris and as an extra in British films. In the early 1930s, she was discovered by the film producer Alexander Korda, whom she later married (they divorced in 1945), who cast her as Anne Boleyn in his 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII and created her screen name Merle Oberon for her. Her most critically acclaimed performance was in the 1939 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights as Cathy, starring alongside Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff.

Oberon had a complex relationship with her dual heritage, especially after her move to Hollywood. On her arrival in England in 1927, she would call herself ‘Tasmanian’, thinking that her mixed-race heritage and her Indian origin might be an obstacle to her career. In company she would introduce her mother, who for many years accompanied her, as her maid.

Oberon worked with prestigious directors such as Korda, Ernst Lubitsch, René Clair, Jules Duvivier, King Vidor, and William Wylerand starred alongside some of Hollywood’s most famous male stars, Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, Douglas Fairbanks senior, Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, and Marlon Brando among them.

Oberon died of a stroke in Los Angeles on 23 November 1979.

Published works: 


The Three Passions (1928)

A Warm Corner (1930)

Alf's Button (1930)

Never Trouble Trouble (1931)

The W Plan (1931)

Fascination (1931)

For the Love of Mike (1932)

Reserved for Ladies (1932)

Ebb Tide (1932)

Aren't We All? (1932)

Wedding Rehearsal (1932)

Men of Tomorrow (1932)

Strange Evidence (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Battle (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

The Broken Melody (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Folies Bergère de Paris (1935)

The Dark Angel (1935)

These Three (1936)

Beloved Enemy (1936)

I, Claudius (1937) (unfinished)

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Over the Moon (1939)

The Lion Has Wings (1939)

'Til We Meet Again (1940)

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)

Affectionately Yours (1941)

Lydia (1941)

Forever and a Day (1943)

Stage Door Canteen (1943)

First Comes Courage (1943)

The Lodger (1944)

Dark Waters (1944)

A Song to Remember (1945)

This Love of Ours (1945)

A Night in Paradise (1946)

Temptation (1946)

Night Song (1948)

Berlin Express (1948)

24 Hours of a Woman's Life (1952)

Pardon My French (1952) (French version was also filmed)

All Is Possible in Granada (1954)

Desirée (1954)

Deep in My Heart (1954)

The Price of Fear (1956)

Of Love and Desire (1963)

The Oscar (1966)

Hotel (1967)

Interval (1973)

Date of birth: 
19 Feb 1911

Robert Graves (Oberon was set to star in Alexander Korda's film adaptation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius), Alexander Korda, Laurence Olivier, Sabu.

Secondary works: 

Higham, Charles, Merle: An Autobiography of Merle Oberon (Sevenoaks: New English Library, 1983)

Shipman, David, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, rev. ed. (London: Warner, 1993)

‘Obituary’, The Times (26 November 1979) p. 14

City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Current name city of birth: 
Other names: 

Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson (real name), Queenie O'Brien, Estelle Thompson

Date of death: 
23 Nov 1979
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1928
Dates of time spent in Britain: 



London, Los Angeles

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