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Most people today are probably more familiar with the tuneful 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book, the last Disney feature to be supervised by Walt himself. But the earlier 1942 big budget live-action take on Rudyard Kipling's tales of India - written while living in Vermont with his American wife and produced in Hollywood by Great Britain's leading film family - stands out for its exotic settings, dazzling cinematography, and spectacular use of Technicolor (especially in the climactic jungle fire scene).
The story, pieced together from two of Kipling's books, revolves around teenaged Mowgli, who was raised in the jungle by wolves and adopted into human society in an Indian village. When he finds a valuable treasure in the jungle, it sets in motion a web of greed and betrayal. The part was ideal for the biggest star under contract to the Korda brothers, three Hungarian-born filmmakers who had risen to the top of the British motion picture industry in the 1930s with such hits as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Things to Come (1936), and The Four Feathers (1939). In 1937, producer brother Alexander put under contract a real-life elephant driver in India discovered by American film director Robert Flaherty for the lead in Elephant Boy, which was produced by Alexander and directed with Flaherty by brother Zoltan. Although lacking any experience or much command of English, the young teen, billed only by his first name, Sabu, was an instant hit with audiences, and the Kordas cast him in two more films in succession, The Drum [1938, released in the U.S. as Drums] and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Alexander thought Kipling's tales would be a great way to capitalize on their star's international popularity, but with a war raging in Europe, they came to the U.S. to produce it, armed with a generous $300,000 from United Artists, which would handle distribution.
The Indian jungle and village was recreated under the supervision of art director/production designer Vincent Korda at Lake Sherwood, just outside Los Angeles, and at General Service Studios. Vines, bamboo, elephant grass, taro plants and more were imported to create an authentic South Asian wilderness
The use of live animals (more than 300 collected from zoos and farms) for the jungle beasts proved a bit dangerous, although the most ferocious, a tiger playing the villainous Shere Khan, was filmed in long shots behind an invisible fence. That didn't mean much to Alexander, who was chased onto a rooftop on the set by what he thought was a wild tiger; it turned out to be a large dog wearing tiger skin doubling for the real thing. Zoltan came a little closer to real death when he almost drowned shooting a sequence involving a huge rubber python.
For his acclaimed score, Mikls Rzsa studied Indian music to provide each character with his or her own musical theme. The score was nominated for an Academy Award, along with the art direction, cinematography, and special effects.
Director Zoltan and producer Alexander clashed frequently during production on Jungle Book. Zoltan wanted to make a realistic adventure film along the lines of Elephant Boy, while Alexander kept pushing for a fantasy epic like The Thief of Bagdad. This was the last time the three brothers would work together on a film. Zoltan stayed on in Hollywood to direct the Humphrey Bogart war story Sahara (1943) and the Hemingway-based The Macomber Affair (1947) starring Gregory Peck.
Alexander's next projects found him back in England as producer-director of Perfect Strangers (1945) and the screen version of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1947). Brother Vincent was the art director on Alexander's Perfect Strangers but also won acclaim for Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), David Lean's Summertime (1955), and the war epic The Longest Day (1962).
Jungle Book was the first film for which an original soundtrack recording was released. Previously, film music was re-recorded in the studio by record companies. The records for this film used the same recordings audiences heard on the theatrical soundtrack. The records were a success, paving the way for more original-soundtrack albums.
Director: Zoltan Korda
Producer: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Laurence Stallings, based on the writing of Rudyard Kipling
Cinematography: Lee Garmes, W. Howard Greene
Editing: William Hornbeck
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Original Music: Mikls Rzsa
Cast: Sabu (Mowgli), Joseph Calleia (Buldeo), John Qualen (The barber), Frank Puglia (The pundit), Rosemary DeCamp (Messua).
by Rob Nixon