Alexander Korda in 1936
Sándor László Kellner
16 September 1893
|Died||23 January 1956 (aged 62)|
|Relatives||Zoltan Korda (brother)|
Vincent Korda (brother)
Michael Korda (nephew)
Chris Korda (great-nephew)
Sir Alexander Korda (; born Sándor László Kellner, 16 September 1893 - 23 January 1956) was a British film producer and director and screenwriter, who founded his own film production studios and film distribution company.
Born in Hungary, where he began his career, he worked briefly in the Austrian and German film industries during the era of silent films, before being based in Hollywood from 1926 to 1930 for the first of his two brief periods there (the other was during World War II). The change led to a divorce from his first wife, the Hungarian film actress María Corda, who was unable to make the transition from silent films to "talkies" because of her strong Hungarian accent.
From 1930, Korda was active in the British film industry, and soon became one of its leading figures. He was the founder of London Films and, post-war, the owner of British Lion Films, a film distribution company. Korda produced many outstanding classics of the British film industry, including The Private Life of Henry VIII, Rembrandt, Things To Come, The Thief of Baghdad and The Third Man. In 1942, Korda became the first filmmaker to receive a knighthood.
Alexander Korda was born Sándor László Kellner into a Jewish family in Pusztatúrpásztó, Austria-Hungary. His parents were Henrik Kellner and Ernesztina Weisz. He had two younger brothers, Zoltan and Vincent, who also had careers in the film industry, often working with Alexander.
After the death of his father Korda began writing film reviews to support his family. He also changed the family name, deriving the new name Korda from the Latin phrase "sursum corda" ("lift up your hearts").
Having been excused from military service in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War, because he was short-sighted, Korda became an important figure in the Hungarian film industry, initially through his magazines Pesti Mozi, Mozihét and Világ. This led to invitations to write screenplays. His first script was for Watchhouse in the Carpathians (1914), which he also helped to direct.  He also made a film with Gyula Zilahy, The Duped Journalist (1914), and directed Tutyu and Totyo (1915), The Officer's Swordknot (1915) and Lyon Lea (1915).
In 1916 Korda established his own production company, Corvin Film. Its first film was White Nights (1916), which was a big success. Korda went on to build Corvin into one of the largest film companies in Hungary with such productions as The Grandmother (1916), Tales of the Typewriter (1916), The Man with Two Hearts (1916), The One Million Pound Note (1916), Cyclamen (1916), Struggling Hearts (1916), The Laughing Saskia (1916), Miska the Magnate (1916), St. Peter's Umbrella (1917), The Stork Caliph (1917) (from the novel by Mihály Babits), and Magic (1917). Korda later regarded Harrison and Barrison (1917) as his best film. He also made Faun (1918), The Man with the Golden Touch (1918), and Mary Ann (1918).
In October 1919 Korda was arrested during the White Terror that followed the overthrow of the Communist government, but was soon released. He then left Hungary for Austria. He never returned to his country of birth.
After leaving Hungary, Korda accepted an invitation from Count Alexander Kolowrat to work for his company Sascha-Film in the Austrian capital Vienna. Korda worked alongside Kolowrat, who had attracted several leading Hungarian and German directors into his employment, on the historical epic The Prince and the Pauper (1920). The film was a major international success and inspired Korda with the idea of making "international films" with global box office appeal.
By that stage, Korda had grown irritated with Kolowrat's interference with his work and left Sascha to make an independent film, Samson and Delilah (1922), set in the world of opera. The film was made on a lavish scale, with large crowd scenes. The lengthy shooting schedule lasted 160 working days. The film was unsuccessful.
Korda left Vienna and travelled to Germany. He had frequent problems with money, and often had to receive support from friends and business associates, but in Berlin he raised funding for the melodrama The Unknown Tomorrow (1923). With backing from Germany's biggest film company, UFA, Korda returned to Vienna to make Everybody's Woman (1924). While he was there he began work on his next film, the historical Tragedy in the House of Habsburg (1924), which portrayed the Mayerling Incident. It earned back around half of its production costs. He followed this with Dancing Mad (1925), another melodrama.
Korda cast his wife Maria Corda [sic] as the female lead in all his German-language films. To a large degree the success of his productions depended on her star power. Korda cast her again in A Modern Dubarry (1927), an update of the life of Madame Du Barry based on an original screenplay by Lajos Bíró. The film may have been intended to showcase Maria Corda's star potential to producers in Hollywood.
In December 1926 Korda and his wife sailed for the United States on board the steamer Olympic, with a view to Korda taking up a contract with the American studio First National. In Hollywood both struggled to adapt to the studio system. Korda had to wait some time before gaining his first directorial assignment, The Stolen Bride (1927), a Hungarian-themed romance about a peasant's love for a countess. The film starred the American actress Billie Dove rather than Korda's wife.
Following the moderate success of The Stolen Bride Korda worked on the comedy The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927), replacing the previous director, George Fitzmaurice. The film retells the story of Helen of Troy, parodying the historical epics of the era by transforming the classical characters into everyday people with modern problems. The film was a significant success for Korda, with his wife playing the role of Helen. The film was his most satisfying work in the United States and provided the template for his later success in Britain.
After this film, however, Korda became pigeonholed as a director of female stars and exotic foreign locations. He was generally given similar assignments for the remainder of his first period in Hollywood. His next few films were disappointments as his career lost its momentum: Yellow Lily (1928), Night Watch (1928) both with Dove, and Love and the Devil (1929) with Maria Korda (who now spelled her name with a K). The latter two, though still Silent films, had sound effects and music added to their soundtracks during Hollywood's transition to fully synchronized Sound films.
Korda's next film The Squall (1929), with a young Myrna Loy, was his first talkie and featured a Hungarian setting. Although, like many other directors, Korda had misgivings about the new technology, he quickly adapted to making sound films.
Korda's marriage was strained in Hollywood. The arrival of sound films wrecked his wife's career, as her heavy accent made her unemployable for most American films. Love and the Devil was the last of Korda's films she appeared in, and she made only two more films. She became increasingly resentful of the switch in their relationship, as her career was now over while Korda, who had once relied on her for the success of his films, was relatively flourishing. Their marriage collapsed, and they divorced in 1930.
Korda grew more frustrated in Hollywood as he came to strongly dislike the studio system. He hoped to save up enough money to return to Europe and begin producing on a large scale there, but his lavish personal spending and the large amounts he lost in the Wall Street Crash prevented this. When his producer, Ned Marin, moved from First National to the Fox Film Corporation Korda followed him. Korda's new contract gave him $100,000 a year.
His first film for Fox, Women Everywhere (1930), cost slightly more than some of the programmers he had previously directed in the United States. He collaborated with several figures who would contribute to his future success in Britain. Korda was offered a series of scripts, all of which he disliked, before he finally agreed to make The Princess and the Plumber (1930). Korda's reluctance to make the film led to his conflict with studio bosses, which brought to an end his first period in Hollywood.
Korda then decided to form his own company. In 1932 he founded London Films. Its first production was Wedding Rehearsal (1932). He then produced Men of Tomorrow (1932), co-directed by his brother Zoltan Korda, That Night in London (1932) starring Robert Donat, Strange Evidence (1933), Counsel's Opinion (1933), and Cash (1933).
Korda had a huge hit with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), which he directed. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, established Korda internationally and made a star of Charles Laughton.
Korda followed it with The Girl from Maxim's (1933), which he shot in English and French. He tried to repeat the success of Henry with The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) starring Douglas Fairbanks, which he directed, and The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) which he did not. Neither did as well as Henry.
Korda produced a well-respected short, The Private Life of the Gannets (1934), and enjoyed a big success as producer of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Also popular was Sanders of the River (1935) starring Paul Robeson and directed by his brother, and The Ghost Goes West (1936) starring Donat. His other credits as producer include Moscow Nights (1936) with Laurence Olivier, Men Are Not Gods (1936), and Forget Me Not (1936).
Korda directed Rembrandt (1936) with Laughton, which was a critical rather than a commercial success. Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies, has come to be regarded as a classic. It was written by H.G. Wells and Korda's The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936) is based on a Wells short story. Korda also commissioned and financed the documentary Conquest of the Air (1936).
Korda bought property in Denham, Buckinghamshire, including Hills House, and built film studios on the property. London Film's Denham Film Studios was financed by the Prudential and opened in 1936. Korda was naturalised as a British subject on 28 October 1936. That same year Korda was an important contributor to the Moyne Commission, formed to protect British film production from competition, mainly from the United States. Korda said: "If American interests obtained control of British production companies, they may make British pictures here, but the pictures made would be just as American as those made in Hollywood. We are now on the verge of forming a British school of film-making in this country."
Korda also made some cheaper films: Farewell Again (1938), Storm in a Teacup (1938) with Leigh and Rex Harrison, The Squeaker (1937), Action for Slander (1937), Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937) and Paradise for Two (1937).
During the Second World War Korda made more propaganda films, including Q Planes (1939), with Olivier, and The Lion Has Wings (1939). Korda had a massive hit with another adventure film directed by Zoltan, The Four Feathers (1939).
By 1939 Michael Powell had been hired as a contract director by Korda on the strength of The Edge of the World (1937). Korda set him to work on some projects such as Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled. Nonetheless, Powell was brought in to save a film that was being made as a vehicle for two of Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film was The Spy in Black (1939), where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger. Korda also produced the comedy Over the Moon (1939) and the drama 21 Days (1939).
The outbreak of the Second World War in Europe meant that The Thief of Bagdad had to be completed in Hollywood, where Korda was based again for a few years. While he was in the United States he produced and directed That Hamilton Woman (1941) with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and produced Lydia (1941) with Oberon. He also supervised Jungle Book (1942), a live-action version of Kipling's stories, directed by Zoltán Korda. He also had minor involvement in To Be or Not to Be (1942).
Korda was appointed a knight bachelor, for his contribution to the war effort, in the 1942 Birthday Honours. On 22 September 1942 he was knighted at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace by George VI. He was the first film director to receive the honour.
He returned to Britain in 1943 as production chief of MGM-London films, with a £35 million ten-year programme. The scheme ended after one year, one film and a £1 million loss to MGM. The only film to come out of the deal was Perfect Strangers (1945), directed by Korda, and starring Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr.
In 1948 London Films received an advance payment of £375,000, the largest single payment received by a British film company, for three films, An Ideal Husband (1947) (which Korda directed), Anna Karenina (1948) and Mine Own Executioner (1948). The company released three other films, Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948), The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Fallen Idol (1948).The Winslow Boy and Fallen Idol were hits. An Ideal Husband and Anna Karenina had some acclaim, but lost money at the box office. Bonnie Prince Charlie was a fiasco. Korda was also badly hurt by the trade war between the British and American film industries in the late 1940s. Korda did recover, in part due to a £3 million loan British Lion received from the National Film Finance Corporation.
London Films made several films with smaller budgets: The Cure for Love (1949), The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), The Angel with the Trumpet (1950), My Daughter Joy (1950),State Secret (1950), The Wooden Horse (1950), Seven Days to Noon (1951), Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951), The Wonder Kid (1951), and Mr. Denning Drives North (1951). Korda also helped to finance Outcast of the Islands (1952), Home at Seven (1952), Who Goes There! (1952), The Holly and the Ivy (1952), The Ringer (1952), Folly to Be Wise (1953), Twice Upon a Time (1953), The Captain's Paradise (1953), and The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953). Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), directed by Zoltan, was acclaimed. The Sound Barrier (1952) from David Lean was a hit. The Man Between (1953) was an attempt to repeat the success of The Third Man.
A draft screenplay of what became The Red Shoes was written by Emeric Pressburger in the 1930s for Korda and intended as a vehicle for Merle Oberon, whom Korda later married. The screenplay was bought by Michael Powell and Pressburger, who made it for J. Arthur Rank. During the 1950s Korda reportedly expressed interest in producing a James Bond film based upon Ian Fleming's novel Live and Let Die, but no agreement was ever reached.
In 1954 Korda received £5 million from the City Investing Corporation of New York, enabling him to continue producing films until his death. His final films included The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955), Three Cases of Murder (1955), A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), The Deep Blue Sea (1955), Summertime (1955), and Storm Over the Nile (1955) a remake of The Four Feathers. His last films were Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Richard III (1955) and Smiley (1956).
Korda was married three times, first to the Hungarian actress María Corda in 1919. They had one son, Peter Vincent Korda, and divorced in 1930. In 1939 he married the film star Merle Oberon. They divorced six years later. He married, lastly, on 8 June 1953, Alexandra Boycun (1928-1966).
Korda died of a heart attack at the age of 62 in London in 1956. He was cremated and his ashes were deposited at Golders Green Crematorium in London.
Michael Korda, son of Vincent and thus nephew of Alexander, wrote a roman à clef about Merle Oberon, published after her death. It was entitled Queenie. He also wrote a memoir, Charmed Lives (1979), about his father, his two uncles and the rest of their large extended family.
The Alexander Korda Award for "Outstanding British Film of the Year" is given by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
The following films were directed by Korda.
The following additional films were produced by Alexander Korda but not directed by him:
Korda announced a number of projects which were never made, including: