Alexander Korda in 1936
Sándor László Kellner
16 September 1893
|Died||23 January 1956 (aged 62)|
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
|Relatives||Zoltan Korda (brother)|
Vincent Korda (brother)
Michael Korda (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 the divorce from his first wife, the Hungarian film actress María Corda, who could not make the transition because of her strong 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 was the first filmmaker to have been granted a knighthood.
The elder brother of Zoltan and Vincent, Alexander Korda was born as Sándor László Kellner in Pusztatúrpásztó, Austria-Hungary. Born into a Jewish family, his parents were Henrik Kellner and Ernesztina Weisz. Zoltan, a film director and Vincent, an art director also had careers in the film industry, often working with their elder brother.
After the death of his father, Korda began writing film reviews to support his family. Korda changed his family name from Kellner to Korda--from the Latin phrase "sursum corda" which means "lift up your hearts".
Korda became an important film figure through his film magazines Pesti Mozi, Mozihét and Világ. This led to invitations to write film screenplays.
Korda's first film script was for Watchhouse in the Carpathians (1914), which he also helped direct. When the First World War broke out, Korda was excused from military service in the Austrian Army because he was short-sighted.
He followed it with 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).
In October 1919, Korda was arrested during the White Terror that followed the overthrow of the short-lived Communist government, the Hungarian Democratic Republic, because he had participated in its government. After his release, he left Hungary for Austria, and 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.
With backing from Germany's biggest film company, UFA, Korda returned to Vienna to make Everybody's Woman (1924). While 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 cost. He followed this with Dancing Mad (1925), another melodrama.
Korda had frequent problems with money, and often had to receive support from friends and business associates. Korda had cast his wife Maria Corda as the female lead in all his German-language films and to a large degree, his productions depended on her star power.
Korda cast her again in A Modern Dubarry (1927), which adapted the life story of Madame Du Barry, based on an original screenplay by Lajos Bíró. The film may have intended to highlight Maria Corda's star potential to Hollywood. Korda made his final German film Madame Wants No Children (1926) for the Berlin-based subsidiary of the American studio Fox. Although made later, it was released before A Modern Dubarry.
Once they reached Hollywood, both struggled to adapt to the studio system. Korda had to wait some time before gaining his first directorial assignment. His first American film was a drama titled The Stolen Bride (1927). Korda was chosen as it was 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.
After The Stolen Bride's moderate success, Korda was brought in to work 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 plot-line of 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.
After this film, however, Korda became pigeon-holed 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. The film was his most satisfying work in the United States and provided the template for his later success in Britain.
Korda's 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 wife Maria Korda. The latter two, though still Silent films, had sound effects and music added to their soundtracks as part of Hollywood's transitional phase of technology following the success of the first Sound film The Jazz Singer (1927).
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 by American studios for most 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 production of his films, was relatively flourishing. Their marriage collapsed, and they divorced in 1930.
Gradually 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 Korda founded London Films with Big Ben as the company logo. Their first film was Wedding Rehearsal (1932). He 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 with 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 commercial success. Things to Come (1936) directed by William Cameron Menzies has become 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 commissioned finance the documentary Conquest of the Air (1936).
Korda bought property in Denham, Buckinghamshire, including Hills House, and planned to build 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).
Korda had a massive hit with another Imperial adventure 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. 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, where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger.
The outbreak of World War II in Europe meant The Thief of Bagdad had to be completed in Hollywood, where Korda was based again for a few years.
Korda was appointed Knight Bachelor in the 1942 Birthday Honours. On 22 September 1942, Korda was knighted at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace by George VI for his contribution to the war effort, the first film director to receive the honour.
In 1948, Korda received an advance payment of £375,000, the largest single payment received by a British film company, for three movies, 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 smaller budgeted movies: 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).
He helped 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.
Korda helped make The Heart of the Matter (1954), Hobson's Choice (1954), The Belles of St Trinian's (1954), and The Teckman Mystery (1954). In 1954 he received £5 million from the City Investing Corporation of New York, enabling him to continue producing movies until his death.
Korda's 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,
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.
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), who survived him.
Korda died at the age of 62 in London in 1956 of a heart attack and was cremated. His ashes are at Golders Green Crematorium in London.
Korda's nephew Michael Korda (Vincent's son), wrote a roman à clef about Merle Oberon, published after her death. It was entitled Queenie. He also wrote a memoir about his large, extended family and filmmaker father and uncles.
The Alexander Korda Award for "Outstanding British Film of the Year" is given in his honour 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: