Born Sandor Kellner, 16 September 1893 in Hungary, Alexander Korda was a journalist before turning to film where, as founder of London films, he became one of the UK’s most important film producers.
Having become, alongside Michael Curtiz, one of Hungary’s most prominent directors Korda decided to flee the country in 1919 following the fall of the communist regime. He went first to Vienna where he carried on as a director, making four films including a highly successful version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. From Vienna he moved to Berlin where he stayed until 1926 (still directing – usually light romantic fare infused with German expressionism) but all the while keeping one eye directed towards Hollywood who finally came calling in 1927 in the shape of a contract with First National. In four years with the studio though Korda made little of note becoming somewhat typecast as a director of Hungarian set films.
Back to Europe
Thanks to a France based Paramount subsidiary called Joinville Korda returned to Europe where he quickly made the highly regarded Marius (1931) the first of Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of Marseilles life. From there Paramount sent him to the UK to work on “quota quickies” for them – this was the catalyst he needed to start his own company which he called London Films. The sixth London film was 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII starring Charles Laughton – this was a massive box office sucess. Throughout the rest of the 1930’s London was responsible for a whole series of high profile, big budget movies (Things to Come, The Feathers and The Thief of Bagdad amongst them). Indeed to see a London film was to see the very best of British film making in action. All exceptionally produced and visually stunning (thanks in no small part to Korda’s brother Vincent who was London Film’s head of art direction).
Of course all this cost money, lots of it. Fortunately Korda had two major investors in American film studio United Artists (Korda would become a partner in UA in 1935) and the British Prudential Assurance company. It was this investment that led to Korda building Denham studios which opened in 1936.
Hollywood and Back Again
1940 saw Korda back in Hollywood finishing work on The Thief of Bagdad and then That Hamilton Woman with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and although many of his compatriots believed he had deserted Britain in it’s hour of crisis it’s heavily believed that Korda was working with Winston Churchill as a courier, making many trips across the atlantic in the process. In 1942 he was the first film personality to be given a knighthood.
In 1943 he returned to London and spent the next few years trying to organise a merger between MGM British and London Films although by the time it did happen Korda was ready to move on.
From 1947 London films was back under his control. Korda had also taken control of British Lion and Shepperton Studios. Around this period most of the UK’s top film-makers, amongst them Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, Carol Reed and Launder and Gilliat were all making films for Korda.
Financial crisis almost spells the end
A major financial crisis in 1948 almost brought about the end of the whole British film industry but assistance from the newly formed National Film Finance Corporation helped save the day for Korda – not for long though. With a three million pound debt still unpaid, 1953 saw Korda’s film empire come to a close. Korda himself remained unbowed, still producing films up until his death in 1956.
Korda developed a well deserved reputation for extravagance when it came to movie making, but as Korda himself said, he proved that “in spectacle and lavishness of production the British film industry could legitimately hope to match the best America could produce.”