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Alexander Korda and London Films

Britain's greatest film mogul of the 1930s and 1940s

Main image of Alexander Korda and London Films

Alexander Korda built a film empire from scratch - three times. From his arrival in Britain in 1931 he set about building a British film industry which had barely existed before. Alongside Michael Balcon and J. Arthur Rank, he became one of the giants of British cinema from the 1930s until his death in 1956.

Korda was a larger than life figure, an intelligent and well-educated man of immense personal charm who loved the cinema. Unlike Balcon and Rank, he was a director himself, and had strong views on how films should be made. His habit of interfering often infuriated the directors he employed, but ensured that the films which emerged from his London Films studios conformed to the Korda vision. As a result the films tended to share both Korda's strengths - high production standards, a lush visual style - and his faults - a focus on lavish set and costume design, often at the expense of the details of character and plot, and a rather superficial approach to storytelling.

A successful director and producer in his native Hungary, Korda had already had one false start in Austria and had tried and failed to make his name in Hollywood before arriving in Britain. He gambled his credibility, and a great deal of money, on his own directorial project, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). The gamble paid off, with the film becoming Britain's greatest international hit to date. Its success confirmed Korda's belief that the key to success was investing in comparatively few films while keeping production standards high and guaranteeing glamour and spectacle.

During the 1930s, London Films, with its Big Ben logo, became associated with glossy but intelligent films, like the enjoyable comedy The Ghost Goes West (d. René Clair, 1935), the H.G. Wells scripted Things to Come (d. William Cameron Menzies, 1936), a spectacular science-fiction story with a strong anti-war message, or the Russian Revolution love story Knight Without Armour (d. Jacques Feyder, 1937), for which Korda managed to lure Hollywood megastar Marlene Dietrich for her only British role. His eye for talent led to him spotting the young Michael Powell and bringing him to London Films, where he united him with Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger for Spy in Black (1939), creating perhaps British cinema's most illustrious partnership. He continued to direct himself, most impressively in the biopic Rembrandt (1936), in which he elicited a superb performance from Charles Laughton as the troubled, misunderstood Dutch painter.

Korda had an outsider's passion for Britishness, adopting the role of the classic English gentleman with his Saville Row suits and cigars, and his studio's films reflected a celebratory view of the British. In films like Sanders of the River (1935), and The Four Feathers (1939) - both directed by his brother, Zoltan - he was an enthusiastic supporter of British Empire, and the jingoism, even racism, of Sanders, in particular, is hard to stomach today. But it was this same feel for his new home that led him to dedicate his vast Denham studios to the war effort. The uneven The Lion Has Wings (d. Michael Powell/Brian Desmond Hurst/Adrian Brunel, 1939) was the first propaganda release of the war, and more impressive efforts followed, including Korda's own That Hamilton Woman (1941), which almost got the Hungarian thrown out of America for undermining the country's neutrality - before the attack on Pearl Harbour intervened.

From the late '40s, London Films benefited from growing disillusion at arch-rival Rank, as figures like Powell and Pressburger, David Lean and Carol Reed found Korda's fiery temperament preferable to Rank's much-disliked lieutenant John Davis. London's late high point came with Reed's classic The Third Man (1949), which Korda co-produced with the equally gigantic David O. Selznick.

London Films was already in decline before Korda's death in 1956, after his ill-fated involvement in British Lion, but the studio is best remembered for a series of films which successfully combined entertainment with high production values. At a time when all of Europe was struggling to compete with Hollywood, Korda made sure that British cinema was synonymous with sophistication, wit and the highest technical standards.

Mark Duguid

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Ghost Goes West, The (1935)Ghost Goes West, The (1935)

Romantic comedy set in a haunted castle

Thumbnail image of Knight Without Armour (1937)Knight Without Armour (1937)

Marlene Dietrich stars in a lavish Russian Revolution love story

Thumbnail image of Lion Has Wings, The (1939)Lion Has Wings, The (1939)

Patriotic drama made as propaganda for British air forces

Thumbnail image of Man Who Could Work Miracles, The (1937)Man Who Could Work Miracles, The (1937)

H.G. Wells fantasy in which an ordinary man receives unexpected gifts

Thumbnail image of Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)

Charles Laughton stars as Henry VIII in British cinema's first US smash hit

Thumbnail image of Rembrandt (1936)Rembrandt (1936)

Charles Laughton stars in Korda's biopic of the great Dutch painter

Thumbnail image of Rise of Catherine the Great, The (1934)Rise of Catherine the Great, The (1934)

Lavish epic charting the rise of Russia's great 18th Century leader

Thumbnail image of That Hamilton Woman (1941)That Hamilton Woman (1941)

Costume drama about Lady Hamilton, alleged mistress of Admiral Nelson

Thumbnail image of Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

Michael Powell co-directed Korda's lavish Arabian Nights fantasy

Thumbnail image of Things to Come (1936)Things to Come (1936)

Britain's biggest sci-fi film of the 1930s, adapted from H.G.Wells

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