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Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)

Director, Producer, Executive Producer

Main image of Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)

Alexander Korda remains an elusive figure and there are still arguments over whether he should best be considered a charlatan or a visionary. Born Sándor László Kellner on 16 September 1893 in Puszta Turpásztó, an isolated village in Hungary, his family was plunged into poverty when his father, an overseer on a large estate, died. Moving to Budapest in 1909, where he worked in journalism before getting a job as an assistant with a film company, the ambitious and capable Korda was soon Hungary's number one director. Political instability and anti-Semitism following the end of the First World War forced Korda to flee the country. After resuming his career with great success, first in Vienna and then in Berlin, there came three disastrous years in Hollywood. He arrived in Britain in 1931 just as the nascent film industry offered a door of opportunity.

The first two films Korda directed here, Service For Ladies (1932) and Wedding Rehearsal (1932), were undemanding comedies, the kind of stories which were routinely being produced in most British studios. What strongly differentiated these fledgling efforts from their British counterpart was their polished production. These were, however, more a consequence of Korda's input as a producer rather than as a director. From the beginning Korda combined both roles and, given his background, he naturally thought in terms of marketing his films internationally. This meant producing films of an equivalent standard technically to those films they were competing against. To this end, Korda gathered around him a team of high quality collaborators, at the centre of which were his brother, art director Vincent Korda, script supervisor Lájos Biro, and cinematographer Georges Périnal.

Korda's next film, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), was a huge critical and financial success, becoming the first British film to break into the American market and win an Academy Award. It is a highly enjoyable romp and benefits from a witty script and several excellent cameo performances, but what makes the film is the performance of Charles Laughton, who takes the unappetising Henry and makes him human and sympathetic. The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), which followed, was a flawed attempt to reproduce a successful formula and is principally of interest as the last film appearance of the great silent star Douglas Fairbanks.

Rembrandt (1936), benefited from another tour-de-force performance from Laughton, and from Périnal's lighting, which wonderfully reproduces that in the artist's paintings. It was Korda's own favourite of his films, but the downbeat story of an artist at odds with society was uncommercial, and with two flops in a row and large new studios at Denham to run, Korda temporarily hung up his directorial hat. It was not until the Second World War that he returned to the studio floor to direct (in Hollywood) the propagandist Lady Hamilton (1941).

Korda's first postwar film was the charming Perfect Strangers (1945), starring Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr. The story of a drab but deeply devoted couple who get separated by the war, blossom, decide that they've outgrown their former partner and face reunion with trepidation, was a topical theme and the film voiced a common apprehension. His last film, An Ideal Husband (1948), a faithful adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play, was only lukewarmly received at the time. Wilde's arch cynicism and upper-class protagonists fitted ill with the egalitarian and idealistic mood of postwar Britain, but it is a film which has stood well the test of time.

Korda is strongly associated with gung-ho imperialist epics such as The Drum (d. Zoltan Korda, 1937) and The Four Feathers (d. Zoltan Korda, 1938), and he has been criticised for being culturally and politically conservative. Ironically, most of these films were directed by his much more left-wing brother, Zoltan. The films Alexander directed himself are a more accurate reflection of his own personality - that of an intelligent, urbane cultured man with a detached cynical eye. Henry VIII, for instance, presents an irreverent picture of the monarchy, and Rembrandt argues the right of the artist over commerce. While Korda had little interest in social movements, his films deal with the struggle to pursue an individual destiny within the context of a particular society.

Korda knew what went into making a good film and given a good script he made a good job of it transforming it into images. But there are times when his films communicate a certain unsureness of touch, a sense that he didn't know how to move forward. Precisely because he did understand the complexities of the art of filmmaking he could be overcome by a momentary paralysis. Perhaps his real achievement as a director was in providing the next generation with an example: he never doubted filmmaking was something wonderful and that individuals engaged in filmmaking should have the best materials and resources. His charisma and charm were integral to his success and - at least as far as the British film industry is concerned - his role as a producer has overshadowed his directorial achievements. But in both roles he showed resilience, talent, single-minded dedication, unquenchable enthusiasm and a love of films which enabled him to inspire a generation of filmmakers. He was knighted in June 1942 (for his contribution to the war effort). He died on 23 January 1956.

Tabori, Paul, Alexander Korda (London, Oldbourne, 1959) Kulik, Karol, Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles (London, WH Allen, 1975)
Korda, Michael, Charmed Lives: A Family Romance (New York, Random House, 1979)
Drazin, Charles, Korda: Britain's Only Movie Mogul (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002)
Stockham, Martin, Alexander Korda Film Classics (London, Boxtree, 2002)

Linda Wood, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Drum, The (1938)Drum, The (1938)

London Films' first Technicolor feature, a stirring Empire epic

Thumbnail image of Elephant Boy (1937)Elephant Boy (1937)

Korda Kipling adaptation that made an instant star of Sabu in the title role

Thumbnail image of Four Feathers, The (1939)Four Feathers, The (1939)

Lavish Technicolor costume epic about an alleged coward fighting in the Sudan

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

Romantic comedy set in a haunted castle

Thumbnail image of Gone to Earth (1950)Gone to Earth (1950)

Rural melodrama of a young woman pursued by predatory men.

Thumbnail image of Jungle Book (1942)Jungle Book (1942)

Sabu plays Mowgli in this Korda Kipling adaptation

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 Sanders of the River (1935)Sanders of the River (1935)

The first of Korda's British colonial epics, disowned by its star

Thumbnail image of Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1935)Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1935)

Most successful version of the French revolutionary romance

Thumbnail image of Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)

Technicolor biopic of the masters of the Victorian operetta

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

Thumbnail image of Third Man, The (1949)Third Man, The (1949)

Masterful thriller set in postwar Vienna - recently voted Britain's greatest film

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Thumbnail image of Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)

Art director

Thumbnail image of Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)

Director, Producer

Thumbnail image of Denham StudiosDenham Studios