Sir Alexander Korda, the charismatic film mogul

Balogh Gyöngyi |

UK film historians are unanimous in declaring that no other British movie producer enjoyed the unique mix of power, personality and imagination that made Sir Alexander Korda one of the world’s most respected and charismatic film moguls.

He was the only British producer taken seriously, indeed highly respected, even in Hollywood due to his extravagant showman skills and willingness to undertake high risk projects. Over a period of quarter of a century, Korda proved himself capable of creating the same amazing box office hits as they could, while he also had a refinement and style that they were never able to match.

Sir Alexander Korda was born in a back-of-beyond small village in the Hungarian Great Plain. He launched his career as a journalist in the early 1910s, his interests then quickly turned to film and he founded and edited several movie journals. Hungarian film historians rate him as one of the first Hungarian film critics and a pioneer theorist of Hungarian filmmaking. In 1914 he started directing films and in 1917 he was appointed head and senior director of Corvin, the then largest Hungarian film studio. He ordered the construction of a European-standard, modern studio and established the form and working style of film productions, standards that remain valid to this day. The studio is still in existence and was a key location for Hungarian filmmaking for many decades. The sophistication of Korda is evident in the extreme importance he attached – both as studio chief and director – to the literary source material.

One of his innovations was the organization of film dramaturgy along American lines, which journalist László Vajda managed (later on, in Germany Vajda became famous and was a colleague of G.W. Pabst), and he wrote most of the Corvin screenplays. The principle objective of the Corvin film studio was turning out high quality literary films. Classics of Hungarian literature featured at the top of their plans; the filming of these works resulted in movies with a very unique ambience. One such is Az aranyember (1918), adapted from the novel by Mór Jókai, Hungary’s finest exponent of Romantic literature. The film was directed by Alexander Korda and it is the only work of his made in Hungary that has survived in a form that can still be projected on screen.

Az aranyember / Man of Gold

In 1919, during the period of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, he was artistic director of filmmaking as a member of the Directory, so that when the Soviet Republic was overthrown he was forced to leave Hungary. He made an international name for himself with historical costume dramas as director of Sascha Film in Vienna (1919-1922), and in 1923 he founded his own company in Berlin (Alexander Korda Film Company), which accrued fame for its piquant comedies.

In the wake of his numerous successes in Europe, the way lay open to Hollywood (director with First National Pictures in 1926). His films proved to be hits yet just a few years later he returned to Europe having found that besides the sole motivation of American filmmaking, box office success, he still retained an interest in the cultural prestige of films, something that Hollywood was impervious to.

By 1930 he was working in Paris, where together with Marcel Pagnol he made Marius, one of the first ‘talkies’ of French film and ranked as a classic today, while two years later, in 1932, he had settled in London. Korda, who always managed to find his feet in any society, winning over people with his wit, intellect and breath-taking concepts, soon found himself at the centre of British cultural and society life. He successfully resuscitated British filmmaking that had fallen into crisis due to the dumping of American films on the market. He founded London Film Ltd., set up a huge film studio in Denham and in just a few short years made British film competitive again.

His career as director peaked in these years. As was also evident from his earlier films (Tragödie im Haus Habsburg, 1924; Eine Dubarry von heute, 1927; The Private Life of Helen of Troy, 1927), Korda had a fascination with the secretive, private life of the individual and the public story of the community, the connection between fate and world history. A favourite theme of his London movies is the love life of royalty and other important historical figures (The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933; The Private Life of Don Juan, 1934; Rembrandt, 1936; That Hamilton Woman, 1941). In the summer of 1942, King George VI knighted him for services to the British film industry and revitalizing national filmmaking. Korda biographies published over the past few years have made it clear that the knighthood was actually conferred for his participation in the struggle against Nazism.

 Alexander Korda at the filming of An Ideal Husband (1947) (MNFA Fotótár)

Sir Alexander Korda directed a total of 63 films in seven countries, he was producer of 54 films and screenwriter of six. Of his 25 films made in Hungary, aside from Az aranyember (1918) only parts of Nagymama (Grandmother, 1916) and Yamata (1919) have survived. Several biographies and films have been made of his life and career. Enter his name into Google and you get 1,520,000 hits of articles of varying lengths and depth. In 1993, to mark the 110th anniversary of his birth, a two-part documentary entitled Korda: I Don't Grow on Trees was commissioned by the BBC and directed by Péter Sásdy. John Fleet’s 2018 picture Churchill and the Movie Mogul was screened at the II Budapest Classic Film Marathon.

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