Corda, Maria (1898–1976)

The beautiful actress who saved the life of Alexander Korda played heroines of Antiquity.

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Mária Antónia Farkas (birth name), Antónia Farkas, Mária Korda, María Korda, Maria de Korda, Mary Korda, Maria Corda
actress
4 May 1898, Deva (Déva), Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
7 February 1976, Thônex, Switzerland

Maria Corda was born Antónia Farkas in Déva, Transylvania, in 1898. We know little of her early life and the confusion is only exacerbated by the fact that she herself was happy to relate colourful (and probably exaggerated) legends from her past. As a young girl she learnt to dance at the private school of Anna Pallay but film acting quickly became her first love. She contracted with Corvin, the leading studio of the day, where she was given her debut role in a dance scene in the film Mary Ann (director: Sándor Korda, 1919). Her vivid screen presence astonished cinemagoers and following her second film and first lead role in Ave Caesar! (director: Sándor Korda, 1919) the critics were already predicting she would have a great international career.

She rose to become one of the top actresses on the studio’s books, starring in the Korda film A 111-es (Number 111, sadly, a film that has been lost), not in a single role but two at the same time. The somewhat bizarre plot revolves around a bankrupt baron who takes up residence in room 111 of a hotel in order to commit suicide, but fate brings him into contact with a Japanese conjuror in the neighbouring suite. The magician is an alchemist whose startling trick is to behead himself on a guillotine and then appear before the audience uninjured. The baron first falls in love with the foreigner’s lover, Olga, who dies, and then he turns to Olga’s sister (both women are played by Antónia Farkas). This drives the conjuror to decapitate himself for real. The other exciting, Oriental film of the period, Fehér rózsa (White Rose, director: Sándor Korda, 1919) was a Jókai adaptation in which the lead actress Antónia Farkas plays a Greek trader’s virtuous daughter who is kidnapped by Turks and forced into the sultan’s harem in Damascus. The film amazed audiences primarily for its Middle Eastern street scenes and lavish palace sets, although Antónia Farkas’s acting also garnered praise. Her career took off and there was a major change in her private life, too. She met director Sándor Korda, her husband-to-be, at Corvin, and they married on 1 March 1921. Their creative partnership lasted for many years.

But who was Antónia Farkas, otherwise Maria Corda, who so bewitched the later Sir Alexander Korda? She frequently called herself the Hungarian Greta Garbo, even though this comparison does not exactly hold true.

With her magnetic beauty, glowing blue eyes and seductive movements she undoubtedly dominated the big screen and she often employed her irresistible charms off-screen as well.

She was extremely ambitious, as was her husband, thus they quickly discovered the potential inherent in their collaboration. Antónia dreamed of being an international star and only a massively talented director such as Korda could ever put her on such a trajectory. The connection between the two emerging, strong-willed artists initially proved to be extremely productive, but later their relationship was poisoned by their rivalry and unquenchable passion. “Alex was a pragmatist, a compromiser, a realist; Mária was a romantic with a minimal sense of reality, demanding, unreasonable, sometimes pathetic in her pretensions, but always bigger than life. This excess of passion made Maria attractive to Alex when they were both young and when it was directed toward him, but it enraged him in time, particularly as it was turned against him. Ultimately Maria, even when she was far away, became a constant threat, an unseen presence always able to destroy Alex’s happiness and peace of mind with a letter, a cable, a telephone call or a newspaper interview.” This is nephew of Alexander Korda, Michael Korda’s far from flattering characterization of Maria.1

Korda and Corda, 1930 (Színházi Élet, 1930/15.)

Emotional scenes, at the high point of which she sometimes stomped on her husband’s cigars and ripped up his expensive shirts, must have embarrassed the family but this acting talent proved to be life-saving on at least one occasion. In 1919, after the overthrow of the Republic of Councils, a wholesale purge of the Hungarian film industry was instituted and Korda, who had been active during the time of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, quickly found himself under the spotlight of investigations. The director was arrested and taken to Gellért Hotel where political prisoners were being held and frequently tortured. However, Antónia maintained her composure, she put on make-up and dressed in her finest she swept into the presence of the Horthy officers in true diva fashion. Here she acted out the greatest scene of her life, worked all her charms, then suffered an attack of hysteria and threatened an international scandal. Exhausted, the officers finally released Korda. After this unpleasantness the couple immediately booked first-class tickets for Vienna where they started a new life in autumn 1919. “A fundamental change had occurred in their relationship, one which would affect Alex until his death, preventing him from ever breaking Maria’s hold on him. She saved his life. Whatever her excesses, whatever their incompatibility, however incomprehensible his concern might seem to strangers or new wives, Alex was to be henceforth in Maria’s debt, and both of them, as the train pulled slowly into Vienna, were aware of it.”2

The first stop: Vienna

In Vienna, the situation was reversed in that primarily the actress was able to build her international reputation. Korda was not happy but he had no choice other than to be labelled for a time as the director of films starring his wife. This is when Antónia Farkas took the name Maria Corda, in which the use of the letter ‘C’ instead of ‘K’ indicated her artistic independence. Thus Corda was the same and yet different to Korda, something that later on was the cause of much administrative complication. Maria established her own company, Corda Film Consortium, and in 1921 she gave birth to a boy, Peter Vince Korda.

Star in Berlin (Tolnai Világlapja, 1926. július 21.)

The actress quickly realized her old dream by becoming a true star, primarily among Austrian and Italian audiences. Corda Film produced the monumental Samson und Delila (Samson and Delilah, director: Alexander Korda, 1922), in which Maria played the heroine of Antiquity and the lead role of the parallel storyline set in modern times, the opera singer embodying the contemporary Delilah. During this period, she starred in another two history dramas that exploited the then fashionable wave that was further reinforced by the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. She also portrayed the Jewish girl Merapi in the hugely spectacular Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel, 1924) by Mihály Kertész who was similarly living in Vienna at the time. Merapi falls in love with Seti, the Egyptian prince, but the romance turns to tragedy and the Israelites depart Egypt. Two years later, in Italy she worked on a similar ‘film colossus’ directed by Carmine Gallone and Amleto Palermi. At around three hours long, Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The Last Days of Pompei) is a massively expensive film revealing the decadence of the Roman empire. She plays the lead along with another Hungarian, Victor Varconi, that is, Mihály Várkonyi.

The Corda-Korda couple didn’t stay long in Vienna, preferring to move on to Berlin where there were greater opportunities. Indeed, Tragödie im Hause Habsburg (Tragedy in the House of Habsburg, director: Alexander Korda, 1924) about the Mayerling incident was shot partly in Berlin and partly in Vienna. In the movie about the double suicide, Maria Vetsera and Crown Prince Rudolf were played by Maria Corda and Kálmán Zátony, with Emil Fenyvessy taking the part of Franz Josef. The story is also of a genre that suited Maria so well, a historical drama albeit set in more contemporary times.

On arrival in Berlin, Maria Corda became a star of UFA but her films continued to be largely directed by her husband. She tried her hand at comedy in Madame wünscht keine Kinder (Madame Wants No Children, 1926) and she appeared in a work by Robert Wiene, famous for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Der Gardeoffizier (The Guardsman, 1927), an adaptation of a play by Ferenc Molnár.

The tragedy of Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy (Színházi Élet, 1927/49.)

In autumn 1926, Maria received a new proposal, this time from First National of America, so grabbing the opportunity she and her husband moved to Hollywood. Her fame preceded her since she was trumpeted as one of the three most important actresses in Europe and expectations were as high as they had been for her compatriot Vilma Bánky. Even in Hollywood, the earlier setup remained, that is, Alexander Korda directing the films but the real star was Maria Corda. The Private Life of Helen of Troy was shot on the basis of the popular novel by John Erksine in autumn 1927. Work did not run smoothly, Maria had problems with everything, she found her dressing room too small, she had costumes tailored to meet the excessively prudish morals of America changed thirty times, and she was only prepared to perform with classical music instead of contemporary jazz.3 In the end, the much promoted film was a flop, although it was nominated for the first-ever Academy Awards in a special category in which the prize went to the best silent film subtitles. Unfortunately, today the romantic story drawing inspiration from Greek mythology cannot be seen because only a 30-minute clip of it has survived in the BFI collection. However, one can assume on the basis of pictures and descriptions that the work relied heavily on the radiant characterization of Maria Corda playing the lead role, who was introduced as the blonde woman of destiny.

Although earlier they consistently denied that their relationship had foundered, indeed, Alexander Korda protested in a telegram because of press rumours to this effect, in the end the Korda-Corda marriage collapsed in 1930. The advent of sound movies played a large part in this breakup. Maria was unable to meet the challenge of talkies because her strong Hungarian accent made it impossible for her to retain her aura as the queen of the silver screen. In this new situation, it was Alexander Korda who found himself to be in his element. He instantly understood the opportunities offered by sound film. However, the talented director could not find his place in Hollywood so he decided to return to Europe. The moment arrived to launch divorce proceedings, which were soon finalized in accordance with the more relaxed laws of California. Their home, which had been one of the main meeting points for the Hungarian community in Hollywood over the past few years, closed and the delicious scent of goulash cooked outside at garden parties disappeared forever. The rumour mill fed off the divorce for many weeks and the Korda-Corda relationship was an eternal topic covered by the tabloids. Whereas Alexander Korda moved to London, Maria moved to New York, although before this she acted in a couple of films in the location of her earlier triumphs, Berlin (Modern Casanova, director: Max Obal, 1928; Heilige oder Dirne, director: Martin Berger, 1929). Subsequently, however, the still beautiful and restless woman did not continue in movies, instead pouring her creative energy into writing. According to some sources, her screenplay dealing with the life of actress Eleanora Duse was bought by Louis B. Mayer for Greta Garbo, the great role model of the Hungarian diva.

Later, Maria also moved back to Europe and settled in Switzerland. After her former husband was knighted, she was amused to call herself Lady Korda even though at the time Alexander Korda’s actual wife was another famous actress, Merle Oberon. After Korda died she spent years unsuccessfully suing for a share of the inheritance but she was never totally excluded from the Korda family. In 1935 she paid a visit to Budapest where she met a writer from Színházi Élet who summed up the philosophy of Maria’s femininity thus: “She reckons a true woman’s natural calling is to be the inspiration of the man. The real ‘Demon’ is not a parasite, she does not sponge off the man, but she gives the explosive power to the man, she lends the wings with which he can rise up from the earth. The man is the instrument on which the woman plays her ambitions. The principal duty of a true woman is to awaken and stimulate strengths to their ultimate extent in her man.”

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 Notes

[1] Michael Korda: A szerencse fiai. A Korda testvérek regényes élete. Budapest: Európa, 1983. 76–77.
[2] U. o. 89.
[3] Szép Heléna magánélete és Korda Mária magánélete. 8 Órai Újság, 1928. január 28. 4.
[4] Nagy Endre: Korda Mária az igazi nőről és a démon hivatásáról. Színházi Élet, 1935/29.

Sources

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Luise Rainer and Garbo. Waikato Times, Volume 122, Issue 20403, 21 January 1938. 4.
Korda Mária alig várja, hogy itthon filmezhessen. Színházi Élet, 1925/28. 53.
Hollywood legünnepeltebb csillaga: Corda Mária, akinek az amerikai nők még a frizuráját is lemásolják. Tolnai Világlapja, 1927. október 5. 58–59.
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Csillagvizsgáló. Tolnai Világlapja, 1927. június 15. 59.
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Barkóczi Janka