Alexander Korda, Hungarian-born filmmaker who flourished as a producer
in the United States and England.
Alexander Korda: Biography
by J. A. Aberdeen
Alexander Korda was born Sandor Kellner September 16, 1893 on a settlement on
the outskirts of Turkeve on the Great Hungarian Plain. He was the oldest of
three sons in a family of assimilated Jews. As a young boy, Sandor's sight was
damaged by the improper treatment of an eye condition. Throughout his life he
always wore thick glasses. Despite this detriment, he was a voracious reader,
and acquired a near-photographic memory. Throughout his life he also mastered
about a half-dozen languages, and was known to be a brilliant (some say
Age age thirteen Sandor suffered the death of his father, and shortly
thereafter Sandor left the capital Budapest. There he became a short story
writer for a daily newspaper. Here he adopted the pseudonym "Korda,"
and became a full-time reporter at age sixteen. Sandor Korda also contributed
crime stories and wrote reviews, and became the paper's night editor.
In 1911 he out to start a career in films and spent several months in Paris,
doing odd jobs in the Pathé studio -- at the time, the most advanced film
factory in the world. He returned to Hungary and joined a film company in
Though the Hungarian film industry was in its infancy, the country would
produce a surprisingly rich heritage of film. Influential filmmakers like
Alexander Korda, Michael Curtiz, and George Cukor were Hungarian. The country
also boasted the world's first film journal. And at this period, Korda became
one of the most important figures in the formative years of Hungary's film
Korda located financing, and built his own studio called Corvin in a suburb
of Budapest where the Mafilm Studios reside today. Though Korda served as
director, he also served as executive producer by overseeing all production
activity at his impressive company. In 1919, he assisted the Communist
government (though Korda was not a member of the Communist party) when it made
Hungary the first nationalized film industry in the world. When the Communist
government fell and was replaced by the right-wing "White Terror"
regime, Korda was briefly imprisoned. In November 1919, he left Hungary with his
actress wife Maria. He would never again return to his homeland.
Now calling himself Alexander Korda, rather than Sandor, he journeyed to
Vienna to join the Sascha Film Company. Desperately seeking his independence, he
moved to Berlin to form his own company Korda-Film, directing film vehicles for
his wife Maria Corda (who spelled her last name differently to differentiate
from her husband). His films were well-received, and led to an offer from the
First National studios in Hollywood for both Kordas to come to America.
In Los Angeles had directed at First National and Fox. The films were
received half-heartedly by the public, and Korda was dissatisfied with the
results. He petitioned Fox studios to release him from his contract, in 1930 --
thus ending his career as a Hollywood director.
Disillusioned, he returned to Europe, determined not to return to Hollywood,
except as his own producer and studio boss. After making several important films
in Paris and Germany, he moved to England in 1931. At the time the English film
industry was in a depressed state, dominated by American films. Most English
production companies made what were called "quota quickies." These
films were often cheaply made movies used solely to fill screens at a time when
the British government mandated that British theaters must show a certain
percentage of British-mad films.
Oberon, the year before she married Korda.
Korda felt that the only way to bring the English film industry to prominence
would be by concentrating on quality films (a mantra shared in common with the
future SIMPP founders in America). Alexander Korda organized London Film
Productions, and risked everything on a deceptively-lavish movie The Private
Life of Henry VIII (1933) starring Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. The
film became a worldwide blockbuster.
Following the success of this film, Korda was hailed as the savior of the
British film industry. On the strength of this film, he was also able to land an
American distribution deal with United Artists, where he became the peer of
other independent producers like himself. In 1935, he was upgraded to
full-fledged partner and stockholder alongside Charlie
Chaplin, Mary Pickford,
Douglas Fairbanks, and Sam Goldwyn. Korda constructed the stately Denham film
studio on a 165-acre estate outside London. He also established his own roster
of contract actors including Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon (who became the second
Mrs. Korda in 1939), Wendy Barrie, Robert Donat, Maurice Evans, and Vivien
manufactuered custom jewelry for some of his films, given as gifts to
employees and friends. The above example is from The Thief of
Some of his more ambitious films included Rembrandt (1936), which he
also directed; Things to Come (1936) a $1.5 million adaptation of the H.
G. Welles book; and The Thief of Bagdad (1940).
While Britain was war-torn in the early 1940s, Korda took up an extended
residence in the United States. During this time he co-founded SIMPP.
Only a couple years later Alexander Korda became the first of the founding
members to leave the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. In March
1943, Korda entered into a merger between his independent company London Film
Productions and MGM-British. Korda would become the new executive producer of
the English division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He resigned from SIMPP, and
returned to England. However, his dissatisfaction with the deal brought about
his resignation in 1946.
He set about to revive London Film Productions, but suffered from setback
caused by his poor health. He died in January 1956, and London Films folded soon