Born 128 years ago, on September 16, 1893, as Sándor Korda, the creator of British film production, is known to the world as Sir Alexander Korda. His life is reminiscent of a folk tale; starting from a small village in the Great Plain of Hungary, he then conquered the world and was the first filmmaker to be promoted to the rank of knight.
Born to a Jewish family as Sándor László Kellner, in Pusztatúrpásztó near Túrkeve, his brother Zoltán also became a film director, while his other brother Vince was a set designer. After the death of their father, they moved to Kecskemét and then to the capital, where Alexander had already completed his secondary school studies.
The boy, blessed with excellent literacy, began to write his film reviews under the pseudonym Sursum Corda (“Lift Up Your Hearts”) as a journalism intern, hence his new name of Korda. At the age of 22, he founded the first Hungarian film magazine, and at the same time began directing silent films.
He first worked in Cluj-Napoca and then bought the Corvin film factory in Budapest in 1917. He built a modern film studio in the Zugló district based on the plans of László Moholy-Nagy; one of his innovations was the organization of American-style film dramaturgy.
Here he made about 20 films, the best known being the literary-based A Nagymama (The Grandmother), Mágnás Miska, A gólyakalifa (The Stork Caliph), Szent Péter esernyője (St. Peter’s Umbrella) and Az aranyember (The Golden Man).
He was involved in the reorganization of film production during the Soviet Republic, so he was arrested after the fall of that regime. When his wife, the movie star Mary Korda, interceded to get him released, they immediately left the country.
His last work at home was the silent film 111, based on the work of Jenő Heltai. In the 1920s, he worked in several European countries and then went to Hollywood, where he also worked on commercials, documentaries and feature films but was unable to pursue a career. He returned to Europe in 1929 with barely $20 in his pocket but rich in experience.
After a short detour to Paris, he settled in England and founded a company called London Films, whose logo featured the symbol of the British capital, Big Ben. On the estate he bought in Denham, near London, he created the English film industry from scratch and fought to protect British film production from being overtaken by American film studios.
His studios produced an average of 250 films a year, with standards that did not lag behind Hollywood productions. His most important co-creators were his two younger brothers, director Zoltán and set designer Vince, and he worked with such world-famous Hungarians as playwright Lajos Bíró, composer Miklós Rózsa, cinematographer Rudolf Máthé, screenwriter Imre Pressburger and production manager István Pallós.
Korda’s first breakthrough success was The Private Life of Henry VIII, made in 1933, which was the first British film to break into the American market and the first British (and non-Hollywood) film to win an Oscar with the performance of lead actor Charles Laughton.
In his films shot in the following years (The Private Life of Don Juan, Rembrandt, The Hamilton Woman), he brought the greats of history and art closer to the people; the exotic and fairy tale films directed by Zoltán Korda, which Alexandor produced, achieved similar popularity.
The Thief of Baghdad was awarded three Oscars, one of which went to the third brother, Vince, for Art Direction. Jungle Book was nominated in four categories, including for Vince Korda and Miklós Rózsa, who composed the score.
The Four Feathers, a successful film adaptation of the novel, was about the battles for the English colonies. Meanwhile, Sanders of the River, based on the works of Edgar Wallace, featured the title character of Bosambo, played by the African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson.
Korda launched the careers of actors like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (who also starred in The Hamilton Woman, which he directed), as well as Merle Oberon, whom he later married. He also worked with Leslie Howard, who was of Hungarian descent (Reserved for Ladies, The Scarlet Pimpernel) and Marlene Dietrich (The Divorce of Lady X).
A close good friend was the later prime minister, Winston Churchill, who wrote several scripts for Korda’s company, as well as writers Graham Greene and Robert Graves and director-actor Orson Welles.
The legendary well-dressed Korda, always in an elegant suit, shoes, gloves and hat, was witty and a famously great financial gambler. He repeatedly lost a fortune in his film businesses but always recovered; it was said that he could take money out of an empty safe.
He was granted British citizenship in 1936, and in 1942, he was knighted by King George VI for his outstanding work in creating English film production, thus earning him the title of Sir Alexander Korda. The king, because there was no cinema in Buckingham Palace at the time, regularly went to Korda’s to watch movies.
He went to Hollywood again during World War II, but now as a celebrated director. After the war, he returned to England, where he mostly worked as a producer, and recognizing the importance of television, he also sold the rights to his films to large television companies.
He was interested in 3D films and even fragrant films that emitted scents. His last work was a Shakespeare adaptation of Richard III in 1955, directed and produced by — and starring — Laurence Olivier. He married for the third time at the age of 60 but did not live long with his 20-year-old wife. On January 23, 1956, he suffered a heart attack at his home near Kensington Palace and died.
In 1996, the world-famous filmmaker received the posthumous Pro Cultura Hungarica award. His memory is preserved in a film theater in Túrkeve, where his bust also stands. The British Film Academy’s (BAFTA) award for the best British film of the year was previously named after Korda. And the largest theater of the Corvin Budapest Film Palace, as well as the Korda Film Studios in Etyek, which is well known to international filmmakers, are still named after the legendary filmmaker.