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Produced by Alexander Korda
Remind Me

Alexander Korda Profile

Alexander Korda, producer, director, movie mogul, and financier, lived a life that reads like a Hollywood script - Hungarian peasant farm boy becomes multi-millionaire and is eventually knighted by King George VI. Along the way he gained and lost fortunes and companies yet somehow still managed to live far beyond his means; was involved in espionage for Winston Churchill during World War II; and almost single-handedly revived the British film industry.

He was born Sandor Kellner in Pusztaturpaszto, Hungary, on September 16, 1893, the eldest of three brothers; Zoltan would become an acclaimed director and Vincent an award-winning art designer. Together and separately, the Korda brothers would make some of Britain's most celebrated films.

From an early age, Alex was fascinated by the novels of Jules Verne. He didn't want to be the hero of the stories, he wanted to be the man who created them. As Michael Korda, Vincent's son, would write in his book Charmed Lives, "Alex's thirst for adventure communicated itself to Zoli [Zoltan]. In the long evenings, he would read aloud to his younger brother, particularly a Hungarian translation of the journals of Livingstone's discoverer, Henry Morton Stanley, which no doubt explains why a boy from Hungary should spend his life making movies like Sanders of the River [1935], Elephant Boy [1937], The Four Feathers [1939], and Cry, the Beloved Country [1951]. Zoli remembered sitting in the small house around the great tiled stove, which had seats built into it for warmth and comfort, listening to Alex talking about "elsewhere" (the name he later gave the yacht)."

The early death of his father plunged the family into poverty and Alex, now sixteen, went to live with relatives in Budapest where he went to high school. During this time he joined several left-wing intellectual clubs and began to write for a liberal newspaper. As he was still a student and therefore not allowed to write for an opposition paper, he chose the name Sandor Korda as his pen name, eventually changing it to Alexander Korda.

In 1914 he founded the film magazine Mozihet but, still wanting to be the man who created the stories, he left full-time journalism and found work as an assistant with the Pedagogical Studios where he would direct films for schools. Three years later, he bought the Corvin production company to make his own films. By 1919 he would be the top director in the fledgling Hungarian film industry and Count Michaly Karolyi, the new head of the Hungarian Republic, named Korda "Commissioner of film production." Less than a year later, Karolyi's government had collapsed, to be replaced by a Communist one, led by Bela Kun. With Hungary now a Communist country, the film industry became nationalized and Korda accepted a position with the Communist Directory for the Film Arts. Eight months later, Kun's government itself collapsed. Admiral Miklos Horthy's counter-revolutionary army took control and began executing Communists still in Budapest until the river was clogged with corpses. This topsy-turvy political situation spelled the end of Alexander Korda's Hungarian film career, and very nearly cost him his life. "While he was suspicious of Jews and film makers, Horthy was aware that Alex already enjoyed a considerable reputation, and hoped to make use of him. He gave orders to have Alex's films screened for him. Unfortunately for Alex, the two films chosen for Horthy were those he had made for Bela Kun's Communist Directory for the Film Arts, rather than his traditionally patriotic wartime efforts, and the Regent's judgment was abrupt and severe, "the man who made these films must go to prison," he said with a certain degree of regret."

After Korda was arrested, his actress-wife Maria and his brother Zoltan went to a friend who had connections with Horthy's government. They were told that it was a "pity that His Excellency saw those two films, and I imagine it wasn't an accident." Zoltan realized that this arrest was more than political, it was orchestrated by Alex's business rivals, later saying, "If people want to kill you for political reasons, it can happen or not happen, but if they want to kill you for money, you are already dead."

Zoltan and Maria went to the hotel where Korda had been taken which was now converted into a prison complete with a busy torture chamber. Maria, who was famous in Hungary and was beginning to receive international attention as an actress, threatened to create a scandal if Alex wasn't released. A few hours later the authorities, not wanting to cause an international incident if Hungary's most famous director was executed, released Korda unhurt. He was advised to leave the country and shortly afterwards, Maria and Alex left for Vienna. Alexander Korda would never return to Hungary.

He would spend the 1920s making films in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and, briefly, Hollywood, which he hated. The studio system was as foreign to him as the English language. "In one of his daily letters to his old friend [Lajos] Biro, Alex complained that directing here was like working on an assembly line. You were given so many pages of script to turn into so many feet of film every day, and the person who could do it the most cheaply and quickly became the best director. Alex missed the leisurely pace of European film making, he missed the respect to which he was accustomed, and above all he missed his independence. 'Here', he complained, 'the stupidest producer on the lot can give orders to a director, and everybody's nephew is a producer. I should have come here as a producer myself, I think, or better yet, as a nephew.'"

Korda left Hollywood for a brief spell in Paris, where he filmed Marcel Pagnol's Marius (1931), which was a box-office hit. Now reestablished as a respected director Korda was offered the job of running Paramount's British studios, and in November 1931 he moved to London, which he would call home for the rest of his life.

After a year at Paramount, Korda formed his own production company, London Films, which produced what would be Britain's highest-grossing film to date and the first British film to be an international hit, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), starring Charles Laughton. Buoyed by this success, which created a boom film market in Britain, Korda and London Films dominated the British film making industry in the 1930s. They specialized in turning out glossy, beautifully photographed films which reflected Korda's love of England and all things British like Sanders of the River, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934, starring the half-Hungarian Leslie Howard, whose real name was Lazlo Steiner, and the woman who would become Korda's second wife, Merle Oberon), and The Four Feathers, filmed in the new Technicolor process and directed by Korda's brother, Zoltan. The formerly left-wing director was now a conservative who moved in the most elite circles in London and counted Winston Churchill as one of his closest friends.

Korda's next film, the Technicolor fantasy The Thief of Baghdad (1940) was already being filmed when war was declared in September 1939 and the production had to be moved to the United States where it was completed in 1940. In 1942 he was knighted by King George VI, making him the first motion picture personality to be so honored. He may have been honored for his artistic service to Britain, but he had performed an even greater service. Korda had been requested by the British government to go to the United States and set up offices in New York and Los Angeles to both continue making films which would represent the British point of view, and to "serve as 'cover' for British agents working in what was then neutral America." He was warned by Churchill that he would risk not only criticism for leaving Britain but that if the Germans found out, he could be killed. Korda accepted the risk and ended up flying back and forth between Britain and the United States acting as a personal courier to Churchill.

Thirty years later, Korda's nephew Michael would write, "Alex was not only providing cover for the attempt to spy on German activities in the United States, he was also involved in the British effort to discover whether or not they were receiving accurate information from President Roosevelt and his emissaries. The potential for embarrassment to Alex - who at the same time was attempting to establish a beachhead for himself in Hollywood - was enormous. A decade later, when I asked him about the rumors of his involvement with British intelligence, he smiled and replied, "I can't tell you, my boy, but they were the most difficult years of my life. Only four people knew what I was doing - Brendan Bracken, Max Beaverbrook, Churchill and myself." Alex worried that he might be declared an undesirable alien, or even indicted for espionage. He was a reluctant hero."

After the war, the British economy was in dire straits. Rationing would continue well into the 1950s and it would be decades before the country was rebuilt. The film industry was in a similar situation. Wartime restrictions had made filming difficult and at any rate, the British public had always preferred American films. The problem was an economic one. The profits from American films went back to America, not Britain, and the government was desperate for funds.

Korda's return from America suffered from these problems and another which he could not have foreseen: the public's tastes had changed. Films like Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and Anna Karenina (1948) failed to be the blockbusters he needed. Post-war cynicism made film noir popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Korda needed to tap into that cynicism, and to do it, he choose personal friends Graham Greene to write a screenplay and Carol Reed to direct. Together, they created the film which was recently voted the Best British Film of All Time: The Third Man (1949).

London Films had money that was tied up in Austria and Korda had wanted to make a film set in Vienna because he thought that the city, now divided into French, American, and Russian zones, would make a good backdrop. Greene was sent to Vienna in 1948 where he toured both the nightclubs and the sewers and learned of the black market dealing in watered-down penicillin. He stayed at the officer's hotel, Sacher's, which provided a wealth of information. At the same time, Korda went to the United States where he convinced David O. Selznick to co-finance the film. For casting, Selznick wanted Cary Grant to play Holly Martins and Noel Coward to play Harry Lime. Cary Grant asked for too much money, so the part went to Joseph Cotten. For the role of Harry Lime, Carol Reed wanted Orson Welles who Selznick thought was washed-up. Reed got his way and was able to get Welles to agree on the phone without too much fuss. The real problem was finding Orson Welles.

As he often did, Korda employed his brother Vincent as art-director but he would have another job, one that would turn into something of an adventure, as related by Michael Korda. "Alex...said to my father, 'I want you to go and get Orson. Find him. Bring him back somehow. Try not to let him know how much we need him, but get him back here and I'll persuade him to sign a contract.'" Vincent, accompanied by his son, Michael, set out to find Orson Welles. "On our arrival in Rome, we were met by a driver from the London Films office with an envelope full of lire, who took us to the Hassler Hotel, where my father had booked a suite. We went out for dinner then stopped by the Grand Hotel, where Vincent assumed Orson would naturally stay if he were in Rome. There the concierge informed us that Signor Welles had only just left for Florence. 'Ah,' my father said, 'one of my favorite cities - there's a marvelous restaurant there.' We arranged for a reservation at the Grand Hotel in Florence...The next morning we went to Florence by train,...registered at the Grand, where the concierge informed us that Welles had just left for Venice...In Venice we...registered at the Danieli, where we were informed by the concierge that Signor Welles extended his apologies to my father, but had been obliged to leave for Naples...My father was beginning to enjoy himself and remarked that with any luck Orson would end up in Paris, which was always his favorite city. We flew to Naples the next day, only to find that Welles had left for Capri. My father was not upset. He liked a sea voyage, and we set off on the steamer for Capri, like a pair of pilgrims on some obscure religious quest. As we pulled into the dock at Capri, we looked over the side to see a motorboat heading out toward the mainland at top speed. In the back, waving grandly to us, sat Orson, surrounded by a mound of luggage, on his way, as we soon discovered, from Naples to Nice. At a day's interval we followed after him, now followed ourselves by a storm of cables from Alex, urging Vincent on. It is impossible to say whether these increased Vincent's zeal or Orson simply ran out of money and credit, but we finally tracked him to the Bonne Auberge, in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Madame Baudoin, always my father's friend, champion and admirer, had informed us he could be found, eating the small raw artichokes of Provence, which were served with an anchovy sauce, before plunging into a steaming bouillabaisse and a roast chicken. Orson waved us to his table, ordered more food and wine and resigned himself to his fate. My father was never one to bear a grudge himself, and in any case, he had enjoyed a pleasant journey across Europe, even though it was a little rushed. He did not bother to explain why Orson would have to sign the contract. He knew perfectly well that Orson had no choice, so urgent was his need for money, and in any case that was Alex's job. Instead he got Orson drunk, took him in a taxi back to the Hotel Ruhl, bribed one the of the porters to stand watch over his door and arranged with the concierge to hire a private airplane to take us back to London. 'There's less chance that he'll slip away from us,' he explained. 'Otherwise we have to fly to Paris and change planes, and he'll be gone at Orly the moment we let him go to the toilet.'"

"The next morning...we boarded a small twin-engine airplane. My father sat up front with the pilot...while Orson and I squeezed into the two back seats, made more uncomfortable by the presence of a huge basket of fresh fruit, which my father had carefully chosen at dawn in the open-air market in Nice's Old City. […] Orson, who by now clearly regretted his surrender, glared morosely at the fruit as we took off. Once we were airborne, my father fell asleep and Orson […] began to eye the fruit. Sleepy myself, I noticed him pick up a piece of fruit and fondle it, but when I woke up an hour or so later, I realized to my horror that he had systematically taken a single bite out of each piece of fruit, even the ones whose rinds made this a difficult proposition. Having effectively destroyed Vincent's fruit basket, he was now at peace with himself, and slept soundly, his immaculate appearance marred only by a few spots of juice on his shirtfront."

Filming of The Third Man took over six months, beginning with three weeks in Vienna in October 1948. The weather was miserable, with rain, sleet and snow. The rain added the perfect film noir look to the streets but when it snowed, they moved production into the sewers where the climactic chase scene takes place. Welles, predictably, complained to Reed, "Carol, I can't work in a sewer, I come from California! My throat! I'm so cold!"

The cast and crew returned to London and began studio shooting, first at Isleworth, then Shepperton Studios from December 1948 to March 1949. The film premiered in London on September 2, 1949 and was a critical and box office smash and won the Palme d'or at the Cannes film festival. When it was released in the United States in 1950, it was similarly received by the critics and the public. Time magazine called it "Probably American filmgoers' best of 1950". The film later won an Oscar® for Best Cinematography Black and White. Carol Reed was nominated for Best Director and Oswald Hafenrichter was nominated for Best Editing.

The Third Man was to be Korda's last important film, but even though it earned a large amount of money, it was not enough to stave off the decline of London Films. Korda, too, was in a decline of his own. He had been living on borrowed time for some years with a heart condition which was exacerbated by his refusal to slow down, eat a healthier diet, or stop chain-smoking cigars. He had always lived his life according to his own rules and he would die the same way, which he did on January 23, 1956.

by Lorraine LoBianco
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