Alexander Korda – although perhaps not as well-remembered to American audiences as such other Golden Age film producers as David O. Selznick, Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn and Arthur Freed – was a towering figure in the international film world. He produced such classics as Rembrandt (1936), Things to Come (1936) and The Third Man (1949), and he also directed many of the films he produced. Through his British production company London Films, Korda helped such talents as Merle Oberon, Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier and Deborah Kerr on their way to major stardom, He also aided the careers of such filmmakers David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Born Sándor László Kellner into a Jewish family in Austria-Hungary in 1893, he took his new last name from the Latin phrase “Sursum corda,” meaning “Lift up your hearts.” After working as a film critic, he began a successful career as the writer, producer and director of films in Vienna and Berlin before relocating to the U.S. in 1926.
Moving on to France in 1931, Korda then found refuge the following year in England, where he formed London Films to produce and distribute movies. With the aid of his brothers Zoltan (a director) and Vincent (an art director) and other expatriate Hungarians, Korda would create some of England’s most prestigious films and become the first filmmaker to receive a knighthood.
After grooming Merle Oberon for stardom, Korda shared her contract with Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her starring roles in films he produced in Hollywood. Korda and Oberon were married in 1939 and divorced in 1945. He had two other wives, actress Maria Farkas (1919-30) and Alexandra Boycun (1953-56).
The TCM retrospective begins with one of London Films’ first productions, Wedding Rehearsal (1932), a romantic comedy directed by Korda. Roland Young stars as a marquis living in London who is told by his mother that he must get married or lose his inheritance. In her credited film debut as one of the prospective brides is Merle Oberon, who would figure prominently in Korda’s history.
The company’s first big hit was The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), which made a star of Charles Laughton and brought him an Oscar in the eponymous role. Also in the film, which was nominated as Best Picture, are Robert Donat, Oberon and Binnie Barnes.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), based on the classic 1908 adventure novel, stars Leslie Howard as the 18th-century English aristocrat who lives a double life in fighting the Reign of Terror. Oberon and Raymond Massey costar in the film, produced by Korda and directed by Harold Young.
Oberon gets star billing in The Divorce of Lady X (1938), a screwball/romance in which she plays a madcap socialite who falls for a stuffy attorney (Laurence Olivier). The film was considered an important step forward in movie stardom for Olivier.
Korda’s The Four Feathers (1939), directed by brother Zoltan, is considered the best movie version of the much-filmed A.E.W. Mason novel about a British Army officer accused of cowardice during a war in Egypt. The film, starring John Clements and Ralph Richardson, was a huge success in both Britain and the U.S.
Other Korda films of the 1930s include Conquest of the Air (1936), a docudrama about aviation starring Laurence Olivier; Knight Without Armor (1937), a historical drama starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat; and The Lion Has Wings (1939), a war propaganda drama about the RAF, starring Oberon and Ralph Richardson.
The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a magical Arabian Nights fantasy about a native boy (Sabu) doing battle with an evil magician (Conrad Veidt), was another international hit for London Films. It became Korda’s biggest success in the U.S., where much of the movie was shot on location. The film won three Oscars, for its cinematography, art direction and special effects.
Korda scored a coup by casting the hot British couple of the moment, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, in That Hamilton Woman (1941), about the ill-fated love affair between Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson, the English naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars. The movie, directed by Korda, was shot principally in the U.S.
The Korda brothers joined forces on The Jungle Book (1942), sometimes billed as Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Alexander produced, Zoltan directed and Vincent, with Julia Heron, handled the Oscar-nominated art direction. The film also was nominated for its special effects, cinematography and musical score. The Jungle Book stars a teenaged Sabu as Mowgli, the boy who is raised by animals in the jungles of India and later attempts to adapt to village life. The movie was a big international hit, stirring up potent box office numbers in the U.S., Britain and France.
Vacation from Marriage (1945, original title Perfect Strangers) was a comedy produced and directed by Korda and filmed in London as the first (and only) project under a proposed plan for London Films and Hollywood studio MGM to coproduce a series of movies. Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr play a couple whose marriage is strained by their service to their country during World War II. Kerr, billed below the title here, would soon emerge as a star at MGM.
An Ideal Husband (1947), also produced and directed by Korda, is the second screen version of the much-filmed 1895 Oscar Wilde play about the attempts of a beautiful woman (Paulette Goddard) to blackmail a British statesman (Hugh Williams). This one was released in the U.S. by 20th Century-Fox.
Included in the TCM tribute are two screenings of the documentary Churchill and the Movie Mogul (2019), produced, written and directed by John Fleet and narrated by Dilly Barlow, with archival appearances by Korda, Winston Churchill, Charles Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Leslie Howard and others. The documentary looks at the unique collaboration between Korda and the British prime minister, who provided historical advice and help with screenplays for the producer’s movies during the World War II era.
Korda made his final film, Storm Over the Nile, in 1955. He died of a heart attack a year later at the age of 62.
By Roger Fristoe