Educated at Reformist College and Royal U., Budapest.
Korda was the self-ordained khan of the British film industry. Having worked as a director in his native Hungary, Germany, America, and France, he went to England in 1931 and remained there the rest of his life, receiving the accolade as a solace when he had lost most of his money. No doubt the knighthood moved him, for he responded fulsomely to service and patriotism and would have absorbed all of England's heritage if he could.
After 1939, Korda devoted himself to the war effort, and in peace he smiled his way through decline. From 1949 onward he took up a rather vague role as executive producer. The result, as always, was a string of oddities, a sort of Xanadu necklace, each piece glittering but flawed. The British cinema is inconceivable without Korda, and yet perhaps he gave it illusory standards. Look at a selection of the pictures he produced: not a dull one amone them, not one that does not sparkle with silliness (if nothing else): Catherine the Great (34, Paul Czinner), the Bergner version, made to tease Sternberg, perhaps; The Scarlet Pimpernel (34, Harold Young); Sanders of the River (35, Zoltán Korda); The Ghost Goes West (35, René Clair); Things to Come (36, William Cameron Menzies); Elephant Boy (36, Z. Korda and Robert Flahertv); Knight Without Armour (37, Jacques Feyder); The Drum (38, Z. Korda); The Four Feathers (39, Z. Korda); The Thief of Bagdad (40, Tim Whelan, Ludwig Berger, and Michael Powell)—perhaps the best, and the most influential; The ¡angle Book (42, Z. Korda); Anna Karenina (48, Julien Duvivier); The Fallen Idol (48, Carol Reed); The Small Back Room (48, Powell); The Third Man (49, Reed); Gone to Earth (50, Powell); Seven Days to Noon (50, John Boulting); The Tales of Hoffmann (51, Powell); Cry, the Beloved Country (52, Z. Korda); The Sound Barrier (52, David Lean); Hobson’s Choice (53, Lean); The Deep Blue Sea (55, Anatole Litvak); and Richard III (55, Laurence Olivier).
Anna Karenina is a dud, but consider that run from The Fallen Idol to The Tales of Hoffmann— six films, no two alike, all full of enterprise and showmanship, and all as moving as on the day they were shot. The Third Man was all the more of an achievement in that Korda had to ward off the heavy breathing of a fellow-monster. Selznick. Not that Selznick could ever have delivered the tough, bitter romance of The Third Man.
Oris it possible that, in introducing the vain thought that England could rival Hollywood, Korda distracted England from a modest, secure native industry, working to small budgets on indigenous subjects with something like the stylistic innova-tion achieved in France in the 1930s? Of course, there is ample evidence of commercial wrong-headedness and limited talent apart from Korda, but still he dragged England in a fruitless direction, the ponderous aftermath being J. Arthur Rank’s attempt at postwar imitation.
That said, it is ungenerous not to respond to the Hungarian’s sense of “pomp, magic, and madness,” nor to admire the shameless gaiety of the goulash he made out of England. He grasped one point—years later a credo of BBC TV’—that the English had a limitless appetite for their own eozv history, that they loved its pretext for flashv acting, rich costumes, and class distinction. As for authenticity, Korda had that sinuous charm that can make the truth sound unreliable—not that he wasted much time on the truth. In America, he had tested the commercial viability of the "private life” of some household name from history. And with Henry VIII—the safest of all such figures— he successfully produced an international film that made a lot of money in America, never seemed threadbare, and found a major screen personality in Charles Laughton.
It was unfortunate that success came so early, for it urged Korda into grand plans. None of his later films had the same success, even if Rembrandt is a better movie. He founded London Films, Alexander Korda Film Productions, borrowed from the Prudential to build Denham studios, and surrounded himself with a coterie of talents—his brothers, Zoltán and art director Vincent, many indifferent Hungarians, and some technicians of great talent, like Georges Périnal.
The labor of organization drained his own zest for direction, so that his last film, from Oscar Wilde, with sets bv Cecil Beaton, photographed by Périnal, and with Paulette Goddard as Mrs. Cheveley, is a listless mess. In America, he had directed for First National, often from Hungarian stories, and with Billie Dove or his first wife, Maria Corda. After a brief interlude in France, where his Manus fitted into Pagnol’s trilogy, he came to England and married again to Merle Oberon, who appeared in Henry VIII and Don Juan and whose car accident mercifully interrupted Claudius, already riven by the impossible egotism of himself, Laughton, and von Sternberg.
Even so, in Fun in a Chinese Laundnj Sternberg speaks with rare and unaffected warmth of Korda's ability to survive in a sea of deceits and debts. Sternberg paints a pretty picture of himself seeing an almost penniless Korda off from Hollywood. Truth to tell, they were made for each other. And in Sternberg was too prickly a talent for the fragile mock-Babylon at Denham, still he was a character from Kordas world. Either one might have immortalized the other with more luck. As it is, the footage of Claudius is exquisite and perverted.
Married Maria Farka, 1919.; married second, Merle Oberon, 1939 (marriage dissolved).