The Jewish director who kick-started British film — and coordinated WWII spies
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'Who better to present British people to the world?'

The Jewish director who kick-started British film — and coordinated WWII spies

Hungarian-born Alexander Korda was a hustler, master filmmaker, and once employed Winston Churchill. He’s now the subject of a monthlong season at the British Film Institute

  • Alexander Korda, left, with his brother Vincent Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
    Alexander Korda, left, with his brother Vincent Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
  • Still from 'That Hamilton Woman,' directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
    Still from 'That Hamilton Woman,' directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
  • Vincent Korda, left, with brother Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
    Vincent Korda, left, with brother Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
  • Still from 'The Private Life of Henry VIII,' directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
    Still from 'The Private Life of Henry VIII,' directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
  • Still from 'The Private Life of Henry VIII,' directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)
    Still from 'The Private Life of Henry VIII,' directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)

LONDON — He was Britain’s first film knight, honored in 1942 for his contribution to cinema. He was the man behind films such as the moody iconic thriller “The Third Man,” starring Orson Welles, and produced and directed in the United States, Europe and Britain.

Seventy-seven years later, Sir Alexander Korda is being remembered throughout January with a British Film Institute season of some of his best-known films, big hits across the world in the 1930s and 1940s.

But aside from being able to view some beautifully restored versions of cinematic successes, such as “The Private Life of Henry VIII” and the Oscar-winning “The Thief of Baghdad,” audiences will for the first time learn about the other side of Korda — the Hungarian Jewish emigré who was, according to his biographer, Charles Drazin, a facilitator of spies. In the 2011 “Korda: Britain’s Movie Mogul,” it is argued that the filmmaker was knighted not just for his cinema work, but also for his shadowy behind-the-scenes activities.

Much of that was due to his relationship with the future British prime minister Winston Churchill, whom Korda employed as a screenwriter during the 1930s when Churchill’s political life was in the doldrums.

Korda — who worked closely with his two brothers, Vincent and Zoltan — was born Sandor Kellner in 1893 in an isolated Hungarian village. The young Kellner attended the local Jewish school until he was 8 years old.

As an adult, Korda, who died in 1956, claimed to be a member of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and Zoltan was the only one of the three brothers to have a Jewish funeral. But probably, where necessary, Korda flourished his Jewish background — not least in his endlessly tricky dealings with such Hollywood heavyweights as Sam Goldwyn and UK Jewish film grandee Michael Balcon (grandfather of actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

Indeed, says biographer Drazin, Korda’s life in Britain was “very much informed by his Jewish identity,” as he became aware of the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the fate of Jewish communities under the Nazis.

Vincent Korda, left, with brother Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)

Drazin, who will appear on a panel discussion during the seasonal screenings, together with Korda’s nephew, David Korda, says that Alexander Korda was one-of-a-kind. He wrote screenplays, he built film studios, he produced, he directed — and even married three actresses en route, including the glamorous star of “Wuthering Heights,” Merle Oberon.

A portrait of the writer as a young man

The young Korda was a precocious and clever student who began his working life as a journalist when he was just 18.

At the beginning of World War I, Korda avoided conscription because of poor eyesight, and instead started a film magazine, together with some small projects as a documentary film director and producer.

By 1919 he was well established in Hungary as the maker of a number of feature films, including one starring his first wife, Maria Corda (nee Farkas). The couple married and Alex built his wife up as one of Europe’s top film stars.

But politically, in a country where Hungarian Jews had been well tolerated, things changed. The so-called “Counter-Revolution” seized power and one of its distinguishing features was “a special hatred for the Jews,” according to Drazin.

From left: brothers Vincent, Alexander, and Zoltan Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)

In October of 1919, for unknown reasons other than being Jewish, Korda was arrested and taken to Budapest’s Hotel Gellert, the headquarters of the counter-revolutionaries. Maria Corda (who used a different spelling of her married surname) and Korda’s brother Zoltan begged for his release, as Jews were regularly taken away from Gellert and executed. There are confused accounts of exactly how Korda’s freedom was obtained, but it was achieved and the young husband and wife fled Budapest for Vienna.

In Vienna and then Berlin, the capital of European cinema, Korda resumed making films, which frequently starred Maria.

She became increasingly difficult, throwing public tantrums and arguing on film sets — but it did not matter, since the prize on which both had their eye was another move, to Hollywood.

Maria thought the Americans wanted her, a big film star, with Korda “given a few films to direct as part of the deal.” In fact, it was Korda whom Hollywood wanted, with Maria part of the price the studios had to pay to secure his services.

The Kordas arrived in Hollywood in 1926 and Alex dived into filmmaking, but it was not a happy time. He was bored with the films he was asked to make and Maria was furious at the mediocre roles she was given.

Eventually the famously strong-willed Korda wanted to do things his way — and he lost his job. His marriage collapsed, too, and he and Maria divorced in 1930.

Jump-starting British film

Korda returned to Europe, trying his hand at remakes of American films. Since he spoke not only Hungarian and English, but French and German, as well, he was a valuable asset for other American studios. In 1931 Paramount sent Korda to England to make a film for their new British production unit, and so began his love affair with Britain.

Drazin’s biography of Korda, in which he charts his subject’s apparently limitless ability to run rings around British and US financiers, is an at-times hilarious account of a wily Hungarian Jew who simply couldn’t help being cleverer than everyone he encountered.

But it also paints a picture of someone who had an eye for picking out early talent and nurturing it. Some of the most famous names in British and American theater and cinema — from Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester; to theatrical knight Sir Ralph Richardson; movie heartthrob Robert Donat; romantic high-flyers Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier; not forgetting, of course, Korda’s second wife, Merle Oberon — worked with Korda and (mostly) profited from the experience.

Still from ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII,’ directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)

His first success — which gained Laughton an Oscar for the title role — was the swashbuckling “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” made in 1933. It was a scenery-chewing turn by Laughton and the film, nominated for best picture, became not only the highest-grossing British film of its time, but the first non-Hollywood film to get an Academy Award.

The film’s triumph — with a 90-second appearance by Merle Oberon as one of the king’s six wives — enabled Korda to transform the fortunes of British cinema. He opened his own company, London Film Productions, and built the luxurious Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire.

Korda lived and spent lavishly — for one film he made, all the food came from the exclusive Claridge’s Hotel in central London — but much of his life was spent in sweet-talking reluctant funders to underwrite his many projects.

Jo Botting, who has curated the Korda season for the British Film Institute, says his success in Britain came from the very fact of being an outsider.

“Who better to present British people to the world?” she says. “He became ‘British’ — though he never lost his Hungarian accent — very quickly. Apparently on the day he got his naturalization papers he said, ‘Down with bloody foreigners!’”

Still from ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII,’ directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)

For the love of intrigue

In 1934 Korda began his little-known association with Winston Churchill, the subject of a new documentary to be premiered during the season, “Churchill and the Movie Mogul.”

As Drazin records: “Alex took care almost as a matter of policy to seek out the titled, the rich and the powerful, but at this time Churchill was none of these things. He had resigned from the Conservative shadow cabinet in 1931 and had sailed well into his wilderness years. Alex would have been hard put to find a more unfashionable collaborator.”

But Korda often played a long game. He hired Churchill as an editor, associate producer and adviser in April 1934, but very few of the suggested projects for the future prime minister ever got off the ground.

Nevertheless, Churchill described Korda as “the only honorable man in the world of film,” though it’s not much of a compliment considering the rest of the sharks who swam throughout the industry.

Colonel Claude Dansey, who had served with Churchill in the same regiment during the Boer War, introduced the two men. Dansey had become head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in Rome, and the general conclusion is that Korda himself was “born to be a spy” — manipulative, duplicitous, multi-lingual, and with a taste for intrigue.

Still from ‘That Hamilton Woman,’ directed by Alexander Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)

So in 1937 Dansey arranged with Korda that London Film Productions would provide cover for his agents in Europe, an arrangement which lasted throughout the war years. The secret agents were able to work in European capitals while pretending to be screenwriters or film researchers.

British intelligence may well have had a shadowy hand in Korda’s early film success; in return, he played a part in persuading America to join the war, by making a well-received “propaganda” film, “That Hamilton Woman,” said to be Churchill’s favorite film. It will also be screened during the season.

In fact, Korda’s knighthood, awarded in 1942, was as much to do with his covert activities for Dansey, Churchill, and wartime America, as it was for his work in British film. He was, indeed, a different type of movie mogul.

“The Golden Age of Alexander Korda, Britain’s Movie Mogul,” runs from January 1-30 at the British Film Institute, Southbank, London.

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