A white knight of British cinema


January 17, 2003

Sir Alexander Korda (1893-1956) once gave his son Peter a £5 note with the instruction: "Don't spend it; waste it." This command summarises Korda senior's grandiose approach to film-making. Charles Drazin's lively and informative biography chronicles the life and times of the man he calls "Britain's only movie mogul" in a book that leaves one marvelling at Korda's many achievements and lamenting the innumerable failures and missed opportunities that, under his auspices, characterised the history of the British film industry from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Korda's limitless energy has almost quixotic origins in his Jewish/Hungarian background, where he developed his artistic and entrepreneurial skills, and from which his over-reaching ambitions would eventually drive him to seek release.

Drazin painstakingly reconstructs the life of a talented and impatient young man, already distancing himself in his early teens from the provincialism of his upbringing by ditching his family name, "Kellner", for a nom de plume , "Korda". According to Drazin, the inspiration for this self-administered baptism may have been the phrase from the Latin Mass sursum corda , an appeal to the faithful to lift up their hearts. In the phrase's reduced form, Korda expresses the primeval force and determination of a man unbowed by his many adverse skirmishes with disaster.

This vitality served him well, both in directing films and in cutting deals of the kind that later led the Prudential Assurance Company to bankroll his London Films empire at Denham Studios. His skills in charming potential sponsors and creditors were honed in the coffee houses of Budapest. "When I was a boy", he once said, "I learnt the most important thing of all - how to be a good talker."

The first film he could truly call his own, White Knights , was made in 1916, when he was only 23. Six more shorts followed quickly before he moved on to make films in Vienna, Berlin and Hollywood.

By this time (1919), he had married the first of his three wives, the somewhat wild and loopy Maria Corda, the Galatea transformed by him into one of Europe's leading film stars of the day. Maria's career faltered in Hollywood - a place, Drazin explains, that never entirely suited his European sensibilities. He contrasts Korda's misgivings about America with the attitudes of Hollywood's acculturated European moguls, arguing that the difference lay in Korda's refusal to surrender his Europeanness, as against the Americans' embrace of a country to which they had turned as fugitives from racial, economic or other problems.

Drazin claims that Korda did learn a valuable lesson in Hollywood: showmanship. But when Paramount studios started looking for someone to run their operations in England, Korda seized the opportunity, achieving here his greatest successes and disasters: creating and losing London Films and Denham Studios, buying and forfeiting Shepperton Studios and British Lion films, marrying and being divorced by his second wife, Merle Oberon, making the catastrophic and unfinished I Claudius , the box-office failures An Ideal Husband and Bonnie Prince Charlie , but producing, among many other marvellous films, perhaps the greatest British film of all time, The Third Man .

Korda made films on the grand scale. A Hungarian who fled from provincialism, he sought to rescue British cinema from insularity, cramming his films with international figures, such as Marlene Dietrich, Jacques Feyder, René Clair, who would appeal, above all, to American audiences. Drazin argues plausibly that Korda was in some senses the Harry Lime of the British cinema: a genial, ruthless egotist or, as Harry's mistress Ana puts it, the boy who never grew up in a world that grew up around him.

Peter William Evans is professor of Spanish, Queen Mary, University of London.

Korda: Britain's Only Movie Mogul

Author - Charles Drazin
ISBN - 0 283 06350 5
Publisher - Sidgwick and Jackson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 411

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