From 1930, Korda became a leading figure in the British film industry, the founder of London Films and the owner of British Lion Films, a film distributing company. Korda was the first filmmaker to have been officially knighted.
The elder brother of filmmakers Zoltan and Vincent, Korda was born Sándor László Kellner to a Jewish family in Pusztatúrpásztó (Hungary, Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok area) in what is now Hungary (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), where he worked as a journalist.
After the death of his father Korda began writing film reviews to support his family. Korda changed his family name from Kellner to Korda—from the Latin phrase "sursum corda" which means lift up your hearts.
Korda became an important film figure through his film magazines Pesti Mozi, Mozihét and Világ. This led to invitations to write film screenplays.
Korda's first film script was for Watchhouse in the Carpathians (1914). When the First World War broke out, Korda was excused from military service in the Austrian Army because of his bad eyesight. Korda went to work at the Pedagogical Studio in Budapest and co-directed three films with Gyula Zilahy.
Korda established a film company named Corvin Film, building it into one of the largest in Hungary. In October 1919, Korda was arrested during the White Terror that followed the overthrow of the short-lived Communist government, the Hungarian Democratic Republic, because of his participation in its government. After his release, he left Hungary for Austria, and never returned to his country of birth.
During the next eleven years, Korda made films in several countries, working in Vienna, Berlin, London and Paris before moving to Hollywood in 1940. He worked closely with many artists on his films, including his Hungarian friend, painter and set designer Emile Lahner.
After leaving Hungary, Korda accepted an invitation from Count Alexander Kolowrat to work for his company Sascha-Film in the Austrian capital Vienna. Korda worked alongside Kolowrat, who had attracted several leading Hungarian and German directors into his employment, on the 1920 historical epic The Prince and the Pauper. The film was a major international success and inspired Korda with the idea of making "international films" with global box office appeal.
Korda's next two films, Masters of the Sea (1922) and A Vanished World (1922), were both nautical-set adventures based on Hungarian novels. By that stage, Korda had grown irritated with Kolowrat's interference with his work and left Sascha to make an independent film, Samson and Delilah (1922), set in the world of opera. The film was made on a lavish scale, with large crowd scenes. The lengthy shooting schedule lasted 160 working days. The film was not a success.
Unable to find further backing for his film projects, Korda left Vienna and travelled to Germany. Korda raised funding for the melodrama The Unknown Tomorrow (1923). With backing from Germany's biggest film company, UFA, Korda returned to Vienna to make Everybody's Woman (1924). While there, he began work on his next film, the historical Tragedy in the House of Habsburg (1924), which portrayed the Mayerling Incident. It earned back around half of its production cost. He followed this with Dancing Mad (1925), another melodrama.
Korda had frequent problems with money, and often had to receive support from friends and business associates. Korda had cast his wife Maria Corda as the female lead in all his German-language films and to a large degree, his productions depended on her star power. The growing tension in their marriage came to a head after they moved to the United States.
They settled in Hollywood, the film capital. Korda cast her again in A Modern Dubarry (1927), which adapted the life story of Madame Du Barry, based on an original screenplay by Lajos Biro. The film may have intended to highlight Maria Corda's star potential to Hollywood. Korda made his final German film Madame Wants No Children (1926) for the American studio's Fox's Berlin-based subsidiary. Although made later, it was released before A Modern Dubarry.
In December 1926 after receiving a joint contract offer from the American studio First National, Korda and his wife sailed for the United States on board the steamer Olympic. Once they reached Hollywood, both struggled to adapt to the studio system. Korda had to wait some time before gaining his first directorial assignment. His first American film was a drama titled The Stolen Bride (1927). Korda was chosen as it was a Hungarian-themed romance about a peasant's love for a countess. The film starred the American actress Billie Dove, rather than Korda's wife.
After The Stolen Bride's moderate success, Korda was brought in to work on the comedy The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927), replacing the previous director, George Fitzmaurice. The film retells the story of Helen of Troy, parodying the plot-line of historical epics of the era by transforming the classical characters into everyday people with modern problems. The film was a significant success for Korda, with his wife playing the role of Helen. After this film, however, Korda became pigeon-holed as a director of female stars and exotic foreign locations. He was generally given similar assignments for the remainder of his time in Hollywood. The film was his most satisfying work in the United States and provided the template for his later success in Britain.
Korda's next few films Yellow Lily (1928), Night Watch (1928), and Love and the Devil (1929) were disappointments as his career lost its momentum. The latter two were both Silent films, but had sound effects and music added to their soundtracks as part of Hollywood's transitional phase of technology following the success of the Sound film The Jazz Singer. Korda's next film The Squall (1929) was his first "talkie" and featured a Hungarian setting. Although, like many other directors, Korda had misgivings about the new technology, he quickly adapted to making sound films.
Korda's marriage was strained in Hollywood. The arrival of sound films wrecked his wife's career as her heavy accent made her unemployable by American studios for most films. Love and the Devil was the last of Korda's films she appeared in, and she made only two more films. She became increasingly resentful of the switch in their relationship as her career was now over while Korda, who had once relied on her for the production of his films, was relatively flourishing. Their marriage collapsed, and they divorced in 1930.
Korda made two more sound films at First National: Her Private Life (1929) and Lilies of the Field (1930), both of which were remakes of earlier silent films. Gradually Korda grew more frustrated in Hollywood as he came to strongly dislike the studio system. He hoped to save up enough money to return to Europe and begin producing on a large scale there, but his lavish personal spending and the large amounts he lost in the Wall Street Crash prevented this. When his producer Ned Marin moved from First National to the Fox Film Corporation, Korda followed him. Korda's new contract gave him $100,000 a year.
His first film for Fox, Women Everywhere (1930), cost slightly more than some of the programmers he had previously directed in the United States. He collaborated with several figures who would contribute to his future success in Britain. Korda was offered a series of scripts, all of which he disliked, before he finally agreed to make The Princess and the Plumber (1930). Korda's reluctance to make the film led to his conflict with studio bosses, which brought to an end his first period in Hollywood.
In 1932 Korda founded London Films with Big Ben as the company logo. The company's releases included The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Rembrandt (1936), both of which starred Charles Laughton and were directed by Korda. Other successes included The Four Feathers (1939), Q Planes (1939), and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Korda's younger brothers Zoltán, a film director, and Vincent, an art director, were involved with his projects.
Korda bought property in Denham, Buckinghamshire, including Hills House, and planned to build film studios on the property. London Film's Denham Film Studios was financed by the Prudential and opened in 1936. Korda was naturalised as a British subject on 28 October 1936. That same year, Korda was an important contributor to the Moyne Commission, formed to protect British film production from competition, mainly from the United States. Korda said: "If American interests obtained control of British production companies they may make British pictures here but the pictures made would be just as American as those made in Hollywood. We are now on the verge of forming a British school of film making in this country."
By 1939, Michael Powell had been hired as a contract director by Korda on the strength of The Edge of the World. Korda set him to work on some projects such as Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled. Nonetheless, Powell was brought in to save a film that was being made as a vehicle for two of Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film was The Spy in Black, where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger.
Korda, though, soon had financial difficulties and management of the Denham complex was merged with Pinewood in 1939, becoming part of the Rank Organisation.
The outbreak of World War II in Europe meant The Thief of Bagdad had to be completed in Hollywood, where Korda was based again for a few years. While in the United States, Korda produced and directed That Hamilton Woman (1941) and supervised Jungle Book (1942), a live action version of the Kipling story, directed by Zoltán Korda.
On 22 September 1942, Korda was knighted at Buckingham Palace by George VI for his contribution to the war effort, the first film director to receive the honour.
He returned to Britain in 1943 as production chief of MGM-London films, with a £35 million, 10-year programme. The scheme ended after one year, one film and a £1million loss to MGM.
Via London Films, Korda bought a controlling interest in British Lion Films. It produced such films as The Third Man (1949).
In 1948 Korda received an advance payment of £375,000, the largest single payment received by a British film company, for three movies, An Ideal Husband (1947), Anna Karenina (1948) and Mine Own Executioner (1948). He released three other films, Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948), The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Fallen Idol (1948). Some of these films did well but others were expensive failures. Korda was badly hurt by the trade war between the British and American film industries in the late 1940s. In 1948 Korda signed a co-production deal with David O. Selznick.
Korda did recover, in part due to a £3 million loan British Lion received from the National Film Finance Corporation. In 1954 he received £5 million from the City Investing Corporation of New York, enabling him to keep producing movies until his death. His last film was Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Richard III (1955).
A draft screenplay of what became The Red Shoes was written by Emeric Pressburger in the 1930s for Korda and intended as a vehicle for Merle Oberon, whom Korda later married. The screenplay was bought by Michael Powell and Pressburger, who made it for J. Arthur Rank. During the 1950s, Korda reportedly expressed interest in producing a James Bond film based upon Ian Fleming's novel Live and Let Die, but no agreement was ever reached.
Korda died at the age of 62 in London in 1956 of a heart attack and was cremated. His ashes are at Golders Green Crematorium in London.
Korda was married three times, first to the Hungarian actress María Corda in 1919. They had one son, Peter Vincent Korda, and divorced in 1930. In 1939, he married the film star Merle Oberon. They divorced six years later. He married, lastly, on 8 June 1953, Alexandra Boycun (1928–1966), who survived him.
His nephew Michael Korda, the son of his younger brother Vincent, wrote a roman à clef about Merle Oberon, published after her death. It was entitled Queenie. He also wrote a memoir about his large, extended family and filmmaker father and uncles.He was knighted for contributions to the film industry.
The Alexander Korda Award for "Outstanding British Film of the Year" is given in his honour by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
The following films were directed by Korda.
The following additional films were produced by Alexander Korda but not directed by him:
Korda announced a number of projects which were never made, including:the life of T. E. Lawrence with Leslie Howard later to be directed by Brian Desmond Hurst.
the life of Nijinsky (1930s)
Cyrano de Bergerac with Charles Laughton (1930s–1940s)
Precious Bane with Robert Donat
Burmese Silver with Conrad Veidt (1930s)
the story of Pocahontas starring Merle Oberon (1939)
adaptation of Manon Lescaut for Merle Oberon
an adaptation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy to star Merle Oberon(1940s)
Velvet Coat, the life of Robert Louis Stevenson with Oberon and Robert Donat
an adaptation of Greenmantle by John Buchan
Lottie Dundass starring Vivien Leigh from the play by Enid Bagnold
an adaptation of The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson
Habitation Enforced from the story by Rudyard Kipling
an adaptation of The King's General by Daphne du Maurier (late 1940s)
The Promotion of the Admiral from the novel by C. S. Forester starring Ralph Richardson directed by Powell and Pressburger (1940s)
A Tale of Two Cities with Gregory Peck
Tess of the d'Urbervilles with Jennifer Jones as Tess
Around the World in Eighty Days
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley