Merle Oberon

Alexander Korda


Alexander Korda arrived in Britain having already established himself as a successful film-maker in Hungary. He first became fascinated with film-making during his time in Paris in 1911, where he worked for Pathé Studios. After a successful career in film-making in Hungary, with his own film journal and film studio and as the spokesperson for the Hungarian film industry, political circumstances forced Korda to leave the country. During the 1920s Korda made films in Berlin, for the American Fox Film Corporation, and in 1926 he went to Hollywood where he was offered a contract with First National. For First National, Korda directed two films starring his then wife Maria Corda (The Private Life of Helen of Troy in 1927 and Love and the Devil in 1929) and four with Billie Dove who was Douglas Fairbanks's co-star in The Black Pirate (1926). When the silent film era drew to a close at the beginning of the 1930s and after his divorce from his first wife, Korda returned to Europe. Berlin seemed the obvious choice, with its highly successful UFA film studios. However, threatened by the rise of Nazism in Germany, he opted for Paris where he worked for the American company Paramount, adapting Hollywood versions of films for the French and German market.

Korda arrived in Britain in November 1931 overseeing the UK operations of Paramount. Despite his success with Service for Ladies (1932), starring one of Paramount's rising stars, Leslie Howard, Korda wanted to establish his independence and set up London Film Productions in February 1932. After directing Wedding Rehearsal (1932) for Gaumont-British, Korda produced a number of modestly budgeted films, In the spring of 1933 he began directing a more ambitious production which he hoped would establish the name of London Films, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), in which his future wife Merle Oberon (they married in 1939) starred as Anne Boleyn. The film was a box office hit, grossing £500,000 within a year. The success of the film led to the idea that Britain had the potential to create an international film industry independent of Hollywood, and within three years of arriving in Britain Korda became a leading player in the UK film industry.  

In the mid 1930s, Korda secured financial backing for his films and for the building of a seven-stage studio at Denham, which later merged with Pinewood Studios. Korda further consolidated his career as an enterprising and innovative producer with his next three films: Sanders of the River (1935), the first in a trilogy of films on the theme of empire, The Ghost Goes West (1935) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Construction began at Denham in June 1935 and the studios were completed by May the following year. Korda produced a number of big-budget films there, including two H. G. Wells adaptations - Things to Come (1936) and The Man who Could Work Miracles (1936), and two further films celebrating Britain’s imperial legacy (The Drum, 1938, and The Four Feathers, 1939), the former starring the child-actor Sabu. For his empire trilogy, Korda recruited extras from London's lascar community which prompted Chaudhri Akbar Ali Khan to found the Oriental Film Artistes' Union to press for better working conditions and pay for its members.

On 3 June 1939 Korda married Merle Oberon (1911–1979), the Ceylon-born actress who he turned into an international film star. Korda managed to survive the financial crisis which broke over the British film industry in 1937 but he faced increasingly hostile criticism of his extravagance; early in 1938 the Prudential decided to cut its losses and remove Denham from his control. Korda continued to make films at Denham; The Four Feathers, directed by his brother Zoltán, was almost completed when he lost control of Denham. In March 1939 The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which also starred Sabu, began shooting. Over the next few months he travelled several times to Hollywood, where Merle Oberon had returned under contract to Warner Brothers. In June 1940 he moved the production of The Thief of Bagdad to Hollywood, where he was to remain until May 1943. The Thief of Bagdad was completed in October 1940. Korda continued to operate in Hollywood, working with Merle Oberon on Lydia and with his brothers Zoltán and Vincent on an adaptation of Kipling's The Jungle Book (1942) which also starred Sabu.

Korda would become an important tool in Hollywood for providing pro-British propaganda in his films to sway American public opinion, and he allegedly had close links to the British Secret Service. Korda returned to Britain in 1943. He merged London Films with MGM's British operation. In October 1945 Korda extracted London Films from the merger and resigned from MGM. Korda tried to re-kindle the success of London Films, but, faced with a declining market and the rise of television, this would prove difficult, despite the success of films such as Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) and Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950). Alexander Korda died on 23 January 1956 of a heart attack at his home in London.

Published works: 

Select filmography as Producer:

Men of Tomorrow (1932)

That Night in London (1932)

Service for Ladies (1932)

Wedding Rehearsal (1932)

Cash (1933)

Counsel's Opinion (1933)

The Girl from Maxim's (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Strange Evidence (1933)

The Private Life of the Gannets (1934)

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) 

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Ghost Goes West (1935)

Sanders of the River (1935)

Things Are Looking Up (1935)

Conquest of the Air (1936)

Forget Me Not (1936)

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)

Men Are Not Gods (1936)

Rembrandt (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

Action for Slander (1937)

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937)

The Squeaker (1937)

Dark Journey (1937)

Elephant Boy (1937)

Fire Over England (1937)

I, Claudius (1937)

Storm in a Teacup (1937)

The Challenge (1938)

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

The Drum (1938)

Prison Without Bars (1938)

South Riding (1938)

The Four Feathers (1939)

The Lion Has Wings (1939)

Over the Moon (1939)

Q Planes (Clouds over Europe) (1939)

The Spy in Black (1939)

21 Days (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

Lydia (1941)

Jungle Book (1942)

Perfect Strangers (1945)

An Ideal Husband (1947)

Anna Karenina (1948)

The Third Man (1949)

Date of birth: 
16 Sep 1893

Winston Churchill, Robert Graves (Korda bought the rights for Graves' I, Claudius), Graham Greene, Akbar Ali Khan, Vivian Leigh, Aubrey Menen, Merle Oberon, Sabu, Laurence Olivier, Edward J. Thompson, H. G. Wells.

Secondary works: 

Drazin, Charles, Korda: Britain's Only Movie Mogul (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002)

Kulik, Karol, Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles, (London: W.H. Allen, 1975)

Murphy, Robert, ‘Korda, Sir Alexander (1893–1956)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) []

Tabori, Paul. Alexander Korda (London: Oldbourne, 1959)


City of birth: 
Pusztatúrpásztó, near Túrkeve
Country of birth: 
Austro-Hungarian Empire
Current name country of birth: 
Other names: 

Sándor László Kellner (real name)

Date of death: 
23 Jan 1956
Location of death: 
Kensington Palace Gardens, London
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1931
Precise 1st arrival date unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

1931-9, 1943-56



Subscribe to RSS - Merle Oberon