Eclipse Series 16:
Alexander Korda’s Private Lives

May 14, 2009

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII: GRAND DESIGNS

Alexander Korda’s oeuvre is often characterized as larger-than-life, undoubtedly in part because the figures he was attracted to—kings and queens, legendary lovers and great artists—were often extraordinary. Though in his continent-­spanning, four-decade-long career as a writer, director, and producer Korda would make dozens of films, on many different subjects of varying glory, he would continually return to dramatizing the lives of historical personages. His approach to these characters, however, was peculiarly intimate, as intrigued by what went on behind closed doors as by the sweep of history (fitting for a man whose own professional and love lives became notoriously entwined).

Korda himself certainly had inauspicious beginnings. Born Sándor Kellner in 1893, in a remote Hungarian village, he became interested in cinema in its primitive years. As a teenager studying in Budapest, he would watch travelogues and news shorts in cafés, and at eighteen he took a yearlong trip to a film-buzzed Paris. On returning home, he began reviewing films, helped launch a film magazine, and started experimenting with movies—first making World War I propaganda films and then working for local production companies. After thirteen years of building a reputation on feature films in Budapest, Vienna, and Berlin, he made his way to Hollywood. But he found Los Angeles a forbidding place. And though he had some initial success, most notably with the period comedy The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927), failed relationships with both his wife (the Hungarian silent-film star Antonia Fargus, a.k.a. Maria Corda) and Twentieth Century Fox sent him back to Europe.

He ended up in England, working for Paramount’s British Production Unit, and then starting his own company, London Film Productions, in 1932, where he brought aboard his younger brothers—Zoltán, who would go on to direct and produce, and Vincent, the production designer in the family. In 1927, the British government had passed legislation that forced U.S. distributors operating in the country to release a certain percentage of films made in Britain. Companies such as Paramount and United Artists thus began commissioning small British producers to make films to fulfill this obligation, and they turned to London Films. At first, the company struggled, as one project after another failed, and it came close to collapse in its early years. Its saving grace came in an unlikely form.

The robust, galumphing Charles Laughton had appeared in a few Hollywood films, but the respected theater actor wasn’t able to find a truly fitting movie role until Korda came calling with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). The project, a slightly satirical take on the loves of the infamous Tudor monarch, satisfied both Laughton’s peculiar grandeur and Korda’s penchant for history. Under Korda’s direction, the film was fleet, ribald, and gorgeously designed (by Vincent). Its images of Laughton voraciously chomping on mutton and chicken legs while gulping down mugs of ale remain culturally definitive versions of Henry VIII. The film was released by United Artists in the United States and grossed $500,000, the largest sum ever for a British film. Laughton won an Oscar. And Korda finally had his true calling card.

 

THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT: THE LAST EMPRESS

The Private Life of Henry VIII was such a smash that many have believed that London Films’ next release, The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), was conceived as little more than a quick capitalization on the company’s royal success. But Catherine the Great, a lighthearted depiction of the Russian empress’s swift rise to power, had been put into production in September 1933, a month before Henry VIII premiered. And as anyone who has seen both can attest, it is clearly cut from a different cloth, with its own aesthetic vitality, directed not by Korda but by the German expatriate Paul Czinner. Henry VIII had been one of the most expensive British productions of its time, with a budget estimated at between £55,000 and £60,000, but Catherine the Great, with its more expansive sets and lavish interiors, turned out to be far more costly at £127,868. Though a more modest success than Henry VIII, this world-class British production cemented London Films’ standing.

Czinner, a top director in Germany, and, like Korda, Jewish and born in Hungary, had fled to England with his wife, the popular stage actress Elisabeth Bergner, to avoid Nazi persecution. He signed a contract with London Films in February 1932 to share responsibility for directing the company’s “quota films” for the following year. Included in this contract was a provision that Czinner would direct a project—in German and English versions simultaneously—as a vehicle for Bergner. Yet many months went by while Korda searched for suitable material, with various proposals falling through due to lack of interest from distributors and financiers. This was during London Films’ pre–Henry VIII financial crisis, and Korda and Czinner’s relationship was similarly on the rocks.

But, perhaps inspired by the good spirits that surrounded the shooting of Henry VIII, the two finally found the right project for their sensibilities (at this point scaled back to only an English-language version) and an excellent showcase for Bergner. As with the previous film, Catherine the Great was made as part of an agreement with United Artists and proved to be a success in the United States, though stylistically the films were quite different: where Korda’s tale of the house of Tudor featured more direct, traditional blocking and camera setups, Czinner’s portrait of eighteenth-century Saint Petersburg, with its chiaroscuro interiors and fascinated close-ups of its main actress’s expressive face, was both gloomier and more sensual, even amid its own healthy sense of humor.

From the outset of Catherine the Great, it’s clear that Czinner is more of a natural visual storyteller than Korda, in the way that he allows his camera and his actors’ faces to express characters’ relationships (Korda prefers wordier exposition). As Grand Duke Peter, Empress Elisabeth’s nephew, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. conveys an appealingly haughty independence, which will give way to rash impudence when he (briefly) assumes the throne. And as Catherine, Bergner makes a formidable English-language debut, flirtatious, taunting, neurotic, and potent all at once. Though her big-screen fame would be short-lived, Bergner would go on to receive an Oscar nomination just a few years later for Czinner’s British-made drama Escape Me Never, making her, like Laughton, another singular talent that London Films helped bring to a wider audience.

 

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN: LOVE’S LABORS LOST

The enormously successful year that Alexander Korda had with The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Rise of Catherine the Great put the Hungarian in the strange position of being one of England’s most renowned filmmakers. Thanks to the high quality of these exports, Korda’s reputation back in Hollywood was growing—just a few years after he had left it behind. Korda’s salary was skyrocketing, he was getting ever increasing percentages of his films’ grosses, and he now had the leverage to turn cheap quota films into superproductions (the most notable of these would be 1935’s Sanders of the River, directed by brother Zoltán Korda, starring Paul Robeson, and shot in Africa).

After the lavish Catherine the Great, London Films’ next project was similarly grand in scope, with a comparable budget and megawatt star power. Its title obviously chosen to recall a certain earlier success, The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) put Korda back in the director’s chair. This time, he was focusing on a fictional character, but with such true Hollywood royalty as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (who was also one of United Artists’ cofounders) in the lead role of the legendary lothario, one could envision even Charles Laughton’s King Henry kneeling in deference. Unfortunately, Don Juan would turn out to be one of Korda’s most high-profile failures.

Based on the 1920 play L’homme à la rose, by Henry Bataille, this fanciful, satiric update of the Don Juan fable turned out to be Fairbanks’s last attempt to make the transition into talkies, and indeed his final screen performance before his death in 1939. A casualty of the advent of sound cinema, Fairbanks was never able to segue from silent-film swashbuckler to viable 1930s movie star. As Don Juan was to once again prove, sound-era moviegoers had little interest in seeing or hearing Fairbanks, especially as a now fifty-­something man attempting to woo younger women. The December 10, 1934, New York Times notice was particularly harsh: “The microphone is ruthlessly unkind to him. Neither in voice nor theatrical skill is he gifted to read lines.”

Such grievous notices doomed the film, which in England would take in just over £50,000, on a £115,000 budget. Sadly, many viewers thus missed what can only be described as a self-consciously cheeky lark, in which a sly Fairbanks toys with his own star persona as much as that of the mythical figure he embodies. Middle-aged and married, Don Juan goes into a self-imposed exile from Seville, faking his own death to get out of the spotlight. One could say Fairbanks’s nasally delivery only enhances this portrait of a past-his-prime seducer. Additionally, Don Juan provided a showcase for the up-and-coming actress Merle Oberon, whose brief appearance as Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII had turned more than a few heads. Cast here as the dancer Antonita, whose seductive moves coax some life out of Don’s old bones, she received whatever praise the film garnered. Marketed as an exotic ingenue, the British-Indian Oberon would soon be one of Korda’s great stars, as well as his wife.

 

REMBRANDT: VISIONS OF LIGHT

In the two years following the disaster of The Private Life of Don Juan, Alexander Korda saw London Films go through a series of ups and downs. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, was a major success, helping to recoup the company’s previous losses, but the expensive Sanders of the River (1935) barely broke even, and the hugely ambitious science-fiction epic Things to Come (1936) cost so much to produce that even its significant box-office performance couldn’t save it from financial failure. In May 1936, it was revealed that London Films had taken a major loss, and its investors forced Korda to begin reorganizing.

Yet a big project, directed by Korda, had already been in production for some weeks. Rembrandt (1936) was the filmmaker’s return to portraying the private lives of historical figures, and with Charles Laughton back on board, three years after their collaboration on the groundbreaking The Private Life of Henry VIII, hopes were high. One thing that certainly hadn’t changed was Laughton’s famously erratic temperament, which ran the gamut from grindingly meticulous to cripplingly self-doubting. Originally, Korda had planned on making an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with Laughton, yet after the actor worked with a screenwriter for more than a year, his nerves got the better of him and he backed out. Rembrandt was Korda’s next offer, and Laughton, who was a renowned aesthete (he had once spent all of his savings on Renoir’s painting The Judgment of Paris), accepted, immersing himself in the life of the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn, buying prints and books and traveling to Holland.

Filming, however, didn’t go as smoothly as preparation. Right before shooting began, Laughton made an ultimatum that he wouldn’t perform unless his wife, Elsa Lanchester, was also cast in the film (Lanchester was given the role of the painter’s late-in-life lover Hendrickje Stoffels). Furthermore, the buoyant presence of legendary stage actress Gertrude Lawrence (as Geertje Dirx, Rembrandt’s longtime housekeeper, as well as model and mistress) deeply disturbed the neurotic actor. Things got so grim between Korda and Laughton that during filming the actor threatened to break his contract. Nevertheless, the final product was one of Korda’s most delicate works, a purposefully meandering take on the loneliness and passion of artistic struggle, shot with uncommon beauty by Georges Périnal, who emulated Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow.

Rembrandt was also a box-office failure, but this didn’t stop Korda from continuing to think big. Though he struggled in the coming years, such mega­successes as The Four Feathers (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940) kept him on top. Then in 1942, his fascination with royalty came home when he was knighted—the first film director to be so honored—partly in recognition of his wartime efforts for the movie industry. Soon after, with a second high-profile divorce (this time from Merle Oberon), Sir Alexander Korda would find that his own rocky private life was coming under scrutiny. His London Films carried on, however, through valleys (the doomed, unfinished I, Claudius) and peaks (The Third Man), a testament to the consistently adventurous spirit of this movie czar.

Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.