I first heard of Alexander Korda in the early thirties when, as a schoolboy, I was taken to see The Private Life of Henry VIII as an educational experience. My first contact with Alex was when I went to work for London Film Productions in the sound department of the new Denham Studios. This was in the summer of 1938 at a time when my father decided that I ought to be earning a living. I can remember that the studios were extremely busy with Alex making The Four Feathers in TechniColour and Knight Without Armour with Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Wilcox making Sixty Glorious Years with Anna Neagle (also in TechniColour), and MGM making The Citadel with Robert Donat in black and white; St Martin’s Lane and Over The Moon were in post production. But in spite of such a heavy production schedule, the studios were in debt to the tune of over a million pounds with losses mounting daily. Had my father known at the time I doubt if he would have consented to let me go and work there. Denham Studios had only been up and running for two years, so how had this situation come about? And how was it that Korda managed to build a colossal studio complex when there were already about 20 other studios struggling for survival?
London Film Productions
The 1930s were turbulent years for the fledgling British film industry with most studios making low budget films to comply with recent government legislation which required cinemas to show a certain quota of British product. Alex came to England in November 1931 to make quota films for Paramount. He made two ‘quickies’ to fulfil his contract, Service For Ladies with fellow Hungarian Laszlo Steiner (better known as Leslie Howard) and Women Who Play. Alex had been in the business since 1910 in Budapest where he translated the sub-titles of foreign films into Hungarian. He later directed numerous films before seeking his fortune in Hollywood and Paris. Now he was determined to form his own production company and asked his two younger brothers Vincent and Zoli to join him. All he needed was some money.
Impressed by Alex’s flamboyant life style with a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce and a suite at the Savoy, a city banker called Leopold Sutro came to the rescue and together they formed London Film Productions with Big Ben as their trade mark. For their first production they chose The Private Life Of Henry VIII, and obtained Charles Laughton to play the leading role. Alex produced and directed, Vincent designed the sets and planned the production schedule whilst Zoli carried out all the editing. The script was written by the Hungarian writer and dramatists Lajos Biro, who had helped Alex to get started back in Budapest. Lajos’s knowledge of English was almost nil and Vincent could not speak any English at all. All his sets were constructed by sign language! Some were extremely simple and cost only 50 but made dramatic by the clever use of lighting. United Artists were persuaded to provide financial backing, although the budget of 60,000 proved to be rather tight.
The film was an instant success both in England and America where the Premiere was held at the Radio City Music Hall. The subsequent run broke all box office records for that theatre and the film went on to gross over 500,000. Alex was considered a movie genius by United Artists who offered him a seat on the board and a large number of shares. This effectively gave London Films a distribution outlet in America – a ‘first’ for any British film company. Flushed with success Alex attracted many investors willing to lend him money. It so happened that at this time the Prudential Insurance Company had around 1,000,000 a week to invest and the government of the day was concerned that this large amount of capital might find its way abroad. They suggested that the Pru might like to ‘take a position’ in the British Film Industry which, on the evidence of Henry VIII appeared to offer substantial profits. Alex suddenly found that he had the promise of enough money not only to continue film production but to build his own studio as well.
Alex purchased a country house and estate at Denham for the sum of 15,000 with the idea of building a studio in the grounds. How he managed to obtain planning permission in a Green Belt area was always a mystery but he was accustomed to getting his own way. He was determined to make Denham the finest studio outside of Hollywood and sent to California for studio architects to make it as up to date as possible. Vincent had the task of designing the exterior facade.
Meanwhile Alex scheduled to produce several London films. Since Henry was such a success it was imperative to find a new film for Charles Laughton. Alex chose to make Rembrandt largely because the painter physically resembled Laughton but the film was a financial failure. He bought the film rights for HG Well’s novel The Shape Of Things To Come which Wells himself directed. In spite of the good reviews and Arthur Bliss’s music, the film was a box office disaster due to the unnatural dialogue and Wells being unfamiliar with film making. It is best remembered for Vincent’s huge sets including Everytown which resembled the much later Charles de Gaulle airport, and the accurate prediction of World War II.
Alex wanted another vehicle for Leslie Howard casting him opposite newcomer Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel. This was a much better film, mainly because two American script writers were brought in to tackle the screen play. Yet another production was Sanders Of The River about our colonial past, directed by Zoli And starring Leslie Banks and Paul Robeson. It was filmed entirely on a backwater of the Thames at Shepperton Studio with 200 black ‘extras’. Mischa Spolianski wrote the music including the famous African boating song Ay-Ee-Yo-Ho although he himself (like the unit) had never been to Africa.
Because of subsequent events it is essential at this time to mention Heatherden Hall, a country estate of 100 acres including a mansion bought for 30,000 in 1934 by Charles Boot. Boot was the Chairman of a large building concern who also wished to build a film studio. Two years and six million bricks later, with J. Arthur Rank as Chairman of the board, the Secretary to the Board of Trade opened Pinewood Studios! Six feature films were made there in 1936 and over 20 the following year. Alex must have known about this but he did not deviate from his plans.
The studios were completed towards the end of 1936. There were seven soundproofed stages for shooting – two large, two half size, and three small ones with a total floor area of 120,000 square feet. The largest privately owned electricity generating station in England was installed with aluminium bars carrying thousands of amperes in underground tunnels to the stages. Incidentally these tunnels made very good air raid shelters and were used as such during the war. In addition to the many large workshops for scenery construction, there were several review rooms and a large dubbing theatre which doubled as a scoring stage – large enough to take a symphony orchestra.
The sound department, although not shown on the final studio plan, was adjacent to the dubbing theatre and contained one Western Electric ‘permanent’ photographic channel powered by a large bank of accumulator batteries. Four Western Electric portable channels were installed in sound trucks for use around the stages, two type F and two type Q, all with light valves for variable density recording. Power was supplied by 12 volt car batteries in steel cases which had to be returned to the sound department for charging. In the basement were two huge generators and a line of selsyn distributors which were required for interlocking the picture and sound camera motors, also a disk recorder and all the rerecording equipment.
In addition to the hundred or so offices and dressing rooms, a complete film laboratory was built on an adjacent lot and a large water tank for water scenes constructed alongside. The stables attached to the original house were converted into cutting rooms and a number of vaults were constructed for the highly inflammable nitrate film in use at that time. There are many stories about the building of Denham: How lorries full of timber and other materials would arrive at one entrance, drive right around the plot and exit without being unloaded; how the River Colne was diverted to make a pond in front of Alex’s office; how his great friend Winston Churchill stocked it with some of his own swans; how Alex’s office was full of expensive antiques; how a Hungarian chef was imported to run the studio restaurant. The list is endless.
After touring his completed studio, Alex realised that he had made the biggest mistake of his life as it would require an immense programme of film making to offset the huge running costs and overheads. Alex could only make about four films a year, and he suddenly saw himself as a full time executive attracting other producers to come and use his new studios. But although Alex’s reputation was high, his financial position was low. He had recently given Churchill a large cheque for the film rights to The Duke Of Marlborough which he never intended to make, and both Things To Come and Rembrandt were failures. The Pru were now looking for some profit, so Alex put Laughton and Merle Oberon together in I, Claudius from a book by Robert Graves. He invited Von Sternberg to direct in the hope that he would do for Merle what he had done for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, shooting her into stardom.
Unfortunately Laughton found it extremely difficult to play a stammering fool who was also a cripple and frequently fluffed his lines or refused to appear on set. The Pru was alarmed at the mounting costs and told Alex to speed things up. Salvation came the day Merle’s studio car crashed, putting her in hospital. Alex seized on the opportunity to terminate I, Claudius and claim the costs on insurance against completion. The Pru were not amused.
Just before Denham opened Alex had financed Robert (Nanook Of The North) Flaherty to make a film on African elephants. By now he had received 300,000 feet of rushes which he could not use. He dispatched Zoli to Africa to investigate and soon there were two units shooting more elephants. Alex recalled everybody and told Zoli to construct a story and finish the film at Denham. The result was Elephant Boy with Sabu (who was an elephant stable boy) which did not recover its costs. In a desperate effort to recoup his losses, Alex set up a second elephant film called The Drum, again with Sabu but shot in North Wales using circus elephants and local horses – much to Zoli’s disgust. Having poured money into these two films, Alex immediately went into production with two expensive TechniColour films, Over The Moon and The Four Feathers which was a film about the Sudan. Zoli was sent to Africa on location and was surprised when he got there to hear all the Sudanese singing Ay-Ee-Yo-Ho! Spolianski’s boat song had passed into African folk lore.
When I arrived to start work at Denham’s Sound Department I was surprised to find a long line up outside the studio gates. These were the craft grades employed on a daily basis – carpenters, plasters, electricians and labourers, all hoping for a day’s work. Some were eventually taken and the line disappeared around lunch time. I soon found out that there were various grades of sound technicians, mixers, sound camera and boom ops, and that I was at the bottom of the ladder. My job was to keep all the recording channels supplied with full magazines and dispatch all the exposed sound negatives to the various laboratories. But the studio had a full production schedule and I was looking forward to a rosy future.
I was very impressed with Alexander Korda‘s connections, especially with Royalty. Queen Mary was invited to watch a music session for The Four Feathers, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were later given a studio tour. One always knew when important visitors were expected because an army suddenly arrived to clean all the windows. Meanwhile Alex continued to buy film rights from various authors, and foreign films which were left to sit in the vaults. He had learnt from Hollywood accounting procedures that these would be considered as valuable assets against future borrowing. By now production costs were spiraling and the city financial institutions could not understand how the more Alex spent and lost, the more he seemed able to borrow. Although he lived like a millionaire he certainly wasn’t one. In fact he was unable to repeat the brilliant success of The Private Life Of Henry VIII and was heading towards bankruptcy!