DENHAM – THE MOGUL AND THE MAGUS

denham studios

Denham was not so much a film studio as a monument to the man who built it. If you can say that any building was created in the image of its maker, then Denham Studios was the spit of Alexander Korda – awe-inspiring, self-consciously grand and totally impractical. Korda’s biographer, Charles Drazin, has dubbed him “Britain’s only mogul”, which seems a little harsh on, say, J. Arthur Rank and Isidore Ostrer, both of whom were far more successful than Korda, a man who lived royally beyond his means until the end of his days. Perhaps Korda was the mogul’s mogul, the ur-mogul: visionary, chameleon, charlatan, hustler, liar, artist, opportunist, magician and magus. He was the very definition of a show-man.

ALEXANDER KORDA 1

Even Korda’s name was a classic piece of misdirection. Born Kellner Sandor to a Jewish family in the Hungarian plains, he took the pseudonym Korda Sandor as an 18 year old reporter for a Budapest paper. The name was taken from the Catholic mass – Sursum Corda, meaning Lift Up Your Hearts. He finally christened himself Alexander Korda eight years later, after he’d escaped a right wing coup in his home country, crossed the border to Vienna and signed in to a swish hotel. He thought Sandor might make him sound too much like a Hungarian refugee, of which there many in Vienna at that time. And it was as Alexander Korda that he made his name as director/producer in Vienna, Berlin, Hollywood and finally London. And it was in this country that the travelling show-man finally found his audience, a film industry waiting for their man. And Korda ticked all their boxes: someone who had reinvented himself, who could disguise his religion but not his ambition, someone who thought big and talked bigger. In other words, a Hollywood mogul in all but nationality and manners.

From very early on, Korda seems have to understood that only the superficial don’t judge by appearances. He would take the finest rooms in the best hotels, no matter if he could afford them, make firm friends with the concierge and after a few weeks start tapping him for loans. He instinctively realised that only a few people could see your bank balance, but everybody could see your silk shirts, famously shiny shoes and bespoke suit; or if they visited your house, they could easily be distracted by the Picassos hanging on the wall and foie gras imported from Paris;  if they went to your office, the marble steps and sweeping staircase.  As his nephew Michael said of him “Alex always believed in display”. He was even talked of at the time as if he was a magician, as a man “who could charm money from an empty safe”.

Like all magicians, his powers of persuasion were infamous, his charisma legendary. In first job at a Budapest studio he soon learned that “you can get somebody else to put up all the money, still own half of it yourself and manage it as you please.” Michael Korda goes onto call his uncle a “born manipulator of money”. He certainly made accountancy the art of smoke and mirrors. When he was head of London Studios, his most elaborate trick was to buy titles (best-selling books etc) to claim as assets, potential earnings to off-set the debts of his numerous big-budget flops; but the ruse only worked if the titles retained their potential, if they counted as future profits, so they could never become actual films, otherwise they would lose their value. Similarly actors were placed on long contracts and immediately placed on lucrative loans to rival studios; subsidiary companies only existed on paper, conjured up to conceal missing funds.

One of the best ways to display your own wealth is to be seen with wealthier friends. Whether it was Churchill or the Maharajah of Mysore or minor royals, Korda didn’t just cultivate the rich and the powerful, as collect them. Everywhere he went, whether it was Vienna, Berlin or London, Alexander Korda always rose to the top. He would sought out royalty as if they were truffle, hired debutantes as extras, employed Winston Churchill to write scripts that would never pass the lips of actors, and disastrously gave carte blanche to HG Wells on the adaptation of Things To Come – the novelist’s dull, laborious dialogue rubbed up the wrong way against the gleaming, futuristic designs of Korda’s brother Vincent.

denham studios 2

Korda’s ultimate act of display was Denham, a vanity project of a man whose vanity was legendary. As fellow Hungarian director Andre De Toth observed, when he “spoke to people he didn’t see them. He saw himself next to them in the mirror.” Once he’d set up London Films in 1932, he needed his own palace, with its own court where the Korda dynasty (director Zoltan and designer Vincent) could rule and Hungarian exiles could gratefully receive hand-outs like indentured servants. Alexander couldn’t stay in Isleworth, which still bore the imprint of another mogul, GB Samuelson, and a failed mogul at that, who’d left the film industry to set up a lending library in Worthing. Denham was built to impress, with Vincent designing the exteriors as if it was a set itself. The River Colne was diverted to make a small pond outside Korda’s office and Churchill supplied the swans, once permission had been gained from the royal family. According to Charles Drazin, “the extensive grounds boasted stables, a boathouse and the Fisheries. The seven sound stages with their electrically controlled doors occupied 118,800 square feet of floor space. There were two projection theatres and eighteen cutting-rooms. The power plant generated enough electricity to supply a town the size of York. Over 2,000 staff worked there and, each week the restaurant – known by the workers as ‘Snobs’ because of the glamourous people you could see eating there – cooked 50,000 sausages.” It was said to be the largest studio in Europe at the time.

Press tours would have marvelled at the antiques in Korda’s office, a hall large enough to house a full orchestra and the largest generating plant in Europe, not to mention the stars who orbited the studio; stars who owed their global fame to Korda, like Laurence Olivier, Vivienne Leigh and, particularly Merle Oberon, the Anglo-Indian actress formerly known as Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, who was given a new birthplace, Tasmania, and new parents, a French-Dutch teacher and English army officer by Korda, her future lover.

As ever, little of this came out of Alex’s own pocket. Once again he found a way for somebody else to cough up the money, while retaining control himself. He got the Prudential to pay for it. Or rather he persuaded the government to get the Pru to pay for it. The insurance company had over a million pound a week to invest from their profits and the British government was keen that so much money did not stray abroad. It’s not known how exactly the government persuaded the company to invest, but Korda’s powerful friends and connections must have exerted some influence, otherwise what would be the point of having powerful friends and connections.

Which is not to say that Korda was a superior con artist. He was also a visionary film-maker with a yen for spectaculars (more display) and an eye for the epic. With The Private Life Of Henry VIII, he gambled everything on his first British feature – his reputation, his new film company and other people’s money. As it happened, it turned out to be exactly the thing that the film industry had been trying to make for years, a British subject in the Hollywood style; but had significantly failed. Unlike its contemporaries, it travelled well, particularly across the Atlantic. The Private Life Of Henry VIII arrived at a time when the British film industry was essentially stalking the American studios, needily seeking its company; when Michael Balcon at Gainsborough was shuttling between London and Los Angeles fruitlessly seeking co-production deals, when breaking into the American market was the holy grail of a British film industry that couldn’t exist on such a large scale with such a small market as the local one. Korda had not only worked in Hollywood, but he first came to this country to head up the Paramount office in London. When he started London Films, he soon became a partner at United Artists, an equal of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

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How much the star-struck members of the British film industry knew about Korda’s experiences in Hollywood is a moot point. He didn’t arrive in LaLa land as a recognised European auteur, but as the husband of the actress of Maria Korda, who’d just won her first Hollywood contract. He was part of the package, the lowly director of her star vehicles, a member of her service industry. And he was treated as such, until his contract with Fox was abruptly terminated at the screening of The Princess And The Plumber. Production supervisor (and consummate bully) Sol Wurtzel brought his 12 year old son to see Korda’s latest potboiler, and once the credits had rolled, the child’s opinion was solicited. “It stinks” was the boy’s critical assessment. “You heard the kid,” Wurtzel grunted, “It stinks. You’re through.”

Similarly, the good will surrounding his deal with United Artists seemed to evaporate in the LA sun when his partners realised the extent of Korda’s debts. When Alex asked for a loan, Mary Pickford, for one, was not best pleased: “Personally , I closed Pickford-Lasky and went out of business rather than make such a request to my fellow stockholders”, she harrumphed. Despite her objections, United Artists offered Korda the loan, but with so many strings attached that the director couldn’t possibly accept. By now, he’d come to the conclusion that the reason London Films was in debt, and close to liquidation, wasn’t due to the quality of his product but because of the way that United Artists had been distributing them in the States, dumping them in unsuitable cinemas like so much toxic waste. The company responded by stating that “English-made pictures did not enjoy a profitable vogue”. Typically, Korda decided not to fight UA, but to buy them out and when that failed, he announced he was going to sue his partners, an announcement that was rapidly retracted. In turn, United Artists commissioned a report on Denham. What they found was the wrong kind of dream factory – contracts drawn up and torn up, debts growing like knotweed, a boss who could not delegate, who treated every major decision he made like an official secret. If only he concentrated on making films “he could make a fortune for the company”, but like a lot of single-minded people, Alex could never focus on just one thing at a time. In this case, the report concluded, “his mind is mixed up with various promoting and financial problems such as studios, printing, laboratories.“ As with so many charismatic people, he’d fallen prey to his own superficial charm and had talked himself into rapid over-expansion, knowing that the more ambitious his plans, the more cash would flow from the Pru. The concrete reality was that he now had a studio he couldn’t fill with his own productions alone; he would have to find other productions and other production companies. He would be less like a mogul and more like a studio manager. On his first visit of the completed studio, Korda admitted “I have made my greatest mistake”.

Denham MAP

And there was another problem with Denham. As a monument to its owner, it was appropriately palatial and significantly grandiose. But as a working film studio, it didn’t work. The largest power plant in Europe was situated right next to a sound studio, which meant that “extra precautions had to be taken to ensure that the loud humming could not be heard on the stages”, according to Drazin. And if they managed to dim the hum from the generators, there was the small matter of Denham airfield nearby, which would provide its own sound effects.  (And I passed that aerodrome on the South Bucks Way, as a small plane took off just above my head. “The plane that flattens my hair”, I warbled to myself). Historian Colin Sorensen in his radio documentary A Child In King Arthur’s Court recounts an anecdote about an intimate scene between Mary Morris and Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith being interrupted 22 times by the persistent drone of aircraft. And as Charles Drazin points out, there was another local difficulty – the studio was squeezed between the river Colne and the Uxbridge Road.  Long and thin is not the ideal shape for a studio and it could mean a quarter of a mile walk to the canteen, but more importantly, the prop stores were nowhere near the studios, and even Drazin admits “Denham really was a model of how not to build an efficient film studio.” A few years later when Celia Johnson filmed Brief Encounter there, she referred to “the awful factory dreariness of Denham”, a world away from the Xanadu that had been promised a decade earlier. The building of Denham began in the boom of 1935 and was finally completed at the beginning of the bust in 1936. This was exactly the wrong time for Korda to produce two of his most high profile disasters, I, Claudius and Elephant Boy.

I CLAUDIUS

You could at least see the logic behind I, Claudius: Charles Laughton as another megalomaniac head of state, that same mix of epic and excess that garnered its lead an Oscar and its director a box office bonanza. But Korda soon abandoned his post as director after threatening Laughton with legal action for non-appearance. Perhaps this recovered memories of the filming of The Private Life Of Henry VIII when his capricious star would often decide he wasn’t in the mood to act just as the director called “Action !”. Korda enlisted a very different type of director, temperamentally the polar opposite, the stick to his carrot.  Joseph Von Sternberg was the definition of the director as great dictator, with his breeches, polished riding boots and will of iron.  He turned out to be exactly the wrong director for a star who liked to agonise over the motivations and minutae of his character.  The wrong director to wait patiently as his star would decide which leg he was going to limp with this take. The wrong director to bite his lip as Laughton refused to act on the part of the stage set up for the shot and insist on another space where the aura was more favourable to his emanations. A car crash involving co-star Merle Oberon put everyone out of their misery; some believe it was a happy accident, the actress was not seriously or visibly injured but it offered a way out, an excuse for the production to end and insurance company to pay out, but not enough to cover the gargantuan costs already racked up.

elephant boy poster 1

At least Elephant Boy was completed, if not as originally intended in the sub-continent of India, but in South Buckinghamshire. Director Robert Flaherty specialised in his own brand of inauthentic ethnography, hauling his camera to remote communities where he would reconstruct the lives of the inhabitants and shape them into Hollywood narratives. His 1922 documentary Nanook Of The North made a global star of its Inuit hero (even down to a name change) with ice-creams, drinks and a line of furs bearing his non-de-plum. The words Eskimo and igloo became a part of the lingo. His 1934 documentary Man Of Aran, was less successful. In fact, it was so unsuccessful that it became known as Balcon’s Folly, after its producer Michael Balcon. But this did not deter Korda, in fact it might have spurred him on. Like a football manager who believes he’s the only one who can tame a difficult prodigy, Korda signed Flaherty to make an adaptation of Kipling’s story. The director immediately headed to India, to immerse himself in the local culture. Eight months later with no progress report, and with the Prudential asking difficult questions, the producer sent his brother Zoltan on a fact-finding mission. What he found was a film without a story, 55 hours of verite footage of the daily life of a village. Korda decided to impose a story and the structure on the material, use some of the Indian footage as a travelogue and film the main parts of the story in the studio. Large parts of the sub-continent were re-created on the banks of the River Colne, with the help of a bamboo forest and elephants hired from London zoo. Elephant Boy made a star of Sabu, and took an impressive $100,000 at the box office. It would have been a bona fide hit, if it hadn’t cost $150,000.

sabu elephant boy

It was after these two financial disasters that the Prudential called time on this shotgun marriage. An insurance company was always an unlikely partner for a reckless gambler like Korda, being, by their nature, risk-averse. Denham was to be amalgamated with Pinewood; London Films would run the studio and nothing else. Korda was paid off to start his own production company. During the negotiations, the Prudential were clearly wary of (and even spooked by) Alex’s powers. “Korda’s engaging personality and charm of manner must be resisted”, warned the Pru’s secretary Percy Crump in an internal memo, as if the producer was some Edwardian arch-villain blessed with hypnotic powers, “His financial sense is non-existent and his promises (even when they are sincere) worthless … Korda is a very dominant man and also very dangerous to converse with owing to (among other things) his powers of persuasion.” But resist them, they did. Alex didn’t even have the opportunity to clear his desk, but endured a far greater humiliation when he returned to make The Thief Of Baghdad – he had to return his old office, and as Drazin puts it, “walk among his staff – most of whom were no longer his staff.”

With hindsight, Korda may have benefitted from losing a studio. He could now concentrate on making films rather than overseeing laboratories and negotiating with trade unions. After the war (in which it’s claimed he worked for Churchill, not just making propaganda but hiring spies and doing reconnaissance under the guise of filming locations ) he somehow persuaded the Labour government to bankroll British Lion. And it’s in this period that he produced his greatest picture The Third Man, which could never really be called a spectacular or even an epic. As his nephew concludes in Charmed Lives “he had abandoned the “big international” picture to concentrate on films that were essentially British… He had learned – the hard way – that the British film industry could only succeed if it was firmly grounded in British subjects and British talent, and it would succeed abroad by quality, not by imitating Hollywood.”  The man who tried to bring a bit of Hollywood to England was now making films every bit as parochial and small-scale as his peers. In 1954, British Lion  produced The Belles Of St Trinians.

Similarly Denham made its most famous movie, Brief Encounter, almost a decade after Korda had left – in a roster that also included Henry V, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, A Matter Of Life And Death, and In Which We Serve. These box-office hits and future classics were not enough to save Denham, which was sacrificed to keep Pinewood going by its new owners The Rank Organisation, when they started to haemorrhage money. Shut down in 1951, Denham was the most high profile victim of Rank’s new managing director, John Davis, the Dr Beeching of the film industry, a serial closer of studios. More on him anon.

 

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