Transnationalism and 1930s British Cinema

By Na Ma, Ohio Univeristy

The forms and institutions of mainstream British cinema have a hegemonic function. In fact, British Cinema is generally considered to have successfully shaped “the national life” and achieved a “high degree of consensus” (Adamthwaite 288). This significant element undoubtedly characterizes British society and contributed to the remarkable stability of British society[1] during the 1930s, when the United Kingdom, like most other countries in the world, was shaken by economic depression, but which had also experienced several labor turmoil in the mid 1920s.

In 1937, Neville Chamberlain became prime minister of the United Kingdom after Stanley Baldwin retired. In 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, marking the formal beginning of World War II in Europe. During the same period of the 1930s, British cinema was internationalized and experienced great success.

Many of the British films during the 1930s were produced by London Film Productions, founded by the Hungarian immigrant Alexander Korda (né Sándor László Kellner). Korda (1893-1856), one of the first producers to win a world reputation for British cinema, was knighted by King George VI in 1942, an unusual honor for the film industry, and especially for a Hungarian.

Korda’s films before the war included Things to Come (1936), Rembrandt (1936), Knight Without Armour (1937), and the early Technicolor films The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers[2] (1939). These films together turned him into a major international figure for many years. He had the highest profile of any director of Hungarian origin.

In the same period, other British producers and directors followed Korda, making such successful films as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Young and Innocent (1937) by Alfred Hitchcock and The Good Companions (1933), Evergreen (1934) and The Iron Duke (1934) by Victor Saville. The seemingly implausible sounding idea of the “international film”, made in Britain but sold worldwide, started to become realizable.

A significant cause of World War I was growing nationalism among the mass population in the various nations of Europe.  Even though death and destruction was shared widely across the continent during the war, a major result of the war, or better, of its peace treaties, was a renewal of that nationalism.  In fact, it became more radical, transforming itself in some places into fascism and more virulent anti-Semitism.

Great Britain, which had been Europe’s, if not the world’s, leading power before the war, turned inward after the war as its population sought to reclaim, at least in the people’s imagination, its internal strength.  Persecution of Jews on the continent, however, resulted in the emigration of a number of talented Jewish individuals to other countries, including Great Britain.  Alexander Korda was the most famous of them.  The photographer Robert Capa (also a Hungarian Jew), who took the famous pictures of the D-Day invasion, was another who developed an internal reputation and following.

Alexander Korda

Alexander Korda was born in the rural outskirts of Túrkeve, Hungary in 1893. He was the eldest son of an estate manager and ex-hussar, Henrik Kellner, and his wife Ernesztina. The Kellners were practicing Jews because the births of their sons, Korda, Zoltán (born 1895) and Vincent (born 1897), were recorded in the nearest Registry of Jewish Births. Korda, like each of his brothers, attended the Jewish primary school in Túrkeve before he won a scholarship that took him to secondary school in a nearby town.

When they arrived in England, Korda and his two brothers- the set-designer Vincent and fellow director Zoltán-argued in a tongue incomprehensible to their British hosts over some obscure issues regarding the set, the lighting, the costumes or the pacing of a scene. This was an integral part of any story about London Film Productions’ way of doing business.

The presence of these immigrants in Britain raised questions domestically about what it meant to be British.  More significantly, these immigrants brought with them much more internationally oriented sensitivities to international problems, such as the rise of anti-Semitism and the threat of fascism.  Those who were artists and writers, such as Korda, introduced these themes into their work, exposing them to British audiences who otherwise might have been considerably less aware of the problems.

Before and during World War II, when thousands of Jews were forced into exile, first from Hungary in the 1920s, from Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s, and then from all areas of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany after the war started.

Korda always, no matter with his workers or those friends, acknowledged himself as Jewish. However Korda’s Jewish identity was indeed the cause of both his arrest and of the notoriously anti-semitic policemen’s hostility.  Indeed, the presence of a Jewish population in Britain had been problematic since the nineteenth century.

National Identity

The earliest attempt to write Korda’s life story was made by journalist and long-time Korda-admirer C. A. Lejeure. In her series of articles, published beginning in 1936, she curiously removes all trace of his Jewish identity in the accounts of his childhood. She claimed that the brothers were actually born in a bourgeois and respectable Hungarian family. They combined the sort of middle-class stolidity likely to appeal to readers in middle England with an ill-defined sense of exotic otherness suitable for the family of a movie mogul (Walker 19).

Perhaps the most remarkable example among those deliberate rewritings of Korda’s life history in the earliest formal biography was published in 1966 by Hungarian Paul Tabori, Korda’s associate and friend. He objectively described Korda as being “the boy from the puszta”,  “the local boy made good”, who took on the world but never forgot “his origins or his friends” and “who was willing to help any of his fellow-country men”.

In “The Roots of Alexander Korda: Myths of Identity and the International Film,” Greg Walker reviews Korda’s life and career from his early days in Hungary to the late 1930s. To dig out the myths of Korda’s identity, he analyzes Korda’s Jewish roots by examining various contemporary accounts and recent studies, and offers suggestions about the impact of the Jewish milieu, anti-Semitism and cultural prejudices on his life and work. Walker also tentatively examines some of Korda’s sustained interests in his early life and the films he produced/directed during the period from1933 to 1942, including The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Things to Come, and That Hamilton Woman. His underlying themes were principally, anti-fascism, British rearmament, the need to end US isolationism and the plight of the refugee.

Walker argues that Korda was a more consistently and seriously engaged political filmmaker than is usually assumed, and attempts to omit or obfuscate Korda’s Jewishness on his thinking and self-presentation.

Henry VIII

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) is the best-known British film during the 1930s.

The film described King Henry’s private life in a twenty-year period. In May 1536, King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) executed his second wife, Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon). After that, he marries Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), who dies in childbirth eighteen months later. Then he weds a German princess, Anne of Cleves (played by Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). Anne falls in love with someone else and deliberately makes herself unattractive in order to be free from this marriage and they finally divorce. After this divorce, Henry marries Lady Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). This beautiful and ambitious woman also falls in love with Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat), Henry’s handsome courtier. Henry executed the couples to death after he is told by his advisers about their liaison. In the end of the film, the old Henry finally consoles himself with a happy marriage. He marries Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg), who lives longer than her husband.

Ironically, it was actually produced by a group of international creators: three Hungarians (Alexander Korda, who produced and directed it, his brother Vincent, who designed the sets, and the novelist and playwright Lajos Bíró, who co-wrote the script), a French cameraman (George Perinal) and an American supervising editor (Harold Young). About this international masterpiece, R. C. Morrison, the Labor MP for North Tottenham, even made a point in the House of Commons in November 1937:

There is a good deal of humbug talked about British films… in 1933 British films were put on the map of America by a Hungarian who produced the film called The Private Life of Henry VIII. If you look through the list of British films, you will have some difficulty in discovering a British point of view. (Walker 9)

Unlike the Baldwinite conciliatory historical films with George Arliss in the leading roles being put out by Gaumont British Pictures at this time— The Iron Duke (1935, directed by Victor Savill), East Meets West and His Lordship (both 1936 and directed by Herbert Mason)—each of which stresses the need for international reconciliation, Korda’s historical films of the 1930s argued squarely for rearmament and armed opposition to fascist expansion. In The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the stress on the need to build ships, ships and more ships to enable England to force the French and Germans to keep the peace was another only partially disguised intervention in contemporary debates, in which King Henry’s Navy stood for both the Royal Air Force and the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets. The same line was advanced in the Armada picture, Fire over England (1937), while, in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Sir Percy Blakeney’s Group dedicated to smuggling aristocrats out of revolutionary France is portrayed as a kind of Special Operations unit operating behind enemy lines to counter the murderous regime of Robespierre (Raymond Massey), who is described as ‘the self-styled dictator of France’ in the newspaper read by the Prince Regent.

Korda argued that the artistic purpose of film is social education and praised Soviet film as a good example of how to display the film’s social function. He received funding from industrial and commercial enterprises, and absorbed artistic workers who were determined to inject realism into this movement. Most of these films were made to reflect such serious British social problems as unemployment, poor labor environment and living conditions, as well as to develop a new level of artistic management.


There was film censorship in Britain, which evolved between 1909 and the 1920s. In the late 1920s, numerous parties of regulations were involved in the British regulation market, including both national and local government, the film trade, the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification), churches, educationalists and organizations such as the National Council of Public Morals.

Three issues arose in the early cinema regulation in Britain:

First, the regulation began after the cinema became established as a public institution. The prevailing thought was that not only the public safety needed to be protected at cinemas, but other areas of public interest also should be guarded.

Second, the establishment of a system of regulation was necessary primarily to protect public morals. The BBFC made its decisions independently and provided a voluntary form of censorship in what it asserted were the best interests of the film industry and the public cinema. Film distributors voluntarily submitted films to the Board for review and classification.

Last, the struggle of the BBFC to win acceptance, and the provisions of the 1909 Act were important parts of the film industry. Cinema exhibitors had strongly supported the 1909 Act, welcoming it as a “picture showman’s charter”(Miskell 435).

The British Film Institute (BFI) was established in 1933, had little power to act as a regulatory body. The Film in National Life report had regarded it as an institute that could act as an “independent Corporation,” comparable to the BBC (Richards 13). Because of insufficient funds and the lack of independence of action, it was not able to play any practical role in the film regulation history for the film industry:

The BFI did seek to promote the educational and artistic development of the cinema by publishing journals such as Sight and Sound and the Monthly Film Bulletin, but it was explicitly prevented from any attempt to interfere with purely trade matters in the film industry. Its influence over the development of commercial cinema, therefore, was negligible. (Lowe 227)

In 1912, the British film trade established the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), a body that was in charge of censorship during 1930s British Cinema.

It took approximately a decade for the BBFC to build its reputation and for its decisions to be widely accepted. At first the system was largely voluntary, but after 1933 unclassified films were not distributed in the market. The BBFC’s decisions were not legally binding but usually only after the films had been viewed and rated by the BBFC would local authorities grant film distributors a license for the public exhibition of films.

In 1917, T. P. O’Connor, then president of the BBFC, outlined a list of censorship rules and exceptions for the BBFC workers. During the 1930s, the BBFC advanced from a post-production censorship system into a pre-production censorship system, owing to a significant change to Connor’s censorship rules. All the scripts, scenarios, or synopses needed to be submitted to the BBFC before a film could be produced. It worked this way:  two censors had to view the film when it was completed to see if the film followed the BBFC’s rules in order to provide more regulations to the film workers. It usually would receive the proposal two or three months before the film went into production and suggested changes which it thought advisable.

The Board’s annual reports provide the historical evidence that this new system was increasingly effective during the 1930s in providing useful guidance to film producers. “BBFC sought to define and to outline the boundaries of the national culture and to conscientiously engender adherence to a particular vision of the national life.” (Aldgate 10).

All those regulations helped the British cinema to achieve worldwide appreciation. Even after the full implications of censorship became obvious — as is true on so many occasions — it seemed there was always a loophole. Film directors such as Alexander Korda and Basil Dean never really benefitted from this system, however. Because regulations established a set of rules to force the filmmaker to decide which is right and which is wrong for the British cinema, they indeed imposed a serious burden of excessive restrictions on the British film industry. As a result, the BBFC was never fully followed by all filmmakers.

Documentary Film Movement

In the late 1920s, when talking pictures replaced silent film, theaters converted to sound within two years. Britain faced the same problem as other countries: recording was too simple and crude, equipment was too heavy, and film contents were either constant chatter or repeated songs. Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) is regarded as the first British sound feature and enlightened other directors. Later that same year, Arthur Maude’s The Clue of the New Pin (1929) was released, considered as the first all-talking British feature.

The documentary film movement was not started until 1930. It was established at the Film Unit of the Empire Marketing Board. The unit was composed by the header John Grierson and his appointed apprentices. The apprentices are mostly young filmmakers such as Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha and Harry Watt. They were middle-class, educated males with liberal political views. In 1933, the film unit was transferred to the General Post Office (GPO).

In 1929, with the help of the Britain Office of Fair Trading, John Grierson directed a documentary Drifters, reflecting the lives of fishermen in the North Sea, and become the founder of the realist Documentary Film Movement, which from 1933 was associated with the GPO Film Unit. It was Grierson who coined the term “documentary” to describe a non-fiction film, and produced the movement’s most celebrated early film, Night Mail (1936), written and directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, and incorporating the poem by W. H. Auden towards the end of the short.

From 1936 on, as filmmakers explored other possibilities for producing more documentary films, the documentary film movement started to decentralize. Previously the movement had been located in a single public sector organization, but in the late 1930s it separated into different branches. By 1937, the movement had spread across four different production units: GPO, Shell (headed by Anstey), Strand (headed by Rotha) and Realist (led by Wright).

In 1939, Grierson left Britain to work with the National Film Board of Canada, where he remained until 1945. In 1940, the GPO Film Unit was transferred and renamed as the Crown Film Unit by the Ministry of Information.

Also during these years, the star system became dominant in Britain film production. Many actors and actresses became stars, such as Leslie Howard, Charles Laughton Gracie Fields, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon, Margaret Lockwood, Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison, and Laurence Olivier.

The music hall also became influential in comedy films of this period, and a number of personalities emerged there, too, including George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews and Will Hay. These stars often made several films a year. Their productions played an important role in sustaining morale during the Second World War.

1937 Crisis

In 1936, an all-time high of 192 films were released. The following year, more than 200 British narrative films were produced. But the success did not last long. Most producers were not concerned with artistic film quality, which brought no box office value. They had to rely on loans from the Bank of England for financial support, making the film industry seldom profitable. The form of most profits from the movies during 1930s was based on an insurance guarantee system constructed by Korda, Denham Securities Ltd, a company established by London Film Productions Trust Ltd and C. T. Bowring (Insurance) Ltd. They provided financial support for independent producers who paid LFP for studio space at Denham. However, LFP was in trouble in 1937, As Sarah Street has argued:

An idea has gained acceptance that Korda’s success with The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 was responsible for a boom in investment and that his extravagance at Denham subsequently caused financial interests in the City to lose confidence in production as a field for investment. Certainly Korda was extravagant and certainly his chief backer, the Prudential Assurance Company, took fright during 1937. But it was the unfortunate results of the Aldgate operation which alerted them and others, and caused something like a panic in the City. It was the Aldgate producers, not Korda, who were at the center of the scandal and it was their activities that gave rise to the legal action that followed. (165)

The Prudential Assurance Company always had a good relationship with LFP, but there are three major crucial problems in the Prudential’s association with LFP:

(1) The fact that the studios were completed just before the depression in the film production industry became acute and that in the absence of outside renters ‘London Films’ was compelled to undertake a larger program of picture production than was originally contemplated;

(2) No proper arrangements were made to finance such a production program as proved necessary;

(3) The whole organization, both technical and administrative, had so many defects that drastic reforms were obviously necessary (Leff 15-16).

With the addition of rising expenditure and overexpansion into the American market, there was a financial crisis in British Cinema in 1937. Of the 640 British production companies registered between 1925 and 1936, only twenty were still active in 1937. The 1938 Cinematograph Films Act provided some quality tests to promote the overall quality of films that British production companies could produce. The quality tests eliminated the “quota quickies,” but indirectly made the number of films fewer.


American Success

As indicated above, in the 1930s, British cinema saw a short time period of prosperity when 150 to 200 films were produced in successive years.

The cinema audience was clearly very large in the middle decades of the twentieth century:

Cinema attendance in Britain rose steadily through the 1930s, climbing from 17.4 million admissions per week in 1934 to 19 million in 1939. With the onset of the Second World War the growth in cinema attendance accelerated dramatically. Weekly attendances topped 30 million by 1945, and it was not until well into the 1950s that cinema audiences began to fall below the levels of the 1930s, at just the time when television ownership was becoming widespread. (Stollery 375)

The renaissance of narrative has much to do with Korda. When he settled in Britain in 1933 and created London Film Production (LFP), he made a series of successful films including the famous The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

Why was Henry VIII so successful? Most observers have attributed the success to its unusual theme, its international appearance, and an engaging mixture of sex and monarchy.  As Aldgate explains,

Korda had taken a titillating subject, cleaned it up, played it for laughs, and made it wholly acceptable to audiences everywhere. The glamor and pageantry, the pretty girls and Charles Laughton’s magnificent performance enhanced the subject’s more basic appeal to the curious, but inhibited people who wanted to see a ‘sex romp’ where the emphasis was on the ‘romp’, not the ‘sex’. The few negative critics of the film were quickly drowned out by the overwhelming public acclaim. (Aldgate 10)

In terms of its distribution, exhibition and reception in Britain and the United States, the successful management of London Film Productions played an important role, which benefitted Korda financially. In 1937, it helped him to dissuade the Bank of England from supporting the idea of a Film Bank (Warren 27). LFP’s financial success played a key role in influencing the positive attitude of British bankers towards investment in the movies.

World politics encouraged U.S. investment and imports into the British market. One result was the creation of MGM-British, an English subsidiary of the largest American studio, which produced four films before the war, including the famous Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).

The Studio Crisis

Korda was not only a producer of considerable artistic ability, but also an astute businessman. He always aimed his film at a world market.

After the great success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Korda went on to direct or produce other films: The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), Rembrandt (1936), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Sanders of the River (1935), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Things to Come (1936), Elephant Boy (1937) and the propaganda picture The Lion has Wings (1939). These films deal with history, the previously mentioned social problems, and the audience’s democratic thoughts. Those films received varying degrees of commercial and critical success and achieved worldwide prestige.

The great success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) persuaded United Artists and The Prudential Assurance Accompany to invest in Korda’s Denham Film Studios, which opened in May 1936. However, Korda lost control of the facility in 1939 to the Rank Organization, whose Pinewood Studios had opened at the end of September 1936. A new risk was initially incurred at Denham Studio:

The fates of London Films and United Artists were linked between May 1937 and January 1939 because during that period several inter-locking schemes were proposed to reorganize both companies. In May 1937 Korda made a bid to buy out the other UA partners, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, at $500,000 for each interest. But since they refused to settle for less than $2 million apiece, Korda lost $200,000 on distribution. (Street 165)

The studio crisis and the advent of war prompted Korda to complete The Thief of Bagdad (1940), in Hollywood. Korda was anxious to solve Denham’s studio problem. The Thief of Bagdad (1940) turned out to be a spectacular fantasy film. The success of the The Thief of Bagdad (1940) helped Korda to maintain Prudential’s support. After that, Korda produced That Hamilton Woman in 1941 and continued his film career in Hollywood during the war. He returned to Britain in 1943.

Rescue Industry

As indicated above, in 1938, British film production diminished remarkably. To remedy this situation, Parliament considered renewal of the 1927 Films Act.  Instead it passed the Cinematograph Films Act, which required that British film’s “quota quickies” in the nationwide market increase from 12.5 percent in 1938 to 25 percent in 1947, to avoid low cost and low quality films and to absorb foreign investments into the domestic market. Based on this Act, MGM and Twentieth Century Fox both invested in and built several studios to make films in Britain, such as A Yank at Oxford (1938), The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939) by MGM, and Wee Willie Winkle (1937) by 20th Century Fox. These films were all headed by Hollywood directors and starred Hollywood stars, while Britain merely provided studios, equipment, techniques and some actors. At the same time, British directors made several successful films, such as Pygmalion (1938) by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, The Lady Vanishes (1938) by Alfred Hitchcock, Bank Holiday (1938) and The Stars Look Down (1940) by Carol Reed, and Four Feathers (1939) by Zoltán Korda.

After the success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1939), Korda made one of the first notable films dealing with the Royal Air Force (Miner 2): The Lion Has Wings (1939). He followed this up with a new version of the celebrated Thief of Bagdad (1940) and made good money from the two movies.

More importantly, Korda’s hard-working diligent spirit impacted other filmmakers in film. He created a broad path for the output of British cinema and brought an air of optimism to the film industry. His company — London Film Productions — searched for talented people throughout the world and hired them to work for his productions, which helped the development of British Cinema.

Korda was frequently called on in the British press to explain his recipe for the successful international film. Indeed, he was to spend much of the 1930s outlining his ideas on national and international filmmaking, and national character and culture in publications ranging from cinema magazines and trade journals to national daily newspapers.


Discovering something about the roots of the ‘real’ Alexander Korda, and about how, why and with what success he subsequently set about concealing them, tells us more about his filmmaking, and his thinking about filmmaking, than has previously been recognized.

There is a close correlation between Korda’s own experience as a Hungarian Jew and his ideas about filmmaking and the international film: the almost mythical idea of a film rooted in British national culture and identity that would be marketable throughout the world.

But questions of nationality, of racial, religious and ethnic identity were for other reasons  dogged Korda into the future. Just how ‘British’ were the international films made in Britain by London films? And who exactly was Korda, an émigré Hungarian, to tell the British how to make films about their national history and heritage? Before long the private life and history of Alexander Korda became a matter of considerable public interest.

Such questions of national and racial identity as were raised by Korda’s career are significant because they provide insight into his philosophy of filmmaking.

The questions of Korda’s Jewish identity would be of only personal significance if it were those notions of nationality, cultural identity and belonging were not so important to the theories of filmmaking. For roots, whether shallow, deeply buried or even subjected to cultural weed-killer, were at the heart of his published thoughts on the idea of the international film.

It is a pity, however, that the dream of a British studio that could continuously produce international films has largely remained unrealizable, despite a number of more recent productions, such as Chariots of Fire (dir. Hugh Hudson, 1981), Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1993), Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999).

[1] For the historical background to the period, John Stevenson and Chris Cook, The Slump, Society and Politics during the Depression, London, 1977.

[2] The two films follows Wings of the Morning (1937), the UK’s first three-strip Technicolor feature film, made by the local offshoot of 20th Century Fox.