December 18, 2016

Finest Hour 174, Autumn 2016

Page 30

By David Lough

David Lough is the author of No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money (2015). He received the International Churchill Society’s 2016 Somervell Award for Outstanding Original Contribution to Finest Hour.

Note: All sums of money earned by Winston Churchill from film are given in the currency (£) and amount paid to him at the time. To convert these to an approximate equivalent today, multiply by the following factors: 1930s– £ x6o, $ x80; 1940s–£ x40, $ x55; 1960s–£ x20, $ x27.

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Churchill’s Favorite Film - Alexander KordaChurchill’s Favorite FilmWinston Churchill and the film industry grew up together. As a schoolboy, Churchill witnessed the demonstration of an early projector; full-length films first appeared in cinemas as he entered government in 1906; and an early Pathé newsreel captured him as home secretary in 1911 at the siege of Sidney Street in London.

Churchill first took a close interest in the new industry in 1929, when his friend Bernard Baruch included the Los Angeles suburb of Hollwood in the itinerary for Churchill’s two-month American tour of 1929. US film-makers had by then pulled so far ahead of their European counterparts that Hollywood was producing four out of every five of the world’s films.

The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst acted as Churchill’s host in California. After a few days with the official Mrs. Hearst in San Francisco, the party moved south to the domain of Hearst’s unofficial partner, the film star Marion Davies. Her party for Churchill was attended by Hollywood’s social élite, including Charlie Chaplin, who invited his fellow Englishman to witness the filming of City Lights. Churchill may have returned to Britain financially poorer after losing money in the Wall Street crash, but his memories of Hollywood were vivid enough to inspire a newspaper article entitled ‘The Peter Pan Township of the Films.”1

New technology was part of what drew Churchill to film; but he also loved its sense of adventure, its creativity and its lavishness. From the outset he harboured hopes that the new medium might one day reward his creativity more richly than writing books.

Alexander Korda

Churchill waited several years before the first sign that he might be right. One drawback was that neither he nor his agents could easily cultivate contacts while they were so far away in Hollywood, but that was to change in February 1934 when his son Randolph introduced him to a young Hungarian film producer, Alexander Korda. Korda had just made the move from Hollywood back to Europe. He would guide Churchill through the film world for the next two decades.

Korda had led Hungary’s film industry in 1918 before moving to Vienna, Berlin, and then Paris. A string of successes took him eight years later to Hollywood, where he directed under contract to a studio. He chafed, however, under the rigidities of the studio system, so he returned to Paris in 1930 determined to lead a European film renaissance.

alexander korda london film

In 1931 Paramount Pictures asked Korda to produce its first British film, and its success persuaded him to launch his own company, London Film Productions. His breakthrough came two years later when the actor Charles Laughton agreed to take the title role of The Private Life of Henry VIII. The film’s success made Korda the toast of European film-makers.2

He was still riding the crest of this wave when introduced to Churchill, who was twenty years his senior. In other respects the two men were well-matched: both had an eye for the grand vision, both enjoyed taking risks, and both liked to live extravagantly. Korda was immediately alive to the publicity value of recruiting Churchill and offered him a contract as “editor” and “associate producer” of a series of short films, which were to be about “topical issues” such as the future of the monarchy. Churchill proposed for himself a monthly salary of £400 plus a 25% share of profits; Korda did not bother to quibble.3

Churchill’s first pay-check from London Film reached his bank account in April 1934, and checks continued to flow throughout the summer, although he was not required to do any work. Once he had finished writing the second volume of Marlborough in August, he was keen to get going. Korda set a production date in September for early in 1935, only to change his mind two days later. He now planned a film to mark King George V’s silver jubilee in 1935 and offered Churchill an extra fee of £10,000 (plus profit share) to produce its screenplay. Churchill immediately accepted, pledging to “sidetrack” all his other work.4

Korda’s largesse may well have sprung from his confidence that he was about to sign an important funding agreement with the leading British insurance company, Prudential Assurance. Korda’s biographer Charles Drazin suggests that the investment was brokered by Colonel Claude Dansey, a member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, who had been tasked with forming a new intelligence agency to investigate the rise of Fascism. According to Drazin, Dansey offered to arrange funding for London Film in return for cover for his agents in the company’s new European offices.5

Whatever the origins of his offer, Korda adjudged Churchill’s first draft of the screenplay “splendid” and arranged a trial at Chartwell of RCA’s latest “home cinema” equipment. There was never any serious prospect that Churchill would be able to afford the hefty price tag, but the Chartwell staff all enjoyed two nights of private viewing.

Second Reel

It was to prove a temporary high point of Churchill’s dalliance with film. Before the year’s end, Korda’s new “financial friends” forced him to renegotiate Churchill’s deal; then in January 1935 the jubilee film collapsed under the weight of government obstruction. Churchill was left to negotiate a generous compensation package with Korda, who promised £7,000 (more than half of it tax-free).6

Nevertheless Churchill’s more extravagant hopes for the film’s future contribution to his purse had been disappointed. He received only one more approach before the war, when Korda asked in 1937 whether he would be “historical consultant” to a film about the life of T. E. Lawrence. Churchill proposed a fee of £2,000 for a month’s work, unaware that a series of box office flops had weakened Korda’s empire. The film-maker’s counter-offer of just £250 sent Churchill back to his books, where he remained until war broke out.7

Korda returned to Hollywood within a month of Churchill’s appointment as Britain’s prime minister in May 1940. The move won Korda few friends in London, but it was part and parcel of his secret activities, according to his biographer Drazin. His hidden task, approved by Churchill, was to make films that fell short of overt propaganda, yet nudged American opinion towards war. Ostensibly That Hamilton Woman told the story of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s relationship with Lady Hamilton, but its sub-text was of heroic British resistance to the last would-be dictator of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte.8

Hollywood to the Rescue

Korda lost no time in rekindling his links with the heads of Hollywood’s studios, some of whom began to take an interest in Churchill’s back story when it became clear in 1941 that he had seen off Hitler’s threat to invade Britain. Warner Brothers moved first, enlisting Korda’s help to front their bid for the film rights to My Early Life, Churchill’s early autobiography. Brendan Bracken handled the negotiations for Churchill; although a publisher relatively unversed in film, he raised the final price to £7,500.9

Two years later, the decisive turn of the military tide in favour of the Allies prompted another bid. This time Korda (now knighted as Sir Alexander) returned in partnership with MGM to bid for the film rights to Churchill’s biography of his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough.10 Churchill was about to accept a raised offer of £20,000 when his staff suggested checking the tax position with his bank. By happy coincidence the manager knew another bank customer who was a film producer. Felippo del Guidice, or Mr Del as the British press called the immigrant from Italy, had worked for Korda, then set up a rival business backed by J. Arthur Rank. On his return from the Quebec Conference in September 1943, Churchill invited “best bids,” and Mr Del left nothing to chance, raising his offer to £50,000. Churchill immediately accepted.11

Bracken consoled Korda by offering the rights to History of The English-Speaking Peoples at the same price, suggesting it could yield multiple films. Korda and MGM were about to sign when lawyers suggested that the film rights might have passed with the book to publishers Cassell and Company in 1932: the two sets of rights had seldom then been separated.12 Dismayed, Churchill refused to pay cash to buy them back, preferring to offer Cassell a swap with the rights to the British version of his war memoirs, if he wrote them.

Three sets of British publishers now thought that they had a valid claim to Churchill’s war memoirs. His lawyers insisted that he must disentangle this legal thicket before signing any deal for History’s film rights, even if he was busy planning the summer invasion of France.

It took until September 1944 before the last of the publishers fell into line; and another six months of negotiations before Korda paid £50,000 for the rights in March 1945.13 As the war drew to a close, Korda added £35,000 for the rights to The River War; the following year he returned with £25,000 for Savrola (Churchill’s only novel); and finally he paid £10,000 for My African Journey.14

Churchill had started the war deep in debt; yet Korda and del Guidice transformed his fortunes during the war and its aftermath by paying him £177,500 for film rights to his pre-war books. Churchill was officially retired as an author at the time, so he paid no tax on any of the money.15

Cinematic Disappointments

He took up writing again in 1947 to complete The Second World War, meanwhile confining his enthusiasm for the cinema to regular private showings at Chartwell of war films. Only when he finally retired from politics in 1955 did he once more entertain approaches for new film projects. Two leading American networks, NBC and CBS, offered large sums for exclusive interviews, but Churchill preferred to deal once more with his old friend Korda.

So late in 1955 he asked Korda’s help in selling the television rights of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples to the Ford Foundation, which was interested in their sponsorship. Korda politely inquired whether he had not already bought the rights in 1945, prompting Churchill’s advisers to save face by suggesting a joint venture. Already ill, Korda played along, but his death in March 1956 caused Ford to lose interest.

Finally deprived of his film mentor, Churchill had to fall back on the advice of his private secretary Anthony Montague Browne and his solicitor Anthony Moir, both of whom were new to the industry. Two months later, their inexperience told when in May 1956 MGM made a handsome offer for the film rights to My Early Life. They were on the point of signing when a check revealed that Churchill had sold the rights to Warner Brothers fifteen years earlier. His new team took eighteen months to buy the rights back and, by then, a new regime was in charge at MGM. First the studio cut Churchill’s terms, then in 1959 it pulled out altogether.

Lights, Camera, Churchill!

Nothing at the time seemed to be working on the film front. My Early Life had hit the buffers; A History of the English-Speaking Peoples was proving un-marketable; and Churchill personally vetoed a promising approach for rights to The Second World War. Its would-be producer, Jack le Vien, had met Churchill while serving as an American press attaché in the war. After the war he worked at Pathé and now proposed to use old newsreel footage for his version of The Second World War: the device would neatly sidestep Churchill’s need to record any fresh material and so avoid any liability to tax. Ed Murrow, wartime broadcaster for CBS in London, had killed the scheme by giving Churchill a bad reference for le Vien, but Montague Browne and Moir were gradually gaining confidence. Late in 1959 Montague Browne visited New York to make up his own mind and judged le Vien’s project to be sound. The American went on to produce two successful films for television, The Valiant Years and Their Finest Hours, before basing a third and last on Churchill’s book Painting as a Pastime.

My Early Life took longer to come home. Paramount took over the baton from MGM in 1960. They found just as much trouble, however, in commissioning a screenplay which both the studio and Churchill’s advisers could approve. In May 1962 Paramount handed on to Columbia, and at last an angle was found: the screenplay would concentrate on Churchill’s troubled early relationship with his father. Late in 1963 Montague Browne finally flew home from New York clutching a check for £100,000, Churchill’s largest ever.16

Only one of the seven sets of film rights to pre-war books ever made it onto the silver screen. Churchill never saw it: Young Winston appeared in 1972, seven years after his death.


1. Winston S. Churchill (WSC), “Peter Pan Township of the Films,” Daily Telegraph, 30 December 1929.

2. The Private Life of Henry VIII cost £93,710 to make and made £214,360 worldwide within five years. Charles Drazin, Korda, Britain’s Movie Mogul (London: I. B. Taurus, 2011), pp. 100–05.

3. Lloyds Bank statement, CHAR 1/241 sheet 109, Churchill Archives Centre (CAC), Churchill College, Cambridge.

4. WSC confirmatory letter to Alexander Korda, 23 September 1934, CHAR 8/495/64–5, CAC.

5. Charles Drazin, Korda, Britain’s Only Movie Mogul (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002), p. 212 et seq.

6. London Film Productions letter to Nicholl Manisty, 16 July 1935, CHAR 8/514/108–09, CAC.

7. Letters between D. Cunynghame and WSC, 20–22 October 1937, CHAR 8/557/2, 3, 4, CAC.

8. Drazin, Korda, Britain’s only Movie Mogul, p. 220 et seq.

9. Lloyds Bank statement, 17 June 1941, CHAR 1/354/291; Kathleen Hill (KH) letter to G. Mason, 23 July 1941, CHAR 1/363/17, CAC.

10. KH note, 27 July 1943, CHAR 8/709/3, CAC.

11. KH note, 19 September 1943, CHAR 8/709/16, CAC. £30,000 was to be paid immediately and the balance of £20,000 nine months later.

12. KH note, 28 January 1944; memo to WSC, CHAR 8/713/3, 1; KH letter to C. Nicholl, 8 February 1944, CHAR 8/713/4, CAC.

13. KH note to WSC, 14 March 1945; C. Nicholl letter to WSC, 26 March 1945; KH note, 6 April 1945, CHAR 8/720/10, 11, 14, CAC.

14. Lloyds Bank letter and statements, 2 August 1946, 12 August 1948, CHUR 1/11/87, 1/1/58, CAC.

15. David Lough, No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money (London: Picador, 2015), pp. 298-315.

16. D. Pugh letter to Lloyds Bank, 9 December 1963, CHUR 1/107/140, CAC.

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