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Hungary-Wood by Phil Watkins

Movie set at the Korda Film Park

I think every person can remember their first trip to the cinema; for me it was my father taking myself and my two older brothers to see Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi. Somewhere in a box back in England is the sticker each ticket holder was given upon entry to the theatre (maybe that Chewbacca sticker could be worth something on Ebay!). However, I have not set out to share my own childhood memories with you all on the Visit Budapest page... I do however want to share my passion of cinema with you, in particular the overwhelming influence that Hungary and its emigrants has had on shaping the powerhouse that is the American entertainment industry we all subscribe to in some shape or form today. A study in early 2000 stated 27% of all Oscars awarded since 1929 have been to Hungarians... What a staggering number!

Hungary-Wood by Phil Watkins

Movie set at the Korda Film Park

Whilst in Hungary and particularly Budapest, be sure to take a trip out to the Korda Film Park located in Etyek. Not only will it give you a further insight into the Hungarian influence stateside but it offers you a glimpse at Europe's largest working studio including a tour of a range of sets (Hellboy II, Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and The Borgias).

From its meagre origins as the exciting new property venture of H.J. Whitley (more commonly known as the 'Father of Hollywood'), and named by his wife on their 1886 honeymoon travels, Hollywood has undoubtedly become synonymous with the birth of the motion picture business with its history covering rags to riches stories, million dollar contracts, Studio developments, scandal and the term celebrity! Whether Whitley knew when he placed his advertisement high up in the California hills that he would create a metropolis of misshapen fortunes, his HOLLYWOODLAND investment certainly paid dividends for many; indeed the HOLLYWOOD sign as we know it today is a global icon and would rank as one of the most prominent images when thinking about Los Angeles and the film industry.

Early studios were based in the east coast but with the rise of the railroad and the migration west across the great plains, the industry was afforded the luxury of absolute perfect natural lighting conditions for the majority of the year plus a wealth of glorious outdoor landscapes to shoot a wider variety of movie genres. Studios rose up out of the wide expanses of land available at affordable prices and so began the birth of Hollywood as the centre of American movie making. The Hollywood we know and visit today is a very different one, contained within a thirty mile zone (TMZ) for union purposes although the celebrity statuses, fame, money and scandal still exist for sure.

Hungary-Wood by Phil Watkins

Movie set at the Korda Film Park

Hungarians had first started arriving on the shores of America as far back as the early 1800s but the first big wave came directly after the 1848 Revolution against the Austrian rule of Hungary, some 700,000. The fleeing of the forty-eighters started something amazing and indirectly allowed for the shaping of America through some powerful Magyar hands. It is fair to say that there has been an influx of Hungarians after all major conflicts in their native land and there is a direct immigration correlation with the 1848 uprising, World War II and the Holocaust, October 1956 revolution and the ensuing Communist era within Hungary.

If I were to list all of the major players in Hollywood who are Hungarian in origin or of descent then I would need to spend a sizeable amount of time producing a chronological anthology, I will however share some of the most notable cinematic Hungarians that may be of interest to you:

William Fox
The producer and founder of Fox Studios in 1915. Born Vilmos Fried he anglicised his name to William Fox upon arrival at Ellis Island. Originally starting life as a textiles salesman he rose to own his own firm which he then sold in 1915 to purchase a Nickelodeon. It was this business deal that set Fox on his way to good fortune in the west coast and he began to build a vast empire along with Russian immigrant Louis B. Mayer (of MGM fame). As with many businesses at the time, the Wall Street stock market crash financially ruined Fox together with a number of legal issues and he was forced to give up control of the studios. A formidable powerhouse who made many enemies, he died leaving behind a legacy and name that is still going strong through Fox Television and 20th Century Fox.

Adolf Zukor
The founder of Paramount Pictures and the Loews Entertainment group arrived in New York in 1889 and followed his family into the textiles business. A good eye and business acumen allowed for a young Zukor to climb his way out of poverty and afforded him an income to invest in many ventures. When his cousin approached him in 1903 to invest some capital into a theatre that was to showcase Thomas Edison's sound and picture inventions, Adolf Zukor made a decision that was to transport him to the forefront of the American entertainment industry of the time. Zukor became co-owner of the Famous Players vaudeville company that set out to have 'famous players in famous plays'. It was his vision that brought stage stars across to the silver screen and helped revolutionise the production and distribution of motion pictures due to a 'star quality' value attached to projects.

George Cukor
The Oscar winning director of My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn had an amazing talent for getting the best from female actresses in their performances, although he despised his title of 'The Ladies Director'. He was noted as an important influence in Judy Garland's portrayal of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz as well as the performances of Vivienne Leigh, Olivia de Haviland and Katherine Hepburn in their own screen appearances.

The Korda Brothers
Sir Alexander (Sandor), Vincent and Zoltan started by revolutionising the British film industry (Alexander was the first British person to be knighted for services to the film industry) as Directors, Producers, Set Designers and Writers. Their success in Britain took them many times to America where they had equal success with films such as The Jungle Book, The Four Feathers, The Thief of Bagdad to name but three. Their variety of abilities and roles within cinema helped change the way that movies were approached financially, designed prior to production and also directed. This trio definitely had a powerful influence on movies and the number of Oscar nominations associated with the name Korda highlights this.

Bela Lugosi
The world famous Dracula from Universals' 1931 horror garnered fame everywhere he went after his portrayal of Bram Stoker's literary Master of the Dark. His staring eyes, thick Magyar accent and of course the black cape have become synonymous when the name Count Dracula is mentioned. Born and raised in Hungary there are mixed reports about his acting abilities with some stating that he played bit parts in various travelling shows and reviews describing his poor acting. Regardless of these critiques, Lugosi made his way to America and became a star in the Universal horror film genre alongside the English actor Boris Karloff. Unfortunately it was Lugosi's heavy accent that proved his downfall with studios not wanting him in their pictures. A chance encounter later in life with famed B-movie director Ed Wood bought Lugosi back to small stardom but sadly the lack of work and addiction to morphine caused Bela Lugosi to pass away in complete poverty.

Miklos Rozsa
A triple Oscar winning film composer born and raised in Budapest who garnered numerous nominations and awards for his outstanding contribution to 100+ motion pictures. Rozsa was part of a unique group of European composers that influenced the sound of film through classically symphonic and passionate scores. Being introduced to music at a young age when visiting the family estate in the Hungarian countryside, as well as a school walk that took him past the world famous Budapest State Opera, put Miklos Rozsa onto a path of musical adventure that would take him to Germany, Paris and London and eventually America. Whilst in London Rozsa began scoring a project for fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda but disruption due to the Second World War took the production to America to be finished and released; this opened up America to the musical genius that Rozsa was (being Oscar nominated 4 times for work with Korda). The three well deserved Oscars were received for his scores to Spellbound, A Double Life and the epic Ben Hur. 

Other important Hungarians in Hollywood you may wish to read about on the web include Tony Curtis, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Michael Curtis, 'Cuddles' Sakall, Peter Lorre, George Pal, Ivan Tors, Andre de Toth, Joe Pasternak, Charles Csuri, Istvan Szabo, Lajos Koltai, Peter Medak, Houdini, Mark and Aron Jaszberenyi and the list goes on. Each has their own story to tell and is fiercely proud of their Hungarian heritage... I hope you will enjoy reading about them as much as I have.



My thanks go to the following who have helped me research and offered many anecdotes for this article: Juliet Rozsa, Neil Zoladkiewicz and Kevin Brownlow of Photoplay Productions.

Phil Watkins is an expat, a photographer and a teacher living in Budapest. Connect with Phil on Facebook.

You are reading: Hungary-Wood
Posted in: Budapest Blog & Articles  Category: Arts & Culture, Hungarian History

tags: famous hungarians

  1. Lyn Estka opines:

    What a wonderful article…...things I never knew….thank you~!

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