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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    The accidental movie mogul



    Matthew Sweet charts the remarkable life of J Arthur Rank, whose cinematic legacy we celebrate with a series of special DVD offers



    It's probably the most famous image in our native cinema: Bombardier Billy Wells, glistening with baby oil, affecting to whack the life out of a giant plaster gong. You'll have seen him - or one of his equally slippery successors - before British pictures from The Red Shoes to Carry On at Your Convenience.



    J Arthur Rank (fifth from left), with employees and stars from his company in 1946



    The man behind the gong was the oddest movie mogul who ever ran a studio. J Arthur Rank was a millionaire flour miller who spent his spare time hare-coursing and teaching Sunday school classes. He loved chocolates. He loved evangelical Methodism. He had no particular interest in cinema. In 1933, however, it occurred to him that making religious pictures might be a way of bringing Britain's Kia-ora-bibbing heathen masses weeping to the arms of Christ. He rented the tiny Merton Park studios for a low-budget biopic of an East End minister - and made instant converts of six Chinese sailors.



    This, however, was an isolated success. The more Rank's financial interests in cinema grew, the more those evangelical aims were sidelined. Thought for the Day, a series of homilies delivered by a tweedy farmer played by an old silent star named Stewart Rome, was discontinued after a rebellious audience at the Edgware Odeon pelted the screen with tomatoes. But by this time, there was no going back: in his zeal, Rank had amassed a movie empire. He was the principal shareholder in General Film Distributors. He had acquired studio space at Pinewood, Denham and Elstree. He had bought up the Odeon chain of cinemas. The Rank Organisation controlled the means of production, distribution and exhibition. And instead of Jesus, a generation of British movie-making talents - from the highbrow to the positively demotic - would enjoy the fruits of its beneficence.



    The honeymoon period lasted from the war years to the beginning of the 1950s. Rank offered a new home to Ealing Studios, and financed Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob. Rank funded the work of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. He wrote the cheques that allowed Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to unfold The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, to turn Pinewood into the Himalayas for Black Narcissus, and conjure up a vision of heaven in A Matter of Life and Death. Rank opened his wallet to give David Lean and Ronald Neame the means to film Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. He subbed the work of the Italian émigré producer Filippo Del Guidice, ensuring that Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet made it from stage to screen. He funded the production of hard-nosed documentary filmmakers such as Jill Craigie.



    Rank is often portrayed as stuffy, prudish, philistine and penny-pinching. In these early years, however, he was often naively generous; excessively willing to give creative filmmakers free rein. (He was generous with alcohol as well as cash - being a teetotaller, he had little idea of how to pour a measure of spirits, and sent at least one guest reeling home to a drunken car accident.) "We could do whatever we liked, and we did," Ronald Neame once told me. "And we narrowly avoided destroying the Rank Organisation in the process."





    Grischa Ljubov helps Moira Shearer put on The Red Shoes

    The profligacy of Neame's generation of filmmakers had stern consequences for British cinema. When the bills came in, Rank delegated the day-to-day responsibilities of production to John Davis, an accountant with an appetite for downsizing, cost-cutting, and - as all the gossips at Pinewood knew - sexual sadism. (There were red faces all round when an unfortunate Rank minion booked Davis into the Birch Suite of a provincial hotel.)



    These were years of popular success and critical contempt - of James Robertson Justice demanding "What's the bleeding time?" of Dirk Bogarde's quiffed medical student, of Norman Wisdom falling into ponds, of Kenneth More manning the pumps as the Titanic sank in the water tank at Pinewood.



    In the early 1960s, the Rank Organisation opted to close down its filmmaking arm and concentrate on two new businesses - the management of bingo halls and the manufacture of photocopiers. The failure of The Singer not the Song, a queer-flavoured western staring Dirk Bogarde as a leather-sheathed Mexican bandit, ensured Rank's withdrawal from production. Sound stages were sold, staff released from contracts, cinemas plunged into darkness.



    But, for another two decades, the Rank Organisation survived as a backer, distributor and exhibitor of films. Despite their reliance on smut of a sort that would have brought blushes to the cheeks of Rank's Sunday school colleagues, the Carry On pictures owe their existence to his firm. ("Rank stupidity!" exclaims Kenneth Williams's Khasi of Khalabar when a servant makes a sudden lunge for a gong in Carry On Up the Khyber - though Williams's diaries record that the movie mogul's name had an even less respectful function as rhyming slang for masturbation.)



    The company continued to back pictures throughout the 1970s - there was Rank money in Bugsy Malone, Dead Ringers and the Robert Powell remake of The 39 Steps. The firm's withdrawal from British movie-making came only when its chiefs emerged, pale with shock, from a screening of Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing - declaring it "a sick film made by sick people for sick people". Rank, mercifully, didn't live to see it: he had died in 1972, aged 83, on the day of his company's AGM.



    Today, the Rank Organisation's principal interests are in casinos, bingo halls and the Hard Rock Café chain. The family does little to encourage interest in Rank's filmmaking activities - its members have a habit of issuing stiff letters to authors who write about this aspect of J Arthur's life without giving sufficient attention to his Methodism, his charitable work or his contributions to the field of flour-milling. (Rank's entry in the New Dictionary of National Biography - drafted by John Davis - toes this line.)



    But the rest of us, I think, will continue to celebrate Rank's accidental career in the movies - whenever we watch a TV matinee or slip on a DVD of a favourite British picture. As long as we can see bare flesh, baby oil, and a gold-painted plaster gong, his name will survive.



    Matthew Sweet's 'Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema' is published by Faber and Faber.

  2. #2
    Super Moderator Country: Fiji
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    Interesting... (the extra bits) ;



    So how did he reconcile hare coursing with, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' and 'All things bright and beautiful', one wonders ? Did he not feel embarrassed riding round the fields calling, " So-Ho!!" ?



    Also, if everyone around the studio knew of JD's alleged peccadiloes, how come he lasted so long in the old man's favour ?



    You have to admire his timing though, pegging out on the day of the AGM ; the last say in quitting the Board !



    SMUDGE

  3. #3
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    I'm sure it's all in Sweet's book but I struggled with his irregular writing style and gave up with SB pretty early on. The salacious hints are probably subtle plugs for his book.

  4. #4
    Super Moderator Country: Fiji
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    You wouldn't recommend it then DB7 ?



    I picked up a copy off the shelf last Thurs and was ALMOST tempted ; I've heard a bit about it, but not really browsed.



    That sort of thing is well covered in Paul Donnelly's FADE TO BLACK. It's quite a strange 'pleasure' when someone simply dies of natual causes therein...



    SMUDGE

  5. #5
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    Originally posted by smudge@Jul 17 2005, 05:33 PM

    You wouldn't recommend it then DB7 ?



    I'm more interested in the actual product than which actor was doing what and with whom. I only read the first few chapters, and in fairness to the author he had tried to interview people of the time, but it was little more than a few chapters of salacious anecdotes told chronologically.

  6. #6
    Super Moderator Country: Fiji
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    Originally posted by DB7@Jul 17 2005, 05:29 PM

    I'm more interested in the actual product than which actor was doing what and with whom. I only read the first few chapters, and in fairness to the author he had tried to interview people of the time, but it was little more than a few chapters of salacious anecdotes told chronologically.
    I'll give that one a miss then..



    Thanks



    SMUDGE

  7. #7
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Originally posted by smudge@Jul 17 2005, 03:54 PM

    Interesting... (the extra bits) ;



    So how did he reconcile hare coursing with, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' and 'All things bright and beautiful', one wonders ? Did he not feel embarrassed riding round the fields calling, " So-Ho!!" ?
    Hare coursing on horseback? Interesting idea. Wrong but interesting.



    Steve

  8. #8
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    Originally posted by Steve Crook@Jul 17 2005, 08:56 PM

    Hare coursing on horseback? Interesting idea. Wrong but interesting.



    Steve
    Nah Steve, you have to have SOME advantage.....these hares are wily little beggars ; and NIPPY, too !



    SMUDGE

  9. #9
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    Originally posted by smudge@Jul 18 2005, 05:53 AM

    Nah Steve, you have to have SOME advantage.....these hares are wily little beggars ; and NIPPY, too !



    SMUDGE
    You're right Smudger - I've seen hare-coursing - bloody awful!!! I believe the Greyhound racing fraternity has (or had) a lot to with this repellant 'sport'.



    Still, back to the topic. I shall look with a different perspective on Mr Rank from now on; after all, none of MY Sunday school teachers were into blood sports!!!!!!

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