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Rank, J. Arthur (1888-1972)


Main image of Rank, J. Arthur (1888-1972)

"There's undoubtedly a certain intellectual dullness about J. Arthur Rank that seemed to permeate his character. He achieved a remarkable amount in his life: he amassed wealth; he moved in a world steeped in glamour and excitement as well as holding a very powerful position in the City; yet, in spite of it all, he managed to remain largely untouched by it."

Thus wrote Michael Wakelin in his 1996 biography of Rank. Though an admirer of Rank, even he seems perplexed by his subject's transformation from Methodist businessman to film tycoon. It is Rank's misfortune that he is so easy to parody. Compared to Alexander Korda or to the Hollywood studio bosses with whom he did business, he was an avuncular, rather bumbling figure. His father, Joseph, a formidable Victorian capitalist who had built up a vast flour empire, had a low opinion of his prospects. "You're a dunce at school and the only way you'll get on is in the mill," Joe told his son.

Rank's first forays into business were far from spectacular. When his own company, Peterkins Self-Raising Flour (the very name sounds like something out of a Norman Wisdom film) collapsed, he went back to working for his father. He reached early middle-age without showing any hint that he might be the British film industry's next saviour.

Rank, like his father's flour, can fairly be said to have risen without trace. When he became involved with the Religious Film Society in the early 1930s, his aim was no more ambitious than to use cinema as a vehicle for religious education in Sunday schools and Methodist Halls.

In little under a decade, though, he was the most important figure in the British film industry: by 1946, the Organisation which bore his name owned five studios (Pinewood and Denham among them), two newsreels, a large number of production companies, its own distribution arm, its own animation department, a "Charm School" for bringing on young British stars, and more than 650 cinemas. In its prime, the Rank Organisation was a vertically integrated film company bigger than any of its Hollywood rivals.

It is easy to write off Rank's rise as the result of lucky timing and fortuitous alliances. He benefited from his pact with C. M. Woolf, the sharpest film distributor in 1930s Britain; he was in the right place at the right time and had big enough pockets to take over Odeon Cinemas and Gaumont-British.

Critics hostile to him would doubtless say it was mere co-incidence that film-makers of the quality of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, Ken Annakin and Muriel Box made their finest pictures under his aegis.

It is instructive, though, to read what Lean and Powell said about their time as part of Rank's elite film corps, Independent Producers Ltd. "We can make any subject we wish, with as much money as we think that subject should have spent on it" wrote Lean (1947). "We can cast whichever actors we choose, and we have no interference with the way the film is made... not one of us is bound by any form of contract. We are there because we want to be there."

Powell was similarly upbeat about the creative freedom he enjoyed at IPL in his autobiography, A Life In Movies, boastfully calling his time with Rank "one of the most glorious partnerships in the history of British films". Admittedly, Independent Producers soon collapsed, but the work that was done in the few brief years of its existence pay testament to Rank's qualities as a patron. Brief Encounter (d. David Lean, 1945), Black Narcissus (d. Powell & Pressburger, 1947), I See A Dark Stranger (d. Frank Launder, 1946), Great Expectations (d. Lean, 1946) and The Red Shoes (d. Powell & Pressburger, 1948) were all made at IPL.

The filmmakers, even those like Betty Box, toiling away in under-resourced studios making modest programme-fillers while money was lavished on Lean and Powell and Pressburger at Pinewood, had a genuine affection for Rank. They called him "Uncle Arthur". They knew he could be prudish and puritanical. He was accused in certain quarters of monopolistic practices and of making swollen, empty epics in an ill-fated bid to gatecrash the American market. Nevertheless, he was prepared to invest in research and marketing. He realised there were no short cuts and that if the British film industry was to compete with Hollywood, it had to be run along the same professional lines.

In 1952, after the death of his older brother Jimmy, J. Arthur Rank went back to the family flour business. He stayed on as Chairman of the Rank Organisation until 1962, but left the day-to-day running of the company to ex-accountant John Davis, who was never the type to indulge the artistic whims of his producers. Rank died aged 83 in 1972.

There is no denying the benevolent effect he had on British cinema of the 1940s, but the company which bears his name has long since forgotten its original ideals. As I noted to the conclusion of my book on Rank, "in hindsight, it seems half comic, half tragic, that all Rank's efforts to set the British industry on its feet should spawn nothing more than a photocopying company and a leisure conglomerate."

Biographies: Mr Rank by Alan Wood (1952); J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry by Geoffrey Macnab (1993).

Geoffrey Macnab, Encyclopaedia of British Cinema

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