J. Arthur Rank
Rank was born on 22 or 23 December 1888 at Kingston upon Hull in England into a Victorian family environment, which was dominated by his father Joseph Rank who had built a substantial flour milling business. He was educated at The Leys School in Cambridge. Joseph is reported to have told his son Arthur that he was "a dunce at school" and that the only way that he could succeed in life would be in his father's flour mill. J. Arthur ventured on his own with Peterkins Self-Raising Flour, but when that business failed he returned to work for his father. That was the business (Joseph Rank Limited) that he later inherited and which became known as Rank Hovis McDougall (now owned by British food conglomerate Premier Foods).
Rank was a devout member of the Methodist Church and in his middle age he taught Sunday School to which he began to show religious films. This practice expanded to other churches and schools and it led to his formation of the Religious Film Society to which he then distributed films that he had also made. His first production was called Mastership.
When the Methodist Times newspaper began to complain about the negative influence that British and American films shown in Britain were having on family life, their editorial was answered by the London Evening News who suggested that instead of complaining, the Methodist Church should provide a solution. Rank took up the challenge and via an introduction by a young film producer named John Corfield, he discussed both the problem and a solution with Lady Yule of Bricket Wood. The net result of these meetings was the formation of the British National Films Company.
The first commercial production by this company was Turn of the Tide, a movie based upon a recently published 1932 novel by Leo Walmsley called Three Fevers. Having created their movie, British National then had to get it distributed and exhibited, but this proved to be more difficult than making the movie itself. Some commercial screens began showing Turn of the Tide as a second feature, but this was not enough exposure for the company to make a profit.
Pinewood Film Studios
Having first created a film production company and having made a movie at another studio, Rank, Lady Yule and John Corfield began talking to Charles Boot who had recently bought the estate of Heatherden Hall at Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, for the purpose of turning it into a movie studio that would rival those in Hollywood, California. In 1935 the trio became owner-operators of Pinewood Film Studios. Lady Yule later sold her shares to Rank while John Corfield resigned from its board of directors.
The problems encountered in the distribution of Turn of the Tide were addressed when Rank discovered that the people who controlled the British film industry had ties to the American movie industry and that for all practical purposes he was shut out of his own domestic market. American films occupied 80% of British screen time during the era before World War II.
In 1935 Rank arrived at a solution to his distribution problems. Because the middlemen controlled the distribution pipeline from production to exhibition, he decided to buy a large part of both the distribution and exhibition systems. He began by forming a partnership with film maker C. M. Woolf to form General Film Distributors, which in 1936 was incorporated in Rank's General Cinema Finance Corporation but continued to handle all distribution for the Rank organisation until 1955, when it was renamed J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors.
In 1939 Rank consolidated his film production interests in both the Pinewood Film Studios and the Denham Film Studios. In 1938 Rank bought the Odeon Cinemas chain. and the Amalgamated Studios in Elstree, although the latter were never used as film studios by Rank. In 1941, it absorbed the Gaumont British, which owned 251 cinemas, and the Lime Grove Studios, (later owned by the BBC) and bought the Paramount Cinemas chain, so that by 1942 the Rank Organisation owned 619 cinemas. Other interests were acquired (such as the Bush Radio company in 1949) which would be added to the interests in a few more years) within a new company called the Rank Organisation. Rank retired as Chairman in 1962 and was succeeded by John Davis, who had been Managing Director since 1948.
During the 1940s, the companies Rank controlled produced some of the finest British films of the period, including: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Henry V (1944), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). From the 1950s fewer adventurous films were attempted and solidly commercial ventures, largely aimed at the family market, were made instead. These include the popular Norman Wisdom comedies and the various Doctor... films. However some films of note were produced during this era including: Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), and Victim (1961), as well as a clutch of prestige topics such as the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 and filmed performances by The Royal Ballet.
Core interests and legacy
Although his critics claimed that many of the films that he had produced under the name of Rank were not exactly in keeping with his original intention of producing "family-friendly" films (which John Davis had said was company policy) to challenge American competition, he nevertheless kept to his core beliefs. To that end in 1953 he set up the J. Arthur Rank Group Charity to promote Christian belief. The charity later became known as The Rank Foundation. He was a governor of The Peckham Experiment in 1949.
Inspired by his personal knowledge of the Brazilian Fundação Estudar, the Rank Fellowship was created in 2003 by Rank's eldest grandson, Fred Arthur Rank Packard, who became Chairman of the Rank Foundation in 2000. Fred was one of the founders of the Brazilian investment banking firm Banco Garantia, along with Jorge Paulo Lemann, Marcel Telles and Carlos Alberto Sicuperia.
Lord Rank married Nell, and they had two daughters, Shelagh (who was married first to Fred Packard who lived in Hollywood, and then to Robin Cowen) and Ursula (born 1920). He died in March 1972, aged 83, when his baronage title became extinct.
In popular culture
J. Arthur Rank's name was parodied on the PBS children's educational TV show The Electric Company as J. Arthur Crank (voiced and later performed by Jim Boyd), a character wearing a plaid shirt, suspenders and a porkpie hat, who was in a perpetually cranky mood (hence his name) whenever he interrupted sketches to complain when spellings or pronunciations confused him or when he was mistaken for someone else.
- BFI: General Film Distributors Retrieved 2 September 2011
- Brian McFarlane "Davis, John (1906-1993)", BFI screenonline; McFarlane (ed.) Encyclopedia of British Film, London: Methuen/BFI, 2003, p.164
- "The Rank Foundation". The Rank Foundation. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
- "The Bulletin of the Pioneer Health Centre". Peckham. 1 (5). September 1949. Retrieved 21 October 2016.
- "No. 41116". The London Gazette. 2 July 1957. p. 3964.
- "The Rank Fellowship". The Rank Fellowship. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
- "Rank Foundation". Rank Foundation. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
- Electric Company Crank, YouTube
- Electric Company - Morgan Freeman DJ, YouTube
- Michael Wakelin (1997) J.Arthur Rank: The Man Behind the Gong. Oxford: Lion, 1996. ISBN 0-7459-3134-0 (hardcover), ISBN 0-7459-3135-9 (paperback)
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