THE AMAZING MR. RANK
The story of a Yorkshire Sunday-school teacher who put Britain’s movie industry into the money
ONE Saturday morning in May, 700 school children from Toronto’s Dufferin-Eglinton district paid their usual 12 cents at the box office of the Colony Theatre and went in for their weekly movie treat.
On that particular Saturday the program was something special: the opening of the first Odeon
children’s club in Canada, accompanied by greetings from 350,000 English movie club children to their Canadian cousins.
Bringing these greetings was a tall, avuncular Englishman, who stood woodenly behind the microphone, swaying uneasily on his wide-planted feet, holding his hands behind his back when he wasn’t using them in stiff, awkward gestures. He spoke simply, in a non-Oxonian, not-too-ripe English accent, expressing the hope that Canadian and English youngsters “may know more about each other and be one big happy family,” and winding up with a benevolent, “May God bless you all.”
In his striped navy-blue suit, with an old-fashioned watch chain across his waistcoat, he looked to the children like a Sunday-school teacher—which he is.
To the motion picture representatives at the back of the theatre and from there all the way to Hollywood, J. Arthur Rank, in spite of his staunch religious principles, looked more like a delegate, first class, from mammon. For movie men on this continent, who had never met Arthur Rank till this summer, knew all sorts of things about him that don’t show—that he’s a multimillionaire—that he’s also the Croesus and the Midas, rolled into one, of the British film industry —that Hollywood, which depends mainly on him for a market equal to the sum total of its profits, regards him as a “man of mystery” and fears him as a possible aspirant to the position of film dictator.
Judging by his appearance, no movie producer would ever cast Arthur Rank for any of those roles.
He’s a big man, six feet four and slow moving, neither fat nor thin, handsome nor ugly. His large face reveals so little of brilliance or even shrewdness that many people feel his bland expression is a mask. His manner is pleasant in a benevolent way, as though he were always talking to children, which he enjoys doing. When he smiles his hazel eyes twinkle under dark, heavy brows, his thin-lipped mouth goes into curlicues at the comers. Most impressive of his features are his large bent nose and enormous oyster-shaped ears which are regarded by some schools of thought as
indications of ability and character and which, in Arthur Rank, quite probably are.
Rank’s background is simple English. His grandfather was a miller in Yorkshire; his father, the founder of the Rank fortunes, started with a little windmill in the Yorkshire wolds and built it into one of the largest milling concerns in the British Empire.
Arthur, one of six children, was born in Hull on Dec. 22,1888. In spite of being a rich man’s son he attended a regular Yorkshire Grammar School, went on to a Wesleyan Methodist boys’ school and started work in his father’s mill, at the age of 17, dressing the old-fashioned millstones.
In the last war he enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Artillery, was promoted to sergeant, recommended for an officer’s course and emerged as a captain at the end of the war.
It was during the war that Arthur Rank met Canadians for the first time. He gained a high opinion of them. “I saw them at Ypres during the first gas attack,” he reminisces. “They were all that stood between the Germans and the road to Calais, and they wrapped their puttees round their mouths and advanced. Whenever I see a Canadian I think of that.”
Now that he’s met Canadians in their own country he regards them as “very like the English but a little kinder, if possible.”
Rank broke into the movies not through stage or vaudeville, but by way of the Methodist Sunday school. Teaching none-too-attentive children gave him this idea: “Children don’t like to be talked at for half an hour, so why not put the Bible stories into pictures—pictures that could be shown in church?”
Having thought of that Arthur Rank proceeded to carry it out promptly. He wrote his own scenario and directed his own picture, which was the inspirational story of a minister in the East End of London. The result was weak, and Arthur Rank, eyeing his opus like a professional, decided, “You can’t expect people to sit through poorer stuff in church than they see at the cinema.”
His next step was to start a company which produced a half-fictional, half-documentary picture called “The Turn of the Tide,” which dealt with a feud between two Yorkshire families. In approved movie fashion the feud was untied at the end. This picture, a minor success, led to the founding of British National, in co-operation with Lady Yule, a company that is still in existence. From there Rank proceeded to collaborate with C. M. Woolf, his managing director, in the development of General Film Distributors. Rank dates his film-making career from the beginning of that association.
“I learned from Woolf all I know about films,” he says. He still wears Continued on page 26
The Amazing Mr. Rank
Continued from page 11
Woolf’s watch, “which was given to me by his boys after he died.”
All this time Arthur Rank’s main business was milling. With his brother James he managed the Rank mills, the largest and richest in England, capitalized at $30 millions. He was also on the board of 13 other milling concerns and had a string of interests that ranged from life insurance to milk bars. Included were several publishing firms and Methodist newspapers.
It was inevitable that once in the film industry Rank should see what was wrong with it, then decide what money, influence and business acumen could do for it. Up to the middle thirties British film companies were in the poor position of being able to finance only one picture at a time, and of going on the rocks if that picture failed. Rank changed all that. He acquired a largescale outlet for pictures by buying a controlling interest in 650 theatres of the Gaumont British and Odeon chains; achieved an American tie-up by acquiring 25% of Hollywood’s Universal stock, thereby making himself the largest shareholder.
What Arthur Rank knew about the actual making of movies was practically nothing, and even after 12 years he’s little more than a spectator on the lot. His first approach to films—using them to point a moral—was not a promising one, but he knew something that few moralists know: “If you give people morals you’re not playing fair with them. Give them entertainment and something else as well.”
He checks every script to make certain there’s nothing undesirable in it. “We will never produce any picture which will do any social harm”—he’s firm on that point—“or upset any religious conviction.” His interpretation of that code is a broad and very un-Methodist one. “Fanny by Gaslight,” for example, could not pass the Hays office and was badly mutilated for its Canadian showing, but it measured up to Arthur Rank’s yardstick because, although it dealt with illegitimacy, it did not make the subject attractive.
Most of the better British movies shown in Canada are from the Rank studios. Among them are “In Which We Serve” and “This Happy Breed.” Coming up are “Henry V” and “Anthony and Cleopatra.” None of the ideas for these pictures originated with Rank himself; but he believes in employing good producers and letting them go their way, even to the extent of playing about with his money.
For example, he was shown the “Henry V” script, told how it would be done, told it would be expensive. Although he did not expect a box-office success—Paramount’s Carlton Theatre in London was taken for four weeks only—he believed it would be a great prestige film for British industry. He let his men go ahead on a scale that Hollywood would call supercolossal, with Laurence Olivier as producer and star, with “almost all the horses of the Irish Constabulary,” and “battle scenes that top De Mille.”
His recklessness paid off. Opening with tw'o fixed shows a day, “Henry V” soon added a special morning performance, a departure almost unheard of in London. This was to cope with the crowds. Instead of showing for four weeks the picture, which opened last November, is still drawing capacity houses. Schools and other educational organizations begged for special showings. Lord Halifax sent a request for a print for President Roosevelt to see.
Rank is equally open-minded in his
choice of talent, is said to employ “all nationalities, not excluding the American,” and is always willing to give a foreigner a chance. His keyman is an Italian, Delguidice by name, who is described vaguely as “a sort of organizer” and is credited with being responsible for some of the studio’s best pictures, including “Henry V.”
Rank’s newest star is Greta Gynt, a Norwegian actress. His Hollywood imports include Producer Wesley Ruggles and Actor Claude Rains, who was brought over in the middle of the buzz-bombing to play the lead in “Anthony and Cleopatra.” His payroll includes a Canadian, onetime Toronto artist, Brian Desmond Hurst, who is now a producer. He aims, when Europe settles down, to exchange stars with France.
High Life Is Not for Him
Whatever gay life there may be among his galaxy of stars, Arthur Rank plays very little part in it. His social appearances at the movie colony consist of receiving guests with Mrs. Rank at previews, and of offering his friends a drink but never taking one himself.
He smokes, admitting shamefacedly to 15 cigarettes a day, which he regards as excessive. He plays a good game of golf with a handicap of seven, takes brief holidays in the shooting season at his country place in Hampshire, is said to be a good shot and loves the sport. His other house is in Reigate, where he lives with his wife, who was formerly the Hon. Laura Ellen Marshall, daughter of Lord Marshall of Chipstead, and their two daughters, Ursula, who was a driver in the ATS, and Sheillagh, who went overseas as a signal officer.
Like most spectacularly successful men, Rani likes work and has what many of his associates regard as an almost inhuman capacity for it. He begins the day with breakfast at eight, a meal he usually turns into a conference by having it with some business acquaintance. Wherever he goes he carries four expanding brief cases, knows what is in each one and its exact position, opens them up in any spare moment on trains or even in hotel lobbies and begins to work. Several times a week he is on the job till three or four in the morning; and he stayed at his desk right through the flying bomb attacks in London, much to the dismay of his staff, who felt they had to stay too.
During wartime, picturemaking in England has been no easy job, yet it was during that period mainly that Rank gave a large hoist to the standard of British pictures. He did this in spite of the fact that he could get no new cameras, that his studio at Denham was bombed and his newsreel studio wiped out by a direct hit. For much of his talent he had to apply to the Government to get actors released from the armed services. For every yard of fabric used he had to wangle coupons from the Board of Trade. All along he has been short of raw film and other materials.
Yet whatever there was to get, Arthur Rank got it, for the British Government holds a bright postwar hope in his film operations. Arthur Rank set out to put British films on the global map and he’s doing just that. As controller of 60% of British outlets for U. S. f’ms, he probably could dictate any terms he wished to Hollywood, and even insist on a British film quota if he thought it wise.
In Canada he has bought a half interest in the Odeon chain, plans to build in Toronto and other main cities what will be some of the finest picture houses on the continent. He also
intends to produce nature films and other small-scale pictures here. Recently he made a reciprocal deal with French Gaumont. He has arranged distribution for British films in Australia, South Africa, Egypt and India. His company was one of the first to go into China in an organized way, and has exchanged films with the Soviet Union.
Wherever he goes Rank builds up good will as well as markets by making his deals on a 50-50 partnership basis.
His Father’s Spirit Helped
As a tycoon Arthur Rank did not start from scratch. It probably helped that his father was a man of spirit— during the last war, when nine of his mills had been bombed flat to the ground, he said, “Well, Arthur, when it’s over we’ll build better mills.”
It probably helped, too, that his father was a multimillionaire.
Yet he has a quality of his own that probably would have made him a success in any circumstances. In spite of his money and his unceasing drive after more money, Rank reminds one not a little of one of J. B. Priestley’s more benign characters. There is a North Country simplicity and kindliness about him which expresses itself in such unspectacular ways as teaching Sunday school, in being fond of children and helping them to grow into good citizens without making the process too painful.
His Junior Movie Clubs are an outgrowth of this kindly interest. They are nonprofit - making organizations —all the money that’s made on the programs is turned back for the production of more and better children’s films.
His ideas may be definitely those of a Sunday-school teacher, but his execution of them is masterly show business. He knows that children like nature films, adventure stories, “movies with evil getting the worst of it,” stories written round some simple rule of conduct, such as honesty. He knows,
too, that the moral can’t be labored, that the film mustn’t have an aroma of school about it.
To make each Saturday morning show more than just another movie, he has the children themselves take part. Each Club has junior members of the board who act as stewards, maintain discipline, find out what kinds of films their contemporaries like best. Eaqh also has outside activities which include football, swimming and other sports, war work, welfare work, such as “adopting” leper children, hobby groups for young photographers and stamp collectors, special concerts for juvenile performers.
Rank himself talks to the children, offers them tempting opportunities to display their own talents “by having a concert party and showing how clever you are,” and holds out the enticing possibility that they may one day travel to other parts of the Empire and meet their cousins in other Junior Clubs.
He holds their interest in his talks by working on the same fundamental theory that they like to take part. In Toronto they sang for him—“There’ll Always Be An England,” followed by “I Love Canada.” They recited the Club Promise:
“I promise to tell the truth, to help others and obey my parents.
“I promise to be thoughtful of old folks, to be kind to animals and always play the game.
“I promise to try and make this great country of ours a better place to live in.”
It is said this side of Arthur Rank baffles Hollywood not a little. They couldn’t understand why he came to Canada first, why he lingered here when there was big business to be done in the U. S. The explanation might be that Rank, still a Sunday-school teacher at heart, is such very big business himself that he can afford to do what he likes.