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The Inside Story of Mr. Rank
Everybody's Weekly, February 23, 1952
By Alan Wood
Speaking to his shareholders in October, 1948, J. Arthur Rank quietly told them that bank loans and overdrafts stood exactly at £13,589,858. Within a matter of months he had to say that the Rank Organisation was an additional £2,700,000 'in the red'.
Here, indeed, was the tragic fall from the great plans - made only a few years before - for a grand conquest of world markets by an ever-increasing flow of British films.
What had happened? Sixteen million pounds in debt ... What was there to show for it?
Well, new stars had been created, beginners whose names were to become known all over the globe.
There was young James Mason, for instance. The son of a Huddersfield wool merchant, he had taken a degree in architecture at Cambridge. He made his reputation with The Man in Grey, thanks especially to a scene during which his riing crop belaboured a Miss Margaret Lockwood, daughter of a railway superintendent in Karachi.
And James Labranch Stewart, to be known as Stewart Granger. In 1938 his average earnings were in the region of £3 a week. Five years later, at the age of thirty, he was getting £15,000 a picture, and his fleet of cars included an eight thousand pound Bentley made to order in green and black. J. Arthur Rank had been responsible for that.
Queen Mary's Opinion
What of the films themselves, those which had been backed by Rank? Some had made a fortune. The Wicked Lady, for example. Condemned in disgust by all the critics, it made a great deal of money at the box office, and it is constantly cited by Rank's critics as a triumph of his business instincts over his Methodist principles.
There was certainly considerable consternation when Queen Mary expressed a desire to attend the première.. An operator in the projection box stood by throughout the showing to turn down the sound and make the dialogue inaudible in the less fortunate [more risqué] places; nevertheless, it was feared that some of the actions spoke plainly enough without words. But at the end Queen Mary marched straight up to Rank and said in her direct manner, "A very good film, Mr. Rank, and a fine moral." [Queen Mary was really quite a tough old bird, nowhere near as delicate as people thought at the time]
Rank was highly delighted. "Queen Mary," he said triumphantly, "is the only person to see in th film what I see myself. I only agreed to it because there's a moral in it. You have two pretty girls, Margaret Lockwood and Pat Roc. One of them falls into temptation, and gets shot in the end; the other lives happily. That's the moral. Both girls are pretty, you see; it wouldn't have meant anything if one of them was plain ... Oh yes, I didn't like some of the dialogue ... I didn't know about that ..."
And there were many other things that he knew nothing about when he entered the film industry. "But," he had promised, "I can provide the money."
'The Red Shoes'
He has kept to that pomise with a vengence.
The story of The Red Shoes is particularly instructive to anyone who thinks there re easy answers to the perennial poblems of film finance. The first budget estimate was about £380,000. In the end, The Red Shoes cost over £500,000.
It was s story of miscalculation and overpending to horrify any business man; to be quite candid, it horrified Rank. Moreover, The Red Shoes won no particular success at the box office in England; certainly it came nowhere remotely in sight of recovering its cost. [Hardly surprising as it wasn't given a premiereor much publicity. It was very much a "slow burn" development of its appreciation.] But then came the sequel, just to show how difficult it is to apply ordinary business principles to film production.
We will take the end of the story from the pages of the American show magazine 'Variety'. When it listed the 78 'All Time Top Grosses' in the United States, which had each taken four million dollars or more, 77 names in the list were American (headed by Gone With the Wind, Samson and Delilah and The Best Years of Our Lives).
The other one, and the only imported film, was The Red Shoes, grossing over a million pounds, with only 21 names in front of it. Not only in America, but in Japan and many other countries, The Red Shoes was to prove Rank's biggest money-spinner by far.
The article then goes on to detail the overspending on Caesar and Cleopatra. Initial budget: £250,000, final cost: approx £1,278,000.
It then goes on to give some interesting information about Rank and his partner, Lady Yule ...
It all seems a far cry from those early days when Rank was modestly intent only on financing good religious films. But in the autumn of 1934 a small paragraph had appeared in the papers, announcing the formation of British National Films, with, on the Board, J. Arthur Rank, Lady Yule and John Cornfield.
Lady Yule was Rank's main partner. And a very remarkable partner she was for a simple Yorkshire miller undertaking his first commrcial film venture.
Sir David Yule, a Calcutta jute magnate, left a fortune variously estimated between £20,000,000 and £7,000,000 - perhaps the right figure is about £15,000,000.
In spite of havy death duties, and the fact that much of Sir David's estate was tied up in trusts, Lady Yule was left with a not inconsiderable bank balance; and her financial adviser was Lord Catto, later chairman of the Bank of England.
She herself with her daughter Gladys, was a world-traveller and big game hunter, and her home near St. Albans was adorned by an immense stuffed bear which she shot in the Rockies.
She kept in her garden a seal, several penguins, and a number of wallabies; she set up an institution in the South of France for the care of worn-out or ill-treated animals [before Bardot]; and when she bought a racing stable her jockeys had orders never to use the whip.
After she decided to add films to her other hobbies, and she came together with J. Arthur Rank in British National, it meant more substantial and respectable backing than British films had ever had before.
Lady Yule and Rank made a curious combination. She had at least one thing in common with him, teetotalism. But, to Lady Yule, films were no more than an interesting hobby - rather on a par with the International Horse Show, which she helped to subsidise. Her life after her husband died was a perpetual battle against bordom, and films were her latest diversion, though there was an ill defined patriotic flavour to her motives as well; the ideal, to use the modern jargon, of projecting the British way of life.
She was openly disinterested in whether British National made a profit or a loss; and when business was discussed at Board meetings, she would yawn, light a cigarette, and turn the other way. Rank, on the other hand, was immediately fascinated by the commercial implications of this strange new industry. "The thing's colossal," said Rank, "there are millions in it. It's like making things for Woolworths." "I wish," retorted Lady Yule, "we could make things for Aspreys." *
[* Famous purveyors of things beautiful in Bond Street, London.]
[Lady Yule, with The Red Shoes, you helped create a gem.]
On Equal Terms
Once there was an open flare-up of bad temper. After he came into British National, Rank naturally asked that the religious films it made for him should be at cost, not at cost plus a percentage. Corfield agreed immediately but Lady Yule looked up, "You believe in Christianity with 5 per cent., don't you, Mr. Rank?" Rank flushed in a moment's anger, but he did not answer back. The very rich are rarely used to people being rude to them : it was a novel situation, both for Rank and Lady Yule, to meet someone on terms of financial equality.
Whatever Lady Yule's attitude, Rank was automatically businesslike in his approach, and ready to apply the ordinary principles of factory management which he had learnt in flour-milling. And the next thing that struck him was the waste involved in making films at a studio with only one stage, so that all shooting had to be stopped whenever a new set had to be put up. He had talked it over with Cornfield. "All the studios in the country are obsolete, anyhow," said Rank. "Why don't we build a new one?" "No reason at all," said Cornfield, "except £750,000 or so."
First Religious Film
Looking back the crucial point in Rank's film career can be placed in 1935, when British National had its first film ready for showing. It was Rank's first religious film of any impressive length. The title Turn of the Tide proved prophetic. Rank naturally took a special interest in the film as it showed the kind of Yorkshire fishing village which he knew well as a boy. It was a good film, all the critics praised it, and to Rank's pride and delight it won third prize at a Film Festival in Venice. So far so good; but nothing sensational. To Rank's mortification, his prize film had difficulty in even getting a showing on the ordinary commercial circuits in Britain. Rank was not amused at all, and his resentment was to shape the future of British films.
The exact story is obscured, after this lapse of time by the conflicting memories of some of the participants.
In what follows I can only present an assortment of first-hand accounts, with a warning that it is not known if the details conform to strict historical accuracy. But it appears that Turn of the Tide went into production following an arrangement with Gaumont-British Distributors, whereby it was to have a London première, and British National were to have 25 per cent. of the gross takings, less cost of copies and a certain provision for advertising.
Difficulties arose, however, over booking terms on the Gaumont-British circuit of cinemas : Corfield approached Mark Ostrer, as head of the Gaumont theatre interests, and said he was acting for Mr. J. Arthur Rank. "I've never heard of him," said Ostrer, "and I don't want to hear of him."
Men With Whip Hand
At one stage Rank himself had a lunch with one of the Ostrers, at which Turn of the Tide was offered a showing on the G.B. circuit as a supporting feature for a flat fee of £7,000, and Rank insisted on a percentage basis. In spite of a London première, the returns for Turn of the Tide were very poor : it had cost, according to one estimate, just over £30,000; and on its first release it probably brought in, altogether, less than half that sum.
The episode certainly ended with an angry Rank trying to get Turn of the Tide the best showing he could from the independent exhibitors.
He had learnt the fundamental fact about the British film industry : that the men with the whip hand are not the producers who make the films, but the middlemen who buy them and sell them. What was the use of making a film if it never got a showing? What was the use of having an interest in a production company, what was the use of having ideas about fine new studios at Pinewood, if it rested with a few men in Wardour Street to dictate whether the public ever saw your films at all?
In His Own Hands
Moreover, now he came to look into it, he found the extent to which the British film industry was dominated by the Hollywood product occupying 80 per cent. of screen time. His father had fought against Britain being fed by American flour. Arthur Rank objected to the idea of Britain being fed mainly on a diet of American films.
Subsequent events have been compared to the story of the millionaire who, piqued at being refused a room in a crowded hotel, promptly bought the hotel itself. Before his anger over Turn of the Tide was finally spent, Rank had bought the whole Gaumont-British circuit, and much else besides. He could only see one answer : he must become his own distributor and exhibitor too, or no one might ever see them.
"I decided," he said afterwards, "that the film business had got into the hands of the wrong people." He, Arthur Rank, would get it out of their hands and into his own.
In next week's issue we read of Ranksteadily building up his 'Film Empire', but being caught unawares by a war he never expected and drastic Government restrictions.
(Taken from 'Mr. Rank' by Alan Wood. To be published in the summer by Hodder and Stoughton.)