Judge George Hatch finds nothing at all rank in this studio biography and no need to have Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine shuffle it away.
"Whatever anyone can say about 'Uncle' Arthur, Arthur Rank, as a serious filmmaker—and there were people who said he didn't know anything—he was responsible for The Golden Age of British Movies. He made it an industry. The studios were going full blast. The actors were working under contract. And it was recognized as a going concern. That was Arthur Rank. Nobody else, he did it."—Sir John Mills
"J. Arthur Rank's greatest contribution was to give people the freedom to make their own films. Companies were formed to make films under the Rank banner."—Michael Caine
The Golden Gong: The Story of Rank Films, "British Cinema's Legendary Studio," is a fascinating and informative documentary about J. Arthur Rank, a flour mogul and devout Methodist, who began putting his millions into short films with religious themes. Drawing only small audiences and losing money, Rank took control of distribution by purchasing the country's largest cinema chain, the Odeons. In 1936, he built Pinewood Studios, "One of the finest and best-equipped studios in Europe…dedicated to British film production and the service of the screen." Now comparable with Hollywood, he wanted a logo, like MGM's roaring lion, and someone suggested, "Bang a gong." After that, every Rank film opened with a huge gong that filled two-thirds of the screen. To the left, a muscular man in a loincloth swung an equally large baton—and the echoing Gong sound announced "A J. Arthur Rank Presentation."
Facts of the Case
The Golden Gong is hosted my Michael Caine and adopts the "talking heads" format interspersed with clips from Rank films. Those heads, however, are quite impressive including directors David Lean, Michael Powell, and Richard Attenborough, actors John Mills, Dirk Bogarde, James Mason, and Stewart Granger, and film historian Peter Noble. They have a lot to tell us, but Caine first takes us on a brief tour of Pinewood's expansive grounds in Hertfordshire pointing out bridges and orchards that "should be recognizable in dozens of films." Too bad we weren't shown a few clips to see how these sites were "altered" for each film. In 1937, Rank bought and annexed Denham Studios with its massive sound stages that eventually housed the largest sets in the world. "Remember Sink the Bismarck! That's the tank where she sank." As expected, the most enlightening comments come from the people who worked at Rank early in their careers.
Especially interesting are the shared recollections of people who worked on the same film. David Lean had been an editor (Pygmalion, Major Barbara) and Second Unit director since 1928, but got his first big break when Noel Coward wanted "a good technician" for his directorial debut, In Which we Serve (1942), a film he also wrote and starred in. Lean recalled, "Fortunately for me, Noel got very bored with the long takes and lighting set-ups. He disappeared to his dressing room during the first three or four weeks of the shoot, and then disappeared altogether unless he was acting in a scene. So I directed the film." John Mills (Waterloo Road and We Dive at Dawn) found Coward and Lean to be a "terrific team. Noel was wonderful directing the actors, and David put the camera in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and shot it beautifully." A very young Richard Attenborough who had a small role in the film said, "Everyone called Noel 'the Master;'" and he surprised me with an interesting historical footnote, "Some of David's work was very revolutionary. A piece of paper floating the water dissolved into close-ups of crewmembers clinging to a lifeboat. I believe the 'ripple-dissolve' had never been used before." Coward and Lean share co-director credit for this film (with Lean getting second-billing), but who was really in charge here: "the Master" or the apprentice?
Film historian Nobel found the early Rank films to be "charming," but frequent star Stewart Granger (who sounds like he's apologizing for his entire career throughout this documentary) thought they were "dreadful and appalling." He admits, however, that films such as Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) were intended as "romantic escapism during the war. They were Barbara Cartland-type costume epics—and I did look gorgeous in all those funny clothes." He's quite accurate as his comment is followed by a scene from The Wicked Lady (1945), a still of which could well have been the cover for one of her bodice-rippers. Stewart appears to take sole responsibility for "nearly bankrupting the studio with their most expensive flop, Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)." The film cost £1,273,000. When people started asking director Gabriel Pascal about going over-budget, he told them, "I'll get Arthur to sell a few more bags of flour."
Michael Powell notes that he had an excellent script from long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, but knew the film wouldn't work without "a real ballerina who could open her mouth and speak the words." Rank found her through the parents of Moira Shearer, the dancer who eventually starred in The Red Shoes (1948). Two extended and dynamic ballet sequences follow Powell's all-too-short interview. Powell was also disgruntled by Britain's cry to "Die for your Country!" while "no one was expected to 'Die for their Art.'" Caine cites that many of Powell's war films were controversial and clips are shown from Forty-Ninth Parallel (1941) and the genuinely spectacular The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Rank, however, was more impressed by films with a message, "ones that carried the themes of heroism and patriotism." With the end of the war and victory in Europe in 1944, he scored a timely coup when he brought Laurence Olivier's production of Henry V into "the Ranks."
In a more gossipy vein, Diana Dors (Oliver Twist, Lady Godiva Rides Again) fills us in on Rank's bizarre Charm School "run by a dreadful harridan of a woman whose only claim to fame was having coached Jean Simmons who was the Number One star at the box-office." When many of his top actors started heading for Hollywood, Rank created the school to groom up-and-comers like Joan Collins and Dirk Bogarde—who soon became the "biggest stars in the Rank firmament." Eschewing "the typical blonde Deborah Kerr image," Rank saw the dark-haired Collins as "a rebel and a beatnik, 'Britain's Bad Girl.'" Bogarde had classic leading-man looks and an introspective acting style, but found himself playing the lead in Rank's rowdy "Doctor" comedies with Doctor in the House (1954) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1958) being the first and last of the series. One of Bogarde's Rank-related stories centers on the "too tight, twice-boiled trousers" he wore in A Tale of Two Cities (1958), "pants I struggled into and tried to keep everything concealed." The director was Ralph Thomas who had helmed three of the exploitative "Doctor" films and obviously wanted to spice-up a classic tale for modern audiences. The advertising department picked up his intentions, but Rank himself "deplored it and every publicity shot released was from the waist up only."
Those familiar with Miss Dors' busty sex appeal will appreciate Caine's wry comment, "If anyone had charm it was Diana Dors. And when she went to Charm School, it flattened out every charm she had for about four years." Hosting from Odeon's flagship theater in Leicester Square, Michael Caine (Dressed to Kill, The Italian Job) does an excellent job segueing facts and his own memories about Rank and Pinewood into those offered by the "talking heads." It's quips like this and the personal reminiscences and revelations that make The Golden Gong: The Story of Rank Films one of the most enjoyable and enlightening documentaries I've seen. We learn that when Rank purchased the Odeon chain (all built by German entrepreneur Oscar Deutsche), he asked what the name meant, and was told, "Oscar Deutsche Entertains Our Country!" Pygmalion (1938) "raked in a small fortune with a single line of dialogue that caused a national scandal: 'Not bloody likely!' 'Bloody' was a forbidden word and people kept coming back just to hear it spoken." Caine even introduces Ken Richmond, the original "hitman," for a behind-the-scenes scoop on the Golden Gong itself. (Richmond, by the way, had a significant role as the wrestler Nikolas in Dassin's film noir classic Night and the City.)
I've touched upon only a handful of topics that have been neatly coordinated and condensed into The Golden Gong's compact 76-minute running time. Koch Vision should be commended for resurrecting this genuinely obscure 1987 documentary. (I couldn't track down a reference to it in either Caine's or Rank's filmographies.) It should be considered an essential addition to their British Film Collection (see Unpublished Story), but surprisingly, wasn't promoted as part of this series. The interviews look quite good, but don't expect the quality of the clips to come close to Rank films that have been meticulously remastered by Criterion such as Henry V, The Red Shoes, or Great Expectations. These restorations, in fact, attest the significance of Rank's contributions to The Golden Age of British Cinema. The clips, however, will inspire you to track down any of the Rank titles you haven't already seen. The Dolby 2.0 Digital is more than adequate, frequently separating Caine's voice-overs to the right speaker while film dialogue can be heard clearly on the left. The DVD package is typically bare bones without even subtitles. A few of the original trailers from these films would have been greatly appreciated but, overall, I found this rare television documentary so substantial in content that I would feel guilty deducting too many points for lack of Extras. And while "Acting" really doesn't apply in this case, I did find the "Story" of Rank Films extremely compelling.
The history of Rank and his films can't be separated from that of Pinewood,
so The Golden Gong becomes a "biography" of the studio as well.
Peter Nobel notes "Pinewood began producing more films than could be
profitably distributed and tried to "crack the American market, but
American studios weren't about to let in an upstart." Attenborough confirms
that Rank "tried to become 'mid-Atlantic' but we lost our individuality and
everything we had." Pinewood itself, however, soon became the "home
base" for international productions, including blockbusters like Superman and the James Bond series.
The Golden Gong is easily on a par with (and often more entertaining
than) the wonderful studio documentaries presented by Turner Classic Movies. As
for J. Arthur Rank the man, two of his actors sum up the spirit and dedication
of a true independent film producer:
Not guilty! Bang a gong for The Golden Gong!
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