J. Arthur Rank is one of the most significant figures in British cinema. He was a millionaire flour manufacturer with strong Methodist convictions who started out in the cinema making religious movies to show in chapels and village halls. Within 10 years he had a near monopoly in British film production and ran one of the country's main cinema circuits (Odeon).
Geoffrey Macnab's book charts Rank's rise in the industry and his company's gradual withdrawal from film making. It's a complex story but Macnab picks his way through it skilfully. It's a story of triumphs and missed opportunities.
Rank had the wisdom to know how little he knew about film and the golden age of British film-making in the forties was largely due to his policy of letting producers get on with the job without interference from him. However for every artistic success like The Red Shoes, or low-budget money-maker like The Seventh Veil, there was an appallingly expensive turkey like Caesar and Cleopatra or London Town. With the war over and television starting to keep audiences home, the company was no longer able to sustain film making and shifted into bingo and photocopying.
One of the best features of this book is the way it examines such fascinating cul-de-sacs as The Rank Charm School or the Independent Frame production method. Rank tried so hard to change British film making from a cottage industry to an efficient modern business, and started many initiatives to make the company stable and profitable. None succeeded in the long term.
The book doesn't really get close to J. Arthur Rank as a person, but it does provide a clear guide to the complicated web connecting the production arm of the industry, distribution, and the government. It's good to have a book that concentrates on the business behind film making rather than stars, directors and films. Its only flaw is that it's one of those books that has been spell-checked without being proof-read. There are lots of niggly little errors like "still upper lip" instead of "stiff upper lip". It mars what is otherwise an excellent read.
Price: £13.99, $22.99J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry: available at Amazon UK