J. Arthur Rank, 1st Baron Rank

Joseph Arthur Rank, 1st Baron Rank (December 22 1888 – March 29 1972) was a British industrialist and film producer, and founder of the Rank Organisation, now known as The Rank Group Plc.

Family business

Joseph Arthur Rank was born on December 23 1888 at Kingston upon Hull in England into a Victorian family environment, which was dominated by his father Joseph 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).

Religious challenge

J. Arthur 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 Corefield, he discussed both the problem and a solution with Lady Annie Henrietta 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, J. Arthur 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 J. Arthur Rank while John Corfield resigned from its board of directors.

Commercial challenge

The problems encountered in the distribution of "Turn of the Tide" were addressed when J. Arthur 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 1936 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 (father of Sir John Woolf), for the purpose of creating the General Cinema Finance Corporation (GCFC). They then used that company to buy out General Film Distributors, who were the UK distributors for Universal Pictures.

Rank Organisation

In 1937 J. Arthur Rank began to consolidate his movie interests in both the Pinewood Film Studios and the Denham Film Studios and other interests within a new company called the Rank Organisation. In 1938 the Rank Organisation bought the Odeon cinema chain). In 1938 the Rank Organisation bought Amalgamated Studios in Elstree and in 1941 it absorbed the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation who owned 251 cinemas and the Lime Grove Studios (which the Rank Organisation later sold to BBC Television.) It also bought the Paramount cinema chain so that by 1942 the Rank Organisation owned 619 cinemas. He was succeeded as Chairman by Sir John Davis, upon his retirement. A more complete history is found under the Rank Organisation from 1937 to 1996 and The Rank Group Plc which absorbed the Rank Organisation in 1996.


During the 1940s, J Arthur Rank produced some of the finest films ever made in Great Britain, including: The Red Shoes, Hamlet, Henry V, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcisus, The Rake's Progress, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and many more.

From the 1950s fewer adventurous films were attempted and solidly commercial ventures, largely aimed at the family market, were made instead. These includes the popular Norman Wisdom comedies, The various Doctor... films and, later on, the Carry On films. However some films of note were produced during this era including: Carve Her Name With Pride, Sapphire an Victim, as well as a clutch of prestige topics such as the coronation of Elizabeth II and filmed performances by The Royal Ballet.

Core interests

Although his critics claimed that many of the films that he had produced under the name of J. Arthur Rank were not exactly in keeping with his original intention of producing "family-friendly" movies to combat crass American commercial interests, 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. [http://www.rankfoundation.com]

Baron Rank

In 1957 J. Arthur Rank was raised to the Peerage, being created Baron Rank, of Sutton Scotney in the County of Hampshire. (Sutton Scotney is a small village between Andover and Winchester in Hampshire.) He was married to Nell, and they had two daughters, Shelagh - married first to Fred Packard (lived in Hollywood)and then to Robin Cowen - and Ursula (born 1920). [ [http://www.rankfoundation.com Rank Foundation] ]

Popular Culture

Rank's infamous opening of his films, depicting a man in a toga hitting a gong, has been spoofed a few times over the years.

*A Muppet parody, J Arthur Link, showed Muppet pig Link Hogthrob in the toga. He swings at the gong, misses, spins around losing his balance, and hits the gong with his head.
* In the final Get Smart episode, "I Am Curiously Yellow," Maxwell Smart is hypnotized by a gong. When a villain named The Whip asks whether Smart knows who he is, Smart responds: "J. Arthur Rank?"
* In the Gilligan's Island episode, "Castaway Pictures Presents," the opening of the film the castaways make to try to get rescued shows Gilligan in island garb hitting a gong that says "Castaway Pictures Presents". While the gong noise occurs, Gilligan shakes and vibrates instead of the gong.
*In the Bonzo Dog Band recording of The Intro and the Outro, the band line up includes ‘J Arthur Rank on gong’.
*The live Smiths album's title, "Rank", is, according to lead singer Morrissey, an allusion to the cockney slang.
*In the film "Carry On Up the Khyber" there is a scene where a servant sounds a gong. Kenneth Williams' character denounces this as "rank stupidity".
*The American children's television program "The Electric Company" featured the character J. Arthur Crank, played by Jim Boyd.
*In the show Grace & Favour when Captain Peacock says to Mr Humphries please sound the gong he replies 'Would you like a J Arthur Rank or.....'.
*During a scene in the film Austin Powers in Goldmember, Nigel Powers asks his son Austin Powers why he didn't have a "J. Arthur", with subtitles clarifying the meaning of this question.
*In the play "Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun" by John McGrath, one character (a soldier) says of another, who is lying on a bunk while they are in a guardhouse: "He's having a crafty Johnny Arthur!". (Artistic licence has obviously been used, since Lord Rank's first name was actually "Joseph".) In the 1968 film of the play (directed by Jack Gold), this line was replaced. According to the British satirical magazine "Private Eye", this was because the British distributor was the Rank Organisation, and Lord Rank objected to his own name being used as slang for the solitary vice!


Dave Windass, a playwright from Kingston upon Hull, has received a grant from Arts Council England to research and write a play about J. Arthur Rank. [cite news |first=Charles |last=Hutchinson |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=New play about great Yorkshireman J Arthur Rank |url=http://www.thepress.co.uk/news/1105346.new_play_about_great_yorkshireman_j_arthur_rank/ |work=The Press (York) |publisher= |date=Friday 5th January 2007 |accessdate=2008-08-01 ]


*Michael Wakelin (1997) "J.Arthur Rank: The Man Behind the Gong". Oxford : Lion, 1996. ISBN 0745931340 (hardcover), ISBN 0745931359 (paperback)

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