26 November 2007
The Gong Show
I have been a major fan of British films and television for as long as I can remember. The logo for J Arthur Rank productions of the man hitting a huge gong was familiar even to those who never went to any of the movies, and we will not go into all the jokes with punch lines about "another rank production".
The first time I can remember seeing the gong and J. Arthur Rank Presents was for a delightful movie that I still enjoy: "I Know Where I'm Going". It was made in 1947 so I must have first seen it on early television. It starred a young Wendy Hiller at the beginning of a long list of starring roles that lasted until her retirement in 1992 and final closure with her death in 2003 at the age of 90. During a 60 year career, she was one of the great "Dames" of British film and theater, succeeded now by the likes of Dames Diana Rigg, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren. Hiller won her Best supporting Oscar for another wonderful movie, 1958's Separate Tables.
"I Know Where I'm Going" is boy-meets-girl, but done in a unique way — as a suspense drama as beautifully performed as it is written and directed. Hiller portrays a materialistic young woman who believes that money is the basis for a happy life. Unusual for the time, this early Rank production was true ensemble casting. Even the location and minor village characters play a part when she is stranded on the Isle of Mull by a storm while on her way to The Hebrides to marry an elderly and wealthy industrialist. The storm maroons her for eight days in the company of a naval officer and other residents of the Isle, and for the first time in her life she begins to live with her heart as well as her head. This simple story line is developed with considerable imagination, wit and affection into a pleasant romantic experience.
Practically all of "I Know Where I'm Going" unfolds on the rugged Isle of Mull. So you get wonderful Scottish scenery to go with a delightful movie. The film just oozes atmosphere with the sound of whining wind and the crashing of angry waves on the rocky coast. Much of the song and conversation at a party is carried on in Scots Gaelic, and though unintelligible to most moviegoers, it doesn't detract from the movie because it contributes to the flavor of the place and people.
J. Arthur Rank -- later Lord Rank -- was the most important of an early small fraternity of British film moguls in the 30s and 40s, particularly in terms of the careers that he fostered. By the end of the '30s, he had an interest in key centers of film production, distribution, and exhibition, and in less than a decade, his empire -- known as the Rank Organisation -- controlled half of the theaters in England, and the majority of the production facilities. Much more important than his business achievements, however, were the films whose production he fostered. Rank owned Gaumont British studios, the home to Alfred Hitchcock in the years prior to his departure for America where he made his best British films -- more directly, Rank was responsible for organizing Independent Producers, the production company through which Laurence Olivier and David Lean among many others made some of their most important movies.
So if you see the J Arthur Rank logo on an early black and white film, it is probably worthwhile to stop and watch the gong show.