The Rank Organisation was a British entertainment company that made films with some of the biggest names of its day. Founded by industrialist J. Arthur Rank in 1937, the company owned production, distribution and exhibition facilities, and worked with the likes of David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
By the late 1940s, Rank had set up The Company of Youth – better known as the ‘Rank Charm School’ – an acting school for young contract performers who were being specifically prepared for stardom on British cinema screens. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many of the country’s biggest stars passed through the school, going on to make their mark in the British film industry and even in Hollywood.
This January, the cinema team at HOME have decided to focus on four of the Charm School’s graduates with a film season that offers a wide view of the industry at the time, but also of the varied ways in which British film stardom presented itself. Across six films, filmgoers can see work from Diana Dors; Jean Simmons; Claire Bloom and Christopher Lee – all different performers, with distinct styles, and their own audience appeal.
The season starts with two Diana Dors performances in films by director J. Lee Thompson – 1954’s The Weak and the Wicked (Sun 7 Jan) and 1956’s Yield to the Night (Tue 9 Jan.) These serious-minded works explore life in women’s prisons and are each based on novels by Joan Henry, herself an ex-prisoner. They showcase Dors’ acting abilities, and reveal her as more than the ‘blonde bombshell’ stereotype that is often affixed to the star.
Next, there are two films featuring the talents of Jean Simmons, both of which were released in 1960. Richard Brooks’ triple Oscar-winning Elmer Gantry (Sun 14 Jan) places Simmons alongside Burt Lancaster, who plays a charismatic salesman who utilises skills to become a successful evangelical preacher. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (Sun 21 Jan) needs little introduction, but is notable here for Simmons’ performance as Variana, which sees her hold her own as the mother to the child of Kirk Douglas’ slave leader.
Doubling up as part of HOME’s Cult strand, on Friday 26 January, audiences are treated to Christopher Lee in the iconic 1958 Hammer horror Dracula. A testament to the range of the talent coming out of the Rank Charm School, Lee went on to huge stardom, and appearances in some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, but will forever be most closely associated with his sophisticated Count Dracula, directed here by Terence Fisher.
The season concludes with Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Sun 28 Jan.) Here actor Claire Bloom once again showcases the Charm School graduates ability to mix it with the biggest and best, as she appears alongside Richard Burton in a tangled plot about a spy caught up in the complex political landscape of post-war Europe.