Obituary: Sir John Davis
Saturday 03 July 1993
It was his determination to reconcile these with the more hit-and-miss business of film production that drove Davis to acquire immense power in the industry - and helped explain his consequential lack of glory. He used to say, with the humility of a Caesar rejecting the offer of a crown, 'I'm not a VIP, just a VOP - Very Ordinary Person.'
Rank certainly made this VOP his number two almost as an afterthought in 1938, on the way back from the bank where the deal had been done that gave the millionaire flour-miller the chain of Odeon cinemas owned by the Birmingham merchant for whom Davis worked. Many tears were later to be shed on the way to the bank, but not by John Davis. They were wept by the people at Pinewood, the Rank Organisation's film studios, as their accountant/chief executive involved himself more and more in production, deciding which films to make, choosing their directors and stars, vetting the finished product and sometimes vetoing it.
Davis shelved an Ian Carmichael comedy, The Big Money, costing the then no small sum of pounds 160,000, after emerging form the screening room to declare it 'too terrible to show'. When, some years later, it crept into town, it proved almost indistinguishable from the general run of other Rank products.
There was certainly nothing daredevil about Davis's creative aspirations. A man of strict financial probity, he was bound to be offended by the laxity, moral as well as fiscal, of the very film business he sought to control. To his orderly mind, stars were a nuisance, potentially more trouble than they were worth (and who knew what that was?). In 1958, when Pinewood still had 26 of this species under contract, he sounded off historically about their whims. 'They say, 'I don't want to live in Britain, but if you want to make a film in France, I will go there for a year.' They lose,' he concluded aggrievedly, 'all sense of proportion.'
They might also lose favour for other reasons that lay deep within the double-breasted 'power-suit' their boss habitually wore. Belinda Lee, then a Rank actress of indeterminate magnitude in the Pinewood galaxy, had been attracting the kind of publicity in Rome that Davis felt unbecoming to a graduate of his studio's charm school. 'She may be under contract to us,' he warned, 'but we cannot be compelled to give her roles - and risk big film budgets - in such circumstances.' There speaks another era, the one before scandal had been eclipsed by the baleful allure of celebrity.
Davis's conscience got particularly active over films that seemed not only bad morality, but bad box-office. Such a one was The Party's Over, originally set among loose-living French existentialists, but later transferred to the 'beat' set of Chelsea. It was financed by Rank. But not only did it at first fail to gain a censor's certificate of any alphabetical brand of approval; Davis vowed it would never play on his cinema circuits. His objection was that what might be permissible in a Continental film, portraying a way of life that was un-British and, anyhow, far enough off to avoid contamination, became dangerous when the goings- on took place in an area of England reachable by anyone for the price of a bus ticket or a scooter ride.
When Rank at last dipped its toe into X-Certificate water, in 1961, with films like No Love for Johnnie and Victim, one dealing with an MP's extra- marital love-life and the other with a barrister's homosexual longings, Davis made sure that his governor-general at Pinewood, a compliant American called Earl St John, spelled out the limits of these departures from middle-class rectitude. 'Such films will be made with good taste and there will be no sensationalism.' There was no box-office, either: which did not altogether please the puritanical Davis. Economic realism eventually mellowed his moralising.
Oddly, he was capable of giving some film-makers the money and then leaving them alone: Powell and Pressburger gratefully returned to Rank's uncomplicated, if stern, rule after experiencing the snares that the wily Korda set for the talent he attracted - and this after Rank had 'killed off' their money-losing production of The Red Shoes. Somewhere in Davis was a hankering for quality; the trouble was, he mistrusted such feelings.
His most controversial - and costly - act was his attempt to 'crack the American market'. Despite the fact that Korda had gone under two decades earlier playing the same game, Davis believed big stars and big pictures could do it for Rank. The solution, as he saw it, was to combine top British names with Continental and American ones in subjects of international appeal. Asked what he had in mind, he nominated The Thirty-nine Steps, a remake of the Hitchcock thriller by Betty Box and Ralph Thomas, to star Kenneth More, Rank's top draw, 'and Hollywood's Taina Elg'. That said it all.
Disillusionment followed upon the financial disaster of would-be blockbusters like Ferry to Hong Kong with which Davis had associated himself closely. He lost his appetite for moguldom. Asked later what exactly he did on the production side, he answered ruefully, 'Far too much.'
He would surely have approved of the way that the Rank Organisation today virtually ignores British film production and prefers to invest in American-made films for the cinemas it still owns in Britain. That, in its way, is the legacy of the man who could read a balance sheet at a glance, but never got movies right.
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