The Gong Show

Ken Richmond died in August 2006. The name didn’t ring a bell—a moan-inducing pun as you will soon see—but the image accompanying his obituary certainly did. He was the gongmeister who, with great solemnity and sobriety, announced the beginning of J. Arthur Rank movies. Actually, has anyone given the J. Arthur Rank logo a thought in the last few decades? Richmond’s obituary was a reminder. Nor was he the only gong man. Who knew or even imagined that there was more than one? But he was the last one and with his death, something else besides his life came to an end. In case you don’t recall, although if you’ve seen the logo once, there’s no way that you wouldn’t remember it, there’s a huge gong of what looks like hammered brass in the middle of the frame. A well-developed, well-oiled muscle man, wearing nothing more than a Tarzan-like diaper, lifts a mallet that looks like it weighs a ton with both hands and with a gravity and a sense of purpose, strikes the gong twice. The gong reverberates and the title J. Arthur Rank comes on the screen.

You know you’re in safe hands. It will be a quality film. It’s like the MGM logo—once it appears on the screen, you know you can expect quality entertainment, even if, five minutes into it, it turns out to be just another movie. It’s the case of expectation trumping experience, when the logo promises more than the product can deliver. [Image 1; click or see below]

There’s even more hope for the film if the logo is in color. Moody chiaroscuro emphasizing the pock-marked nature of the gong, the man with the mallet half-hidden in shadow, a pleated burgundy-colored curtain, perhaps velvet, behind the gong, the man, with skin tones similar to the coloring of the gong. Magic! Until, of course, proven otherwise. [Image 2, Image 3]

The exoticism of the logo extended beyond the fact that Rank movies were British movies and I was a mere American. It was, I suspect, exotic for English people as well. Intentional or not, the logo suggests empire, the far reaches of colonialism, the brute strength of natives of a certain color—the model was dipped in a bronze-colored make-up—performing a ritual that had repercussions more serious than a call to dinner. It had a scent of skullduggery in ancient and faraway places, initiation into arcane rituals, evil potentates and captive harem girls, villains wearing turbans and brandishing scimitars, incense and Ali Baba’s cave, Scheherazade and opulent languor, the death of Sardanapolis—Arabian Nights, the Raj, Gordon in Khartoum, Anna and the King of Siam, Lawrence of Arabia. Bug-eyed notions of orientalism and exoticism firing on all cylinders. The Rank man and his gong in his twelve seconds on screen suggest all this and much more. The Empire in its shining hour. A multi-purpose, free floating signifier with no specific meaning but with the unmistakable suggestion that the British Empire upon which the sun promised never to set will inevitably carry on. Conquest, adventure, subjugation, romantic surrender, riches beyond imagining, fealty, and wonderment. Of course, India broke free of the British Empire in 1947 and dozens of colonies and protectorates in the commonwealth peeled off shortly thereafter. But even after the Empire declined, the logo, and everything it brought to mind remained, albeit slightly faded. Slow-moving ceiling fans in tropical hotel lobbies sprinkled with bamboo furniture and down-on-their-luck Europeans nursing gin and tonics. Stiff upper lips, pith helmets and all that.

So, in August 2006, Ken Richmond, the last of the gong-strikers died at the age of 80. Another reminder that yet another era had come to an end, although the Rank Organization had stopped producing movies in 1980. One is a little surprised to see that this otherwise obscure peripheral footnote of a dying industry is even remembered enough to rate an obituary. Certainly, the filmgoer in me, who never gave it a thought, that that mythical logo which seemed to be part of the natural order of things was actually produced, as opposed to found in nature, and that the man who struck the gong was a human being like any other and had a life apart from the logo he inhabited. It was also strange to think that the logo had a story of its own, and to discover a new little rivulet leading nowhere in the world of movie-lore.

It’s not exactly film history. If it’s gossip at all, it’s a below-the-radar level of gossip, and it’s probably of no interest to anyone. It’s not nostalgia, although it might have elements of that in it. And it is certainly not a tea-soaked Madeleine. So what is it? The birth and death of a logo that once had a hold on us? Sure proof that time is passing? Another sign that the artifacts of childhood which had no intrinsic value at the time are vanishing and thereby acquiring inestimable significance? Or just another set of factoids to be stored in your gray matter, vying for space with a million other useless, unilluminating but strangely compelling factoids?

In the mid-30s, J. Arthur Rank, a flour mogul and a devout Methodist, started producing religious films. When he wasn’t pleased with the way they were distributed and exhibited, he formed his own distribution company. For that, he needed a logo. Originally he wanted a wolf, to rival MGM’s lion, but good wolves were hard to find. Obviously lions were, too, since there are several recognizably different lions over the years garlanded by the MGM Ars Gratis Artis ribbon of film. He ultimately decided on a man banging on a gong. In addition to buying out other distribution companies, he acquired chains of movie theaters and also bought studios. He was now in complete control of all the means of film production, distribution and exhibition.

The first gong man was Carl Dane, a 6’5” circus strongman. He had been part of a circus acrobatic act in which he was billed as “Boy Hercules.” One of his famous strong-man stunts was to pull a London double-decker bus with his teeth. Talking about the bronze make-up that they generously lathered over his whole body, basically blackface, Danes said, “The perspiration would make it streak and we’d have to start all over again.” No one seems to be quite sure when his image as the gong-striker was retired but he did indicate that he understood the importance of the image. “That one episode has haunted me my whole life. But I just did it for the money.”

He was replaced by “Bombardier” Billy Wells (1887–1967), a 6’1” heavyweight boxer who had a beer named after him [Image 4]. He also owned a famous pub called Bombardier. He was obviously a big movie fan as well. He had uncredited bit parts in Hitchcock’s The Ring (1927), King Vidor’s The Citadel (1938), George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1941), Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale (1944). His apotheosis in the movies, aside from being one of the designated gong men, was playing the hangman in Peter Brooks’ The Beggar’s Opera (1953) with Laurence Olivier. He was retired from gong duty in 1948. Obviously, the company felt that its logo needed a new representative every several years, just as the MGM lion had to be replaced every so often, although MGM, as we shall see, was less fickle than J. Arthur Rank. All logos, it seems, or so the heads of the companies they represent seem to think, have to be updated at a certain point even though the public remains fond of the image because the images seem so permanent and unchangeable. The consumer feels secure with a good logo should feel like those steles from outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey—unchanging, inevitable, eternal. The public doesn’t want their familiar images tampered with. There was a time that the logo was so well known that 94% of the British population could identify it. For a certain generation, that figure probably still applies.

The third gong-guy was Phil Niewman, a movie extra about whom very little is known. He served from 1948 to 1954, when he was replaced by Ken Richmond, the fourth and final gongman. [Image 5]

Richmond, 6’2”, was an Olympic wrestling champ who won a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling in Helsinki in 1952. He participated in the Melbourne Olympics and won a gold medal in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver and a bronze in Auckland in 1950. Like Billy Wells, he, too was clearly bitten by the movie bug, perhaps because he grew up in a house near Rank’s Pinewood Studios. He worked as an extra in Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945). Richmond posed for the logo in 1954 for a one-time only payment of £100. He said that his favorite roles say in which movie (the most likely candidate would be Caesar and Cleopatra [1946]) and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1951), in which he had a not insubstantial role as Nikolas, a proponent of Greco-Roman wrestling. He was quite convincing and natural in the role. His good looks and ease in front of the camera suggest that he might have had some kind of acting career had he been interested in pursuing it. [Image 6, Image 7, Image 8]

Despite the sport he excelled in, he was a lifelong pacifist and even spent several months in jail at the end of WWII as a conscientious objector. He became a Jehovah’s Witness and spent two years as a missionary in Malta. Ultimately, he gave up wrestling because his religious work left him insufficient time for the sport. In his late sixties, he took up windsurfing in which he excelled and for which he won medals. If they ever make a film of his life, Gregory Peck should play him. [Image 9]

Rank as a production company went out of business in 1980, but their salad days were far behind them even then. The glories of The 39 Steps, Henry V, Hamlet, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus were already part of history rather than the recent past. And the recent past was none too prestigious, either. In the last 25 years or so of its existence it was known as the company that produced the very popular and indestructible Carry On … series. The Rank Organization carries on today mostly as a real estate holding company which owns casinos and hotels. Its most recognizable asset is the global Hard Rock Café franchise.

The least surprising factoid about the gong was that it was made out of papier-mâché. In a world where the only reality is that created by artifice, why would that be a surprise? The gong sounds were recorded by a famous percussionist, James Blades, who had worked with Benjamin Britten and also created the “V for Victory” Morse code used by the BBC during the war. He recorded the gong on a 2-feet in diameter Chinese instrument called a tam tam. The disparate elements that are yoked together to make the 12 second logo is standard operating procedure for the factory of dreams—a sound is recorded in one place and by someone other than the unnecessarily muscular gong striker and is married to a silent image—to create a new synthesis. Sound from here, an image from there, a prop that is only a simulacrum of another prop, a muscle man who only appears to be striking a gong—illusion, illusion, illusion. Any word as to the whereabouts of the five-foot in diameter papier-mâché gong and the accompanying mallet? Are they heavily guarded prizes in some movie-mad collector’s trophy room? Are they languishing in some dusty, cobwebbed corner in a long-forgotten studio storage room? Or has the papier-mâché long ago succumbed to the disintegration such fragile items are subject to? Or, worst of all, were the gong and the mallet long ago consigned to a trash bin in the days when such objects had no intrinsic much less sentimental value?

In September 2006, a £1,000,00 question asked on the British game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? was “Which boxer was famous for striking the gong in the introduction to J. Arthur Rank films?—a ) Bombardier Billy Wells, b) Freddy Mills, c) Terry Spings, or d) Don Cockrell.” Well, now you and I, dear reader, know the correct answer and we could have, had we been the contestant, gotten the correct answer and the money. It could have been trickier if they had named all four gong men and asked which one was second or which one was third. But they didn’t. So, in the best of all possible worlds, this information does or at least, for one brief moment, did have value.

Just in case you have any ambition to be a contestant on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? sometime in the future, some of the MGM lions’ names are Slats, Jackie, and Tanner—not a Leo among them. Jackie was the black and white lion in all the films from 1928 through 1956, Tanner was the color lion, from 1938 through 1956. (For mind-numbing minutiae on the detailed history of the MGM lions, go to the Wikipedia and check out “Leo the Lion.”) Each of the lions had a longer run than all the gong men put together. Obviously, MGM was a less fickle client and had considerable more loyalty to its lions than J. Arthur Rank did to his gong men.

Maybe we should start backwards and work our way forwards. Start with the history of props, anecdotes, details, artifacts, all the stuff that it’s almost a guilty pleasure to read about or know about or think about—in a word, the dreck of movie making. A different kind of history, history through the back door—the apple’s story, told from the point of view of the worm. Or how the material world really defines the world of movies, which is after all a very mechanical process and very much grounded in the world of actual things. Ideas come later. “No ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams said. Marianne Moore echoes and embroiders on the sentiment—“real toads in imaginary gardens.” They were talking about poetry but they could just as well have been talking about movies.

Many years ago, I saw a German documentary by Harmut Bitomsky called Reichsautobahn (1986) which examines Nazism from what, at first, seems to be the wrong end of the telescope—the history of the autobahn as an expression of Nazism. Literally, a concrete expression of Nazi ideology, rather than the other way around. It is a different perspective into a history that, even though nowhere near exhausted, has, at this point, more new facts than new insights to offer. It suggested, rather, a new way of revisiting old information with a fresh eye. Who knows, maybe this way of working—from small things to larger ones is a way in which a history can be more precisely categorized, defined, organized, re-organized and re-defined.

Consider this. When Lana Turner, not yet a star, made The Adventures of Marco Polo in 1938, they shaved off her eyebrows for the part. The eyebrows never grew back in. It’s very doubtful that she was in any way compensated for this sacrifice she made for her career—or her art. However, her non-existent eyebrows or, rather, her painted-on eyebrows, became very much a part of her image and the commodity that subsequently became known as Lana Turner, the glamour puss. When Oliver Reed made The Devils (1971) and Ken Russell wanted him to have his hair and eyebrows shaved off, the producers took out £250,000 insurance, just in case his eyebrows didn’t grow back in, which they did. Was the potential loss of Reed’s of more critical and of more cultural interest than Turner’s? Or was he more famous, than she was, when he had it done? Would anyone, even Reed himself, have cared if his eyebrows never grew back in? Or was it a publicity stunt? Ultimately, without sounding too much like Parker Tyler or, rather, Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge as Parker Tyler’s most devoted acolyte, the significance of Lana Turner’s cosmetically applied eyebrows is a much more meaningful event in film-lore than the removal and potential loss of Oliver Reed’s.

Or consider this—the role of the bellybutton in movies. In the 40s, even “love goddesses” like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, never showed their navels, no matter how revealing or skimpy their costumes were. Think of Ingrid Bergman’s bare midriff in Notorious, Rita Hayworth’s bare midriff in her “Amado Mio” number in Gilda, Lana Turner’s bare midriff in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even Carmen Miranda, wearing low-cut skirts in her musical numbers has a flesh-colored patch of cloth designed into each costume to make sure that we don’t see, or even surmise, a navel. And all those girls-in-a-harem movies? Not a navel in sight. A navel suggested that someone, somewhere, once had sex. No, no, no. And that, as a result of it, a child was born. No! It was too sordid a fact to contemplate. Even men did not have navels. Think of John Garfield’s bathing suit in The Postman Always Rings Twice, a 100% navel-free movie. Think of all the boxing movies in which the boxers have their shorts practically hiked up to their armpits. But times change and even prudish morality bends a little. In 1959, Gina Lollobrigida, as the Queen of Sheba, wears a ruby in her exposed navel in a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, Solomon and Sheba! But she’s European. She even had a navel in 1952, in Rene Clair’s Beauties of the Night, when legions of Hollywood stars and starlets, if they wore two-piece bathing suits, still had to wear navel-denying bathing suits.

There’s a brilliant and hilarious commentary, on the navels-versus-no-navels issue, in David Cronenberg’s The Brood. The murderous monsters Samantha Eggar gives birth to, and this is how we know who they are, are navel-free because they are not created by sexual contact but by her fury. The children are the literal the manifestations of her anger. She is author of them but it’s not by childbirth that she creates them.

Are the eyebrow and belly button factoids any more or less enlightening than the gong statistics? I would say it’s a draw. None adds to or takes away anything from anything but they help to form a link between what happens behind the scenes with what appears up on the screen. Maybe these seemingly insignificant factoids do, after all, contribute something. Maybe they can shine little 10-watt rays of light into hitherto unilluminated and unexplored areas in a kingdom of many myths and may yet set off a little spark somewhere. Or even a conflagration. In a way, it’s a termite’s view of film history or film-lore or the unspoken and/or unknown and unknowable facts behind the fiction. It may not especially mean anything but very few things really do. It’s approaching the dream factory through the back door where all the trash is dumped and allowed to rot. Carefully picking through the trash, with a connoisseur’s eye, might be a way towards re-arranging familiar information in a different context.

Should all of this information be filed under trivia and forgotten as soon as possible? Or are these little byways and tangents spinning out into infinity, part of a larger Borgesian underground labyrinth that exists in a parallel universe beneath that expanding and, at the same time, disappearing landfill called film history?—a labyrinth carved out by termites, mirroring and perhaps even mocking, the world above the surface. I don’t know that these little epiphanies illuminate anything other than themselves. If any conclusions are to be drawn, what they might be, at this point, are anybody’s guess. In any case, the serious digging has not yet even begin in earnest, and the results won’t be in for decades—hopefully before all the minutiae perishes, is lost or forgotten forever.

If the image of the gong being struck remains indelibly printed on our communal imagination, Rank has also contributed, again though through the back door, to the English language as well—as part of Cockney rhyming slang. In Cockney rhyming slang, which hypothetically originated as a thieves’ jargon or, alternately, as a way of preventing outsiders from understanding what is being said, an abbreviated part of a phrase, which rhymes with the word it is replacing assumes the meaning of the missing word—for example, “trouble and strife” means “wife.” So when you ask someone how his “trouble” is doing, you are referring to his “wife.” “Apples and pears” rhymes with “stairs,” so the word “apples” refers to “stairs.” “China plate” means “mate” but you only have to say “china” to mean “mate.” “Bees,” as in “bees and honey,” means “money,” and so on. In any case, in Cockney slang, a J. Arthur means “wank” (rhymes with “Rank”). In English slang, “wank” means “jerk-off.” So what lives on? The memory of a man and a gong and a hilariously good-natured vulgarism. Is that a legacy or what? That, not to mention the movies they produced, is the back door to a certain kind of immortality.

Mark Rappaport is a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist. His films include The Scenic Route (1978), Impostors (1979), and the widely-acclaimed Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995). A collection of some of his film writings was published in 2008 in French as Le Spectateur qui en savait trop (The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much). Several of his pieces have appeared in the online film journal Rouge.

The above article was originally published in Trafic, in French; this is its first appearance in the original English.