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Magic Box, The (1951)


Main image of Magic Box, The (1951)
35mm, Technicolor, 118 mins
Directed byJohn Boulting
Production CompanyFestival Film Productions
Produced byRonald Neame
Screenplay byEric Ambler
Original biography byRay Allister
Photography byJack Cardiff
Music byWilliam Alwyn

Cast: Robert Donat (William Friese-Greene), Margaret Johnston (Edith Friese-Greene), Maria Schell (Helena Friese-Greene), Richard Attenborough (Jack Carter), Frederick Valk (Maurice Guttenburg), Eric Portman (Arthur Collings), Laurence Olivier (Police Constable 94-B)

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The life and largely unsung work of William Friese-Greene, a British cinema pioneer who claimed to have invented the first moving picture camera.

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Made for the 1951 Festival of Britain as the film industry's primary showcase for its history, technology and associated glamour, The Magic Box is a largely uncritical adaptation of Ray Allister's rose-tinted biography of British film pioneer William Friese-Greene. Its central thesis, that Friese-Greene was the primary inventor of moving pictures, has since been debunked (notably by the historian Brian Coe in a series of articles for Screen magazine published in the 1960s), though the pendulum has since swung back in Friese-Greene's favour, albeit still tempered with realism

He's played by Robert Donat in one of his most likeable performances, portraying an irrepressibly enthusiastic optimist whose brilliance as an inventor was fatally undermined by his incompetence as a businessman and overly casual attitude towards his family's needs. Clearly aware that this is hardly the most original of stories, screenwriter Eric Ambler attempts a more heroic narrative by means of a complex double-flashback structure, but this is ultimately somewhat contrived and confusing, working against the otherwise straightforward simplicity of John Boulting's direction.

If the film offers relatively few cinematic pleasures besides Jack Cardiff's typically lustrous Technicolor photography, star-spotters have a treat in store, with a well-known face playing almost every role, right down to the portraits on display in Friese-Greene's studios. Most of these appear too briefly to make much of an impression beyond a quick flash of recognition, though more substantial speaking roles are given to Richard Attenborough, Eric Portman, Margaret Rutherford and, most memorably, Laurence Olivier as an unnamed policeman literally pulled off the street by an excitable Friese-Greene and made to watch his experiments.

More specialist tastes are also catered for, with the loving presentation of Friese-Greene's equipment, from Victorian magic lanterns to his own inventions. Ambler creates several scenes specifically to allow Friese-Greene to explain their underlying principles in often considerable detail, such as his lecture on the persistence of vision to his girlfriend Helena (Maria Schell). The film concludes with Friese-Greene's attempt at developing a colour process, which is depicted as being a failure. However, it would subsequently be refined by his son Claude, who used it to shoot his ambitious travelogue The Open Road (1924-6) a few years after his father's death. At the time The Magic Box was made, this had been entirely forgotten, though its subsequent restoration has strengthened and secured the reputations of both Friese-Greenes as important British film pioneers.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Persistence of vision (2:02)
2. Crackpot experiments (1:48)
3. The breakthrough (6:08)
Original posters
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Best, Richard (1916-2004)
Boulting, John (1913-1985)
Bryan, John (1911-1969)
Cardiff, Jack (1914-2009)
Donat, Robert (1905-1958)
Edwards, Henry (1883-1952)
Friese-Greene, Claude (1898-1943)
Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)
Grenfell, Joyce (1910-1979)
Hartnell, William (1908-1975)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Hulbert, Jack (1892-1978)
James, Sidney (1913-1976)
Johns, Glynis (1923-)
Jones, Peter (1920-2000)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Portman, Eric (1903-1969)
Price, Dennis (1915-1973)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)