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Magic Box, The (1951)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

1921. An elderly William Friese-Greene visits his estranged wife Edith, to tell her about a breakthrough in his experiments with colour. He unsuccessfully asks her to return to him, and then departs for a film industry meeting.

1897. Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. After they attend a fairground screening of Lumière Brothers films, Jack Carter invites his fiancée Miss Jones and her friend Edith Harrison to the laboratory where he works. They find Friese-Greene still up, and he tells them about his new X-ray machine. Edith asks about another piece of equipment, which Friese-Greene says was part of an experiment to capture movement.

Friese-Greene asks Ethel out to dinner and confesses that his name is really William Green - he added his first wife's surname and an extra 'e' to impress people. Three months later, William and Ethel are married, and she produces four sons, but as their family grows, so do money troubles. His son Graham is beaten up at school for defending his father's claim to be a founder of the cinema: the encyclopaedia said otherwise.

1915. Friese-Greene's property is seized by his landlord. His sons join the army so they will no longer be a burden. Edith gets a job and leaves him.

1921. At the film industry conference, Lord Beaverbrook tries to secure an agreement between producers and renters, but is accused of caving in to foreigners. He says they should forget the past, a phrase that echoes round Friese-Greene's head...

The young William Green works for photographer Mr Gothenburg, who forces people to hold long poses. Green thinks the results are stiff and formal, and experiments in his spare time. One of his photographs is seen by Lady Pond, who praises his work. Gothenburg is furious that Green has gone behind his back.

Helena Friese, the Swiss-born subject of the photograph, shows Green a flick book created from a magazine, inspiring him to think about capturing movement. During a photography session, Gothenburg overrides Green's careful set-up, causing chaos when his child subjects object. Green finally tells Gothenburg what he thinks of him.

Green marries Helena, sets up his own studio in Bath and adopts the name William Friese-Greene. But times are hard: Helena is pregnant, and he is forced to pawn his unexposed plates, charging clients advance deposits in order to reclaim them. Helena gives birth to a girl.

Friese-Greene's business booms, and he opens studios in Plymouth and Bristol. He participates in the Bath Choral Society, which is granted the honour of Sir Arthur Sullivan conducting a concert. Helena is very excited, but her husband's mind is elsewhere: he has an audience with William Henry Fox Talbot, the photography pioneer, who is interested in his moving-image experiments.

He plans to return in time for the concert, but is so absorbed in their conversation that he forgets, forcing Helena to sing his solo part herself - to Sullivan's consternation. Friese-Greene returns with a breathless account of his successful meeting with Fox Talbot, but finds Helena distraught and furious.

In partnership with businessman Arthur Collings, Friese-Greene becomes London's most fashionable photographer, but becomes increasingly distracted by his experiments. When clients are kept waiting, a furious Collings breaks off their contract. Helena suggests taking out a mortgage on their house.

Friese-Greene constructs his moving image camera and shoots some footage in Hyde Park. He works all night in the laboratory, loads the processed film into the camera, which doubles as a projector, and watches the end result. Ecstatic, he grabs a passing policeman and shows him. Friese-Greene tells Helena that they will be millionaires.

But his debts catch up with him and he is declared bankrupt. Helena develops a serious heart condition, but she confesses that she put aside some money when they were better off. She arranges new premises for him and gives him a birthday present: a prism that he wanted for one of his experiments.

1921. At the industry meeting, Friese-Greene gets up and delivers a rambling speech about cinema being a universal language and urging it to grow up with its audience. He collapses and dies. His personal effects are examined: a reel of film, the prism, and the price of a cinema ticket.