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Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)


Main image of Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)

William Friese-Greene is the most maddening figure in early British film history. He was maddening at the time, and he has continued to create confusion and division ever since. In simple terms, he was an inventor who experimented with putative moving image devices at the dawn of cinema, but whose practical results did not match the claims that he made for them. Others took on those claims after his death, which resulted in Ray Allister's romanticised biography and the still more romanticised and inaccurate feature film The Magic Box (d. John Boulting, 1951). Friese-Greene was then subjected to critical burial, but in recent years, there has been a tentative revival of interest from historians.

Friese-Greene was born in Bristol on 7 September 1855 to a metalworker named Green. He added to his surname when he married Helena Friese in 1874. He was apprenticed to a photographer, and soon established his own business in Bath. There, around 1880, he met John Rudge, who was experimenting with magic lanterns to create an illusion of movement. Friese-Greene adopted such ideas with enthusiasm, and began experimenting with Rudge and on his own. In 1885, he opened two photographic shops in London with Esme Collings, who would go on to be one of the pioneers of British filmmaking in the Brighton area. In 1889-1890, Friese-Greene worked with engineers Mortimer Evans and Frederick Varley on cameras that could take up to four or five pictures per second, but they were not successful in practice, and had far too low a frequency rate for a successful illusion of motion.

Friese-Greene obsessively patented insufficiently thought out devices; however, the true advances in taking and projecting motion picture films were being made elsewhere. He began experimenting with colour cinematography in 1898, and became the earnest rival of the developer of Kinemacolor, G.A. Smith, who lived in the Brighton area to which Friese-Greene had moved in 1905. It was a court case in 1913 brought by Friese-Greene's Biocolour system against Kinemacolor that eventually brought down the latter, though Friese-Greene was unable to capitalise on the victory.

Beset by financial troubles (including a spell in prison for borrowing money while an undischarged bankrupt), Friese-Greene remained an incorrigible optimist. He died on 5 May 1921 while giving an incoherent speech to a meeting considering the parlous state of the British film industry. His claims to have been the 'inventor of kinematography' were then taken up by the uncritical film historian Will Day. The burgeoning myth was eventually punctured by a series of articles written by Brian Coe in the 1960s. Having been damned for claiming to invent what he did not invent, recent commentators have sought to view in a more sympathetic light someone who was undoubtedly one of the very first to work on the concept of moving images. As a dreamer more than as an inventor, he has his place as a founding father of British film.

Allister, Ray, Friese-Greene: Close-up of an Inventor (London: Marsland, 1948)
Chanan, Michael, The Dream that Kicks (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980)
Coe, Brian, 'William Friese-Greene and the Origins of Cinematography', Screen vol. 10, nos. 2-4 (1969)

Luke McKernan, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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