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|The Magic Box|
|Directed by||John Boulting|
|Produced by||Ronald Neame|
|Written by||Ray Allister and Eric Ambler|
|Music by||William Alwyn|
|Edited by||Richard Best|
|Distributed by||British Lion Films|
|Box office||£82,398 (UK)|
The Magic Box is a 1951 British Technicolor biographical drama film directed by John Boulting. The film stars Robert Donat as William Friese-Greene, with a host of cameo appearances by actors including Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier. It was produced by Ronald Neame and distributed by British Lion Film Corporation. The film was a project of the Festival of Britain and adapted by Eric Ambler from the controversial biography by Ray Allister.
This biographical drama gives an account of the life of William Friese-Greene, who first designed and patented one of the earliest working cinematic cameras. Told in flashback, the film details Friese-Greene's tireless experiments with the "moving image", leading inexorably to a series of failures and disappointments, as others hog the credit for the protagonist's discoveries.
The first section of the film is told from the perspective of Mrs Freize-Green telling the story of how she met Willie to a friend. They marry and hsave four sons but are in constant financial difficulties due to his experiments to create colour film. The three oldest boys lie about their age in order to enlist in the army in the First World War. His wife leaves him due to the stress.
Coming out of her flashback, back in 1921, William Friese-Greene, is still in dire financial straits,he attends a film conference in London. He is saddened that all those attending are businessmen interested only in moneymaking. He attempts to speak, but no-one is interested and he sits down. He thinks back to his early pioneering days and a longer flashback begins.
Young "Willie" works as an assistant to photographer Maurice Guttenberg, who will not let him take portraits his way. After an argument with Guttenberg he leaves and, with his new wife, a client of his former employer, he opens a studio. After a slow start, he does well and opens other studios, but he is more interested in developing moving pictures and colour films.
He goes to visit Fox Talbot on the same day he is meant to sing a solo within a choir with his wife. He forgets to go and she has to sing his part, but he is delighted with his meeting with Talbot. They move to London. Although he is a successful photographer he sidetracks this profitable work for his costly experiments in creating celluloid film. He is in partnership with Mr Collings who initially has fath in him but as a businessman is eventually forced to break the partnership. He mortgages his house to raise money.
One Sunday he lies to his wife and excuses himself from church and instead meets a relative and his son in Hyde Park. He films them approach on his new camera and tripod and asks them to help carry the tripod to the parade. At night he starts to develop the first film. He waits patiently. The clock strikes 3am. The film develops and he puts it in his projector, hardle dareing to look. We see the flicker of light on his face.
Excited, he rushes out and drags in a passing policeman (Laurence Olivier credited as Larry Oliver), he says "it is almost as if he was alive". He asks the policeman gets worried and draws his truncheon. to witness the success of the film. The policeman is dumbfounded, not quite comprehending what he has just seen. Willie explains he is seeing eight pictures per second and it looks like movement.
He tells his wife they will be millionaires. Instead we see him in the bankruptcy court. His wife collapses in a side office. The doctor says she has a heart condition and recommends a year in bed. She tears up the list of expensive medicines on her journey home. She tells Willie she has sold jewellery to allow him to rent a new studio. It is his birthday, he has forgotten, but she gives him a prism as a present and he is delighted. The story then ends flashback.
Back at the conference, Friese-Greene again stands up to speak, clutching a reel of film. He states how film has become a "universal language" but becomes incoherent and is forced to sit down. He collapses. A doctor is called, but it is too late. Examining the contents of his pockets in an attempt to identify him, the doctor comments that all the money he could find was just enough for a ticket to the cinema.
- Robert Donat as William Friese-Greene
- Margaret Johnston as Edith Harrison
- Maria Schell as Helena Friese-Greene
- David Oake as Claude Friese-Greene
- Janette Scott as Ethel Friese-Greene
- John Howard Davies as Maurice Friese-Greene
- Robert Beatty as Lord Beaverbrook
- Richard Attenborough as Jack Carter
- Basil Sydney as William Fox Talbot
- Bernard Miles as Cousin Alfred
- Eric Portman as Arthur Collings
- Mary Ellis as Mrs Collings
- Muir Mathieson as Sir Arthur Sullivan
- Joyce Grenfell as Mrs Claire
- Dennis Price as Harold, the man who gathers Willie's possessions
- Margaret Rutherford as Lady Pond
- Mervyn Johns as Goitz
- Glynis Johns as May Jones
- Frederick Valk as Maurice Guttenberg
- Ronald Shiner as the Fairground Barker
- Peter Reynolds as Bridegroom
- Barry Jones as a doctor
- Bessie Love as wedding group member
- Cecil Parker at the Connaught Rooms
- Cecil Trouncer as John Rudge
- David Tomlinson as a Willie's lab assistant
- Emlyn Williams as a Bank Manager
- Ernest Thesiger as "man"
- Kay Walsh as a receptionist
- Laurence Olivier and Jack Hulbert as police officers
- Leo Genn as a doctor
- Marius Goring as an estate agent
- Michael Denison as a reporter
- Michael Hordern as the Official Receiver
- Miles Malleson as an orchestra conductor
- Peter Ustinov as an "industry man" in audience
- Sheila Sim as a nursemaid
- Sid James as an army sergeant in payroom
- Stanley Holloway as a broker's man come to collect goods in lieu of rent
- Thora Hird as a housekeeper
- William Hartnell as a Recruiting sergeant
- Googie Withers, A. E. Matthews, John McCallum, Patrick Holt, Robertson Hare, Richard Murdoch and Sybil Thorndike as sitters
- Henry Edwards as the Butler at Fox Talbot's
- Renee Asherson as Miss Tagg
- Martin Boddey as Sitter in Bath Studio
- Edward Chapman as Father in family group
- Maurice Colbourne as Bride's father in wedding group
- Roland Culver as 1st Company promoter
- Joan Dowling as Maggie
- Marjorie Fielding as Elderly Viscountess
- Robert Flemyng as Doctor in surgery
- Everley Gregg as Bridegroom's mother in wedding group
- Kathleen Harrison as Mother in family group
- Joan Hickson as Mrs Stukely
- Jack Hulbert as 1st Holborn Policeman
- Peter Jones as Industry Man who picks up Willie when he falls
- Ann Lancaster as Bridesmaid in Wedding Group
- Herbert Lomas as Warehouse manager
- John Longden as Speaker in Connaught rooms
- Garry Marsh as Second company promoter
- Michael Trubshawe as Sitter in Bath studio
- Amy Veness as Grandmother in wedding group
- Charles Victor as Industry man
- Harcourt Williams as Tom
- Frank Pettingell as Bridegroom's father in Wedding Group
- Norman Pierce as Speaker in Connaught rooms
- Michael Redgrave as Mr. Lege the instrument maker who creates the movie camera
- Oda Slobodskaya as Soloist at Bath concert
- John Stuart as 2nd Platform man at Connaught
- Sally Smith as Little girl
- Marianne Stone as Bride in wedding group
Half the budget was provided by the NFFC. The film was made by Festival Film Productions, a semi co operative to which all major British film companies contributed their services either free or on a reduced rate basis.
In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote "...it seems to have no ground beneath it—no association with historic events—and it turns out to be, in large measure, just a handsome exercise in pathos and sentiment. That doesn't say, however, that it is not expertly done and that it doesn't deserve the attention of all who are interested in the craft of the screen. In the principal role, Robert Donat does a superlative job of conveying both the vigor of a young man and the fragile dignity of old age—a role highly reminiscent of his unforgettable "Mr. Chips." As his two wives, Margaret Johnston and Maria Schnell [sic] are excellent, and a host of the best British performers are all fine in smaller roles. An idea of the extravagance may be had in the fact that the distinguished Laurence Olivier plays a policeman "bit." While Eric Ambler's script, based on a biography of Friese-Greene by Ray Allister, is understandably vague and extended, it is quaintly eventful and literate, and John Boulting's direction is finished and polished to the nines. Excellent color (by Technicolor) and superb setting and costuming all around add to the lustre of a picture that has everything but a major theme."
The film was a major financial failure.
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