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the magic box, ,  biographical film, biography, review, biopic

The Magic Box (1951) 

The Magic Box was the British Film Industry’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain, which celebrated all things British. It starred Robert Donat as British film pioneer William Friese-Greene and featured a slew of Britain’s finest in a multitude of cameos. Among those contributing their talents for a reduced fee were Laurence Olivier, Richard Attenborough, Margaret Rutherford, Stanley Holloway, Glynis Johns and Peter Ustinov, though he (like many others) only appears on screen for a few seconds. In return for their efforts, cast and crew were to share in the film’s expected profits after its general release. Unfortunately, the film was both a critical and commercial failure. Go Britain!

The film is uniquely split into two flashbacks. The first depicts Friese-Greene’s second marriage and the second flashback covers his first, allowing the inventor’s most famous achievement to occur towards the film’s conclusion. Before that eureka moment however, we are witness to Friese-Greene making his fortune and then losing it over an obsession to capture the moving image. Though Donat seems ideally suited to the role of absent-minded professor, giving a performance reminiscent of Mr Chips, Friese-Greene’s indifference to the impact his actions have on those close to him make for an unsympathetic character.

There are many nostalgic pleasures to be found within this film, including the depiction of early photography when sitters had to remain perfectly still and when moving pictures were exhibited as a sideshow attraction. It is also quite instructive in explaining the concept behind the persistence of vision and in detailing of the experiments Friese-Greene undertook. One can understand why Martin Scorsese acknowledges the film as the one that ignited in him the wonder of cinema, but many others may find its its scholarly approach dull and uninspiring.


Apart from the famous scene in which Friese-Greene shows his moving images to a passing policeman, the film is also unremittingly downbeat. Donat continues to maintain a stiff upper lip in the best British tradition but pity the wives who see his constant experimentation leading to nowhere but the poorhouse. While Jack Cardiff’s colour cinematography is fittingly dazzling, its nonetheless ironic that a film celebrating moving pictures could itself be so inert and unmoving.

Robet Donat, William Friese-Greene
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Scene in which Friese-Greene shows a policeman the first results of his motion picture camera did not actually occur. According to writer and educationalist Sir Christopher Frayling, the story was originally told about the film pioneers Robert Paul and Birt Acres who, when they first managed to get their own film running in a Kinetoscope machine, made such a commotion that the police came to enquire what all the fuss was about.

Friese-Greene did not begin working with John Rudge until the 1880’s, so it is unlikely Rudge introduced him to photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, who died in 1877

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