The Magic Box Review

Image for The Magic Box

Breaking both his photographic partnership with Arthur Collings and his marriages to Helena and Edith, William Friese-Greene sacrifices everything in a bid to produce a machine that will record and produce motion pictures.


Born in Bristol in 1855, William Friese-Greene began producing photographic images for John Rudge's magic lanterns in 1880. Despite their working in collaboration, he took sole credit for the Phantascope when he presented it to the London Photographic Society in 1886.

Moreover, he gave no credit to engineer Mortimer Evans when, in 1889, he patented a sequence camera, which used unperforated paper film that moved through the mechanism at 4-5 frames per second. But, while the images it produced could be cut up and used for lantern presentation, they were never projected in a single continuous display and, thus, the claim on his tombstone that Friese-Greene was the inventor of `commercial kinematography' is entirely false. He was credited with 79 patents, including a cigar lighter and an inkless printer. But his colour and 3-D film processes proved as impractical as his projector and he died with less than two shillings in his pocket at a film congress in 1921.

This, then, is the hero of this triumphalist biopic, which paid scant heed to fact as it sought to produce a fitting film to screen at the 1951 Festival of Britain. No one could blame the Boulting brothers or Eric Ambler, who based his screenplay on Ray Allister's book, Friese-Greene, Close-Up of an Inventor, which purported to be an accurate account of his life and accomplishments. All they did was rearrange the events around two extended flashbacks to make them more dramatically satisfying - and they rousingly succeeded.  

 They also shrewdly cast Robert Donat in the leading role, who proceeded to turn Friese-Greene into a cousin of Mr Chipping and made him seem like a typically plucky British also-ran. Moreover, they surrounded him with a galaxy of co-stars to reinforce the celebratory nature of the project and imply that without Friese-Greene's indomitable ingenuity none of them would be where they were today. But the master stroke was the procurement of Laurence Olivier to play the night-beat copper whose suspicions that he had a crank on his hands were gloriously allayed by scenes of Hyde Park flickering dimly on a white sheet.

Amazing performances from a stellar cast.