The Magic Box (1951) starring Robert Donat, Margaret Johnston, Maria Schell, Robert Beatty, Richard Attenborough, Joyce Grenfell, Glynis Johns directed by John Boulting Movie Review

The Magic Box (1951)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Robert Donat as William Friese-Greene in The Magic Box (1951)

Cinematic Magic

Who invented moving pictures? Most people will probably say Thomas Alva Edison whilst others may mention the Lumière brothers but in truth there were other people who also could stake claim to be involved in the invention of moving pictures. One of those people is British inventor William Friese-Greene who is the focus of the biopic "The Magic Box" which was part of the Festival of Britain and which caused some controversy due to it laying claim that he was the inventor. The truth is that Friese-Greene was a photographer and inventor who explored motion pictures and also colour film but he was no businessman and spent a lot of time in debt which lead to him being unable to push his creativity to the max.

What we get in "The Magic Box" is mainly a look at 2 chapters in Friese-Greene's presented in two flashbacks from 1921 on the day he died. The first flashback sees an elderly Friese-Greene visit his estranged second wife Edith at the hotel she runs declaring he has done it, he's invented colour film. What follows that is Edith telling a colleague how she was introduced to Friese-Greene when she was out with friend May Jones and her fiance Jack Carter who worked as his assistant. We learn all about how Friese-Greene asked her out, how they got married and had several children but more importantly we also see how Friese-Greene's focus on inventing colour moving pictures meant they were always in debt to the point 3 of their sons enlisted in the army during WWI in order not to be a financial burden. But what it also does is bring to the fore the point that Friese-Greene's contributions to the creation of moving pictures was absent from the text books.

Maria Schell as Helena Friese-Greene in The Magic Box (1951)

We then see Friese-Greene in the present and at a meeting of senior businessman within the British film industry rowing over things which lead in to Friese-Greene giving us a flashback to his earlier days as a photographer and meeting first wife Helena. Whilst the focus in this flashback is on Friese-Greene trying to invent moving picture having become frustrated by the way still pictures were taken it again highlights how he was no businessman and constantly was stealing pennies from here to pay debts often failing to the point they knew debt collectors on personal terms. It also highlights that his wife Helena despite being fragile with various health problems was fully supportive of him.

Putting aside the question of whether William Friese-Greene did invent moving pictures "The Magic Box" as a piece of entertainment works. It features an impressive cast with numerous well known faces in supporting roles and whilst over 60 years old looks glorious. The actual storyline construct also works and director John Boulting does a brilliant job of building tension especially in the big scene where an excited Friese-Greene grabs a policeman to show him the moving picture which he has created.

But of course there is the question of how much truth there is to "The Magic Box" as by all accounts the biography on which it is based was in turn based on conversations with his family. Despite being a fan of movies I am no film historian but if I was to speculate I would say that Friese-Greene's ideas were part of a collective of ideas and should be regarded as one of the founder fathers of the moving picture.

What this all boils down to is that "The Magic Box" is an entertaining look at William Friese-Greene; a lousy businessman and a bit of a whacky inventor but one of the inventors of the moving picture.