The Magic Box
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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|
|Editing by||Richard Best|
|Distributed by||British Lion Films|
|Running time||118 min.|
|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 such actors as 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 a working cinematic camera. This claim is subject to some controversy, but evidence now tends to support it. The film was completed and shown just before the end of the Festival, but the general release was not until 1952. 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.
Plot summary 
In 1921, William Friese-Greene, in dire financial straits and separated from his wife, but still working, attends a film conference in London. He is saddened that all the attenders are businessmen interested only to money-making. He attempts to speak but no-one is interested and he sits down. He thinks back to his early pioneering days.
Young 'Willie' works as an assistant to photographer Maurice Guttenberg who will not let him take portraits his way. He leaves and with his new wife, a client of his former employer, 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 single-mindedly works on his ideas, spending more and more money and is eventually declared bankrupt. With the coming of World War 1, their sons (one under age) enlist in the army to relieve their parents of the burden.
In partnership with a businessman, he develops his ideas, but the partnership sours and he's on his own - bankrupt again. Nevertheless, he perseveres and late one night, he projects the short film he has taken in Hyde Park that afternoon. Excitedly, he rushes out and drags in a passing policeman to witness the success of the film. The policeman is dumbfounded, not quite comprehending what he has just seen.
Back at the conference, Friese-Greene again stands up to speak, 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
- 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
- David Tomlinson as a Lab Assistant
- Emlyn Williams as a Bank Manager
- Ernest Thesiger as "man"
- Kay Walsh as a receptioness
- 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"
- Sheila Sim as a nursemaid
- Sid James as a police sergeant in storeroom
- Stanley Holloway as a broker's man
- Thora Hird as a housekeeper
- William Hartnell as a Recruiting sergeant
- Ronald Shiner as a fairground barker
- 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
- Vincent Porter, 'The Robert Clark Account', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 20 No 4, 2000 p495
TimeOut Film Guide - published by Penguin Books - ISBN 0-14-029395-7