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The Magic Box is a 1951 British Technicolor biographical drama film directed by John Boulting.[2] The film stars Robert Donat as William Friese-Greene, with a host of cameo appearances by actors including Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier.[3] It was produced by Ronald Neame and distributed by British Lion Film Corporation.[2] The film was a project of the Festival of Britain and adapted by Eric Ambler from the controversial biography by Ray Allister.[4]

The Magic Box
Magic box 1.jpg
Directed byJohn Boulting
Produced byRonald Neame
Written byRay Allister and Eric Ambler
StarringRobert Donat
Margaret Johnston
Maria Schell
Robert Beatty
Margaret Rutherford
Music byWilliam Alwyn
CinematographyJack Cardiff
Edited byRichard Best
Distributed byBritish Lion Films
Release date
  • 1951 (1951)
Running time
118 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office£82,398 (UK)[1]

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.[5] 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.[6]


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 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.

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, 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 single-mindedly works on his ideas, spending more and more money, and is eventually declared bankrupt. With the coming of World War I, their sons (one under age) enlist in the army to relieve their parents of the burden of providing for them.

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. Excited, he rushes out and drags in a passing policeman, portrayed by Laurence Olivier (credited as Larry Oliver), 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.




The film was completed and shown just before the end of the 1951 Festival of Britain, but it did not go on general release until 1952.[7]

Critical receptionEdit

In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote " 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 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 distinguishe 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."[8]


The film was nominated for two BAFTA Awards in 1952—BAFTA Award for Best Film and BAFTA Award for Best British Film.[9]


  1. ^ Porter, Vincent (2000). "The Robert Clark Account". Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 20 (4): 495.
  2. ^ a b "The Magic Box (1951)".
  3. ^ Gifford, Denis (1 April 2016). British Film Catalogue: Two Volume Set – The Fiction Film/The Non-Fiction Film. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-74063-6 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ "Magic Box, The (1951)". BFI Screenonline.
  5. ^ "BBC Two – The Magic Box". BBC.
  6. ^ "The Magic Box (1951) – John Boulting – Synopsis, Characteristics, Moods, Themes and Related". AllMovie.
  7. ^ "'Magic Box' Premiere". British Pathé.
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley (24 September 1952). "THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; ' The Magic Box,' British Film on Early Movie Experimenter, Arrives at the Normandie". The New York Times.
  9. ^ "1952 Film Film And British Film – BAFTA Awards".

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit