Thursday, 15 November 2007

The Magic Box (1951)

William Friese-Greene was a pioneer of the cinema, there's no doubt of that in my view; where exactly he lies in the pantheon of film history is open to question and a certain amount of conjecture, but he was certainly a dedicated and enthusiastic photographer who devoted much of his life to bringing a sense of life to his pictures, by striving to make them move.

Born and raised in Bristol, William Green as he was christened, developed his photographic skills as the apprentice of High Society photographer Maurice Gutenberg (Frederick Valk), and after marrying Helena Friese (played in the film appealingly by Maria Schell), he adopted the soubriquet of Friese-Greene using his wife's maiden name and adding the "e" to his own to give it more status.

Cliff Road in Dovercourt, where Willy and Edith Friese-Greene lived for a time.

At the point which the film begins however, is several years later in 1921, when Friese-Greene meets his ostracised second wife, Edith (Margaret Johnston), in the midst of his ongoing efforts to create colour film (which his son Claude later took up), shortly before his tragic death, when at a meeting of British film exhibitors at The Connaught Rooms in London, he collapsed after making an impassioned speech (in the film) about the state of British Cinema - a message which is still relevant today.

Upon his person at his death were practically his sole possessions of value: a pawn ticket for some cufflinks, a glass prism for refracting light, a can of colour film, and a purse containing one and tenpence - the price of a seat at the pictures.

For whatever reason, the making of this excellent and only moderately romanticised biopic of him, has tended to be rubbished by the media, both today and also in 1951 when it was specially commissioned to be the British film industry's contribution to the Festival of Britain. Perhaps therein lied the innate cynicism that commentators attached to the project. Not unlike a similar Millennium project in 2000, the Festival of Britain was thought in some quarters to be a white elephant, and the Festival Films contribution to it was not actually finished until most of the festival was already over and done with, and not released to the general public until much later. It flopped commercially, but this is not to say it's a bad film, far from it.

At its heart is a moving, quintessential performance by Robert Donat, one of the great forgotten stars of British cinema - mainly due to the fact that asthma cut his career tragically short in the 1950s. His notable triumph in 1939 was to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his shy schoolteacher-cum-headmaster in Goodbye Mr Chips, surpassing the likes of Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Praise indeed.

Donat's "Willy" Friese-Greene in The Magic Box is a partial throwback to that fine Mr Chips characterisation, but with a much darker side that covers the anguish of near-success and bankruptcy, instead of the usual tale of rags to riches. This is some ways, is what endears me to this film: it seems all the more real for it.

The other key factor is the plethora of famous British actors (70 or more) who appear in the film - besides Donat - in supporting roles. Being the Festival of Britain, practically anybody who was anybody in British cinema at the time was offered a part, and in honour of the occasion they accepted reduced fees to appear in the film. Using the skill of director John Boulting and a sympathetic script by the great Eric Ambler, all the supporting performances are subtly integrated into the story without ever drawing attention to themselves as "guest star" appearances.

Right at the beginning of the first flashback, there's Richard Attenborough and Glynis Johns introducing Edith to Friese-Greene. Willy's children include Janette Scott and John Howard Davies (then famous for playing Oliver Twist). Stanley Holloway plays a sleazy bailiff, Joyce Grenfell the member of a choir, conducted by the unmistakable Miles Malleson, and William Hartnell and Sid James play army officers when the Friese-Greene boys volunteer for War Service in 1914. The noisy conveners at the Connaught Rooms include Robert Beatty, Michael Denison, Peter Jones, Cecil Parker and Peter Ustinov. The irrepressible Margaret Rutherford has a typical cameo as an eccentric wealthy customer of Gutenberg's. Michael Redgrave walks in with the much prized first movie camera of Friese-Greene's, and the first subject for the camera is his cousin Alfred, played by Bernard Miles.

And then there is no less a name than Laurence Olivier listed in the credits.

Upon watching this film on television the first time with my mother, we played a little game of wondering which character he was going to play or where he was going to pop up in this cornucopia of British talent. Then I vaguely remembered a schools' science programme I had seen a few years before, and a scene where a projectionist was showing a film to a bewildered policeman. Mentioning this to Mum, she promptly deduced "he's not playing the policeman is he!?"

And sure enough, to our surprise and delight, up strolls Sir Laurence himself, carefully disguised as a London bobby with a period moustache, to relieve PC Jack Hulbert on a Holborn street corner late at night, and noticing a single light on in the flat that Friese-Greene has rented to carry out the most important stage of his work.

Legend has it that Friese-Greene was so ecstatic that his experiment had worked, that he raced out of the building in the middle of the night to find the nearest person he could show his work to, who in this case was PC 94. The story is probably apocryphal, but I like to think there was an element of truth to it.

The brief scene that the two actors share together (which is the highlight of the film) illustrates just what a great actor Robert Donat was, if only his career had lasted longer. His sincerity when set against Olivier's straight-laced dignity is a fine if brief teaming of two great stars of that era.

The elation of his new invention is however, short-lived, for insurmountable debts have led Friese-Greene into near poverty, whilst Helena finds herself to be terminally ill. Most other biopics would have sidetracked this pessimistic turn to the plot, but I admire the film makers for including it, with the moral that film-making is a hard road, for which many of the innovators stumble and fall, but the dream remains.

Its earnestness and honesty was perhaps the architect of its own downfall. So many truly romanticised biopics have taken the short cut to success by giving its main character a happy ending and an almost totally incorrect view of the person's life. The Magic Box may dress itself up with elaborate scenes and give its central character more stature that perhaps he really had, but it certainly does not portray him as a flawless character.

The final shot of the film is of Friese-Greene's name etched in stone alongside all the other pioneers of early cinema (Edison, Lumiere, etc). A debatable claim of course, but several monuments sprang up all over Britain in acknowledgement of his achievement, including an especially grand memorial to him laid in Highgate Cemetery (see below).

Like all accomplished or would-be film makers in this country and elsewhere, the triumph of the accomplishment on film almost takes second place to the actual achievement of getting the cameras to roll in the first place. Working in films as I occasionally have done - and having seen a good deal more of other people's films too - I know that one of the hardest things for any film maker to achieve is to get all the people together and get the material on film from which it can then be worked upon in the editing room.

The Magic Box may be a dubious tribute to a failed craftsman, but it's certainly a sincere depiction to one of Britain's first cinematic adventurers who fought the good fight.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films