The Magic Box

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
Running time
118 min.
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office£82,398 (UK)[1]

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]

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.