(director: John Boulting; screenwriter: Eric Ambler/based on the biography by Ray Allister “Friese-Greene: Close-Up of an Inventor”; cinematographer: Jack Cardiff; editor: Richard Best; music: William Alwyn; cast: Robert Donat (William Friese-Greene), Margaret Johnston (Edith Friese-Greene), Maria Schell (Helena Friese-Greene), Renee Asherson (Miss Tagg), Richard Attenborough (Jack Carter), Robert Beatty (Lord Beaverbrook), James Kenney (Kenneth Friese-Greene), Bernard Miles (Cousin Alfred), Frederick Valk (Guttenburg), Basil Sydney (William Fox-Talbot), Cecil Trouncer (John Rudge), Eric Portman (Arthur Collings), Laurence Olivier (Constable); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ronald Neame; British Lion; 1951-UK)

“Proves to be a curious work despite its flaws.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The tragic story of William Friese-Greene (1855-1921) a genius inventor who died a pauper, as excellently played by Robert Donat. Friese-Greene is a forgotten British inventor who was obsessed with making a movie camera, and without definitive factual proof this film would lead you to believe he made the first movie camera. It bases its claim on the biography by Ray Allister “Friese-Greene: Close-Up of an Inventor,” which made a modest but unconvincing case in favor of Friese-Greene as the true creator of the movie camera. Director John Boulting(“Lucky Jim”/”I’m All Right Jack”/”Heavens Above!”) and writer Eric Ambler work with an all-star British cast to give a sympathetic and intelligent portrait of the ignored inventor’s life and work. It shows that William dedicated his life to the movie camera project at a great self-sacrifice, but lacked business sense and eventually lost his family’s fortune in his compulsion to make a positive contribution to society. He also became estranged from his second wife Edith (Margaret Johnston), as the kindly loner ignored his family for his work.

The biopic, in an entertaining way, covers some of William’s triumphs and losses from when he was a handsome youthful photographer’s assistant until his death, as a feeble old man, in 1921, at a film-industry meeting. Before attending the meeting, William succeeded in making a movie camera and excitedly showed it first to a London constable (Laurence Olivier) before unsuccessfully trying to show it to separated wife Edith at her hotel workplace.

I don’t know if Friese-Greene was or was not the original inventor of a movie camera, but I do know the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumire and the American inventor Thomas Edison are credited for their motion-picture devices in the middle 1890s and see no reason after seeing this film to think differently. The story leaves out too many things about the inventor to be a definitive biography, as it neglects telling us of his work on the biophantascope, his experiments with 3-D in the 1890s, his stealing key ideas from collaborators for the movie camera and an unfortunate prison stint for borrowing money while bankrupt.

The Magic Box was made as a showcase to represent the British film industry at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and proves to be a curious work despite its flaws.