Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Magic Box (Festival Productions U.K., 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked this time was The Magic Box, a 1951 film made for the Festival of Britain — which celebrated the centenary of Queen Victoria’s Great Exhibition in 1851 that showed off Britain’s industrial power and growing empire. By 1951 the British Empire was essentially history and Britain itself a former world power which had been so hard hit by World War II (despite technically being on the “winning” side) that the wartime rationing program had just ended in 1950, one year before the Festival and five years after the war ended. Various feature-film projects were planned for release during the Festival but this was the only one that was completed (though a few documentary films were also made and shown under Festival auspices), and it was released only two weeks before the Festival ended and was ultimately a box-office flop.

The Magic Box tells the story of William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat), a British photographer in the 1890’s who gave up a thriving portraiture business and spent all his money attempting to invent motion pictures. The film was based on a 1948 biography by Ray Allister called Friese-Greene: Close-Up of an Inventor (a book whose claim that Friese-Greene was the real inventor of the movies has since been debunked) and was directed by John Boulting from a script by Eric Ambler, usually a novelist of continental crime and espionage and hardly the first name one thinks of for this sort of story.

Ambler created a confusing double-flashback structure in which we first see Friese-Greene in the year in which we’re already told he will die — 1921 — on his way to a movie industry conference at which he attempts to demonstrate his latest invention, color movies. We also meet his second wife, Edith Harrison (Margaret Johnston), who by 1921 had left him because he was constantly running through all the money they had in order to finance his experiments — a running theme that becomes the main dramatic issue of the film — and was running a boarding house. We see the later part of Friese-Greene’s career via a flashback from Edith’s point of view, then she confesses that his career was already over when they met, and then at the meeting — a contentious affair in which the overlords of the British film business are discussing how to remain solvent in the face of the overwhelming competition from abroad (essentially a discussion of American cultural imperialism that sounds awfully contemporary today!) — someone makes the statement, “We must bury the past … ,” and this sends Friese-Greene (played in this scene by Donat with a marvelously hang-dog air that illustrates how the character is all too conscious of his own irrelevance) off into an orgy of reminiscence about his own past and we finally get to see the events by which he is claimed by Allister, Ambler and Boulting to be the true inventor of the movies.

He starts out as William Green, apprentice to photographer Maurice Guttenberg (Frederick Valk), a typically imperious British-movie German who resents Friese-Greene for his “people skills” in getting people to hold still for the 22 seconds then needed to expose the heavy glass-plate negatives needed to photograph anything. Friese-Greene hears of a new photographic plate that takes only one second to expose — and Guttenberg won’t hear of it — and in the end Friese-Greene walks out of the man’s studio and sets up his own with the financial backing of Arthur Collings (Eric Portman), soon becoming the king of portrait photographers in Britain. He also misses an appearance of his choral society — with the great Sir Arthur Sullivan (as in “Gilbert and … ”) conducting personally — because he’s so busy discussing motion pictures with Fox Talbot (Basil Sydney), presented here as the inventor of still photography with just the same historically misguided certainty as Friese-Greene is presented as the inventor of cinema — and so his first wife Helena (Maria Schell), a Swiss woman whose maiden name “Friese” Green(e) took as a professional name (sort of like me!), adding the “e” at the end of his own surname “to balance things out,” has to take his solo stint much to the surprise of Sullivan, who wrote the brief solo for a male. (Sullivan is played on screen by the film’s real-life conductor, Muir Matheson.)

What’s fascinating about The Magic Box is that, for all the ostensibly celebratory nature of the story — both in context as a film especially made for the Festival of Britain and in and of itself hailing the U.K. as the country that pioneered filmmaking — the movie is surprisingly downbeat. The obsessive concern with William Friese-Greene’s finances (or lack of same) may be offered as a reason why the historical record ultimately hailed Edison and not him as the father of filmmaking (a particularly poignant history-is-written-by-the-winners scene occurs when one of Friese-Greene’s sons comes home from school badly beaten up — by, it turns out, a kid who challenged his claim that his dad invented the movies and insisted, based on the school encyclopedia, that Edison did) — the hint is that Friese-Greene would have been able to bring his invention to fruition and make tons of money off it had he only had decent, reliable financial backing instead of having to finance it himself catch-as-catch-can — but it also gives the film a curiously defeatist air.

Unwittingly Eric Ambler was sabotaging the film’s very purpose as well as the whole whistling-past-the-grave idea of a “Festival of Britain” in 1951 — this isn’t the work of a proud country celebrating its technological advances but a humbled country apologizing for having let one of the greatest technological prizes of the late 19th century get away from them. The films The Magic Box reminded Charles and I of were The Great Moment and Tucker, respectively — but Preston Sturges and Francis Ford Coppola brought enough urgency to their tales of failed inventors whose technical savvy far exceeded their business sense that those movies have an exuberance The Magic Box only hits intermittently — particularly in the scene in which Friese-Greene literally burns the midnight oil to perfect his invention, developing the film he’s shot that afternoon of his cousin (and financial backer) Alfred (Bernard Miles) until his lit window attracts the attention of a patrolling police officer (Laurence Olivier in one of the film’s many star cameos, anticipating Around the World in 80 Days) who becomes the world’s first movie audience as — thinking Friese-Greene is about to confess to a murder — he follows him up the stairs to his flat and watches as Friese-Greene runs his first movie.

The Web site www.screenonline.uk has an article on the real William Friese-Greene (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/508948/) that argues that the real reason he wasn’t acknowledged as the inventor of filmmaking (and of film — lacking Edison’s access to George Eastman’s laboratories, he had to make his own celluloid — and the film argues that he invented that, too) was that he patented his invention too early, before he’d really perfected it: his camera ran at just eight frames per second, not long enough for the persistence of vision to blend his images into a smoothly running, non-flickering illusion of motion. The article also noted that after Friese-Greene’s death, his son Claude continued his researches into color film — like his father and their principal rivals, George Albert Smith and Charles Urban of Kinemacolor (Friese-Greene’s color system was called Biocolour), he used an “additive” color process that involved projecting alternating red and green images of black-and-white film so the eye would blend them into an illusion of color (as opposed to the “subtractive” Technicolor process that involved actually combining color images on the film to be projected) — and actually released a series of color documentaries in the 1920’s, though when one was recently revived it had to be digitally “tweaked” to get rid of the flickering that was a deficiency inherent in these additive processes.