Now old, ill, poor, and largely forgotten, William Freise-Greene was once very different. As young and handsome William Green he changed his name to include his first wife's so that it sounded more impressive for the photographic portrait work he was so good at. But he was also an inventor and his search for a way to project moving pictures became an obsession that ultimately changed the life of all those he loved. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <email@example.com>
Whether or not William Friese-Greene was actually the father of motion pictures he was certainly in there trying. And though Edison and some French guys get a mention in passing this beautifully-mounted star-laden tribute to dogged endeavour is all Willie's show - made thirty years after his death and timed for the Festival of Britain. It almost missed the bus in this regard and wasn't generally released until the following year,something charmingly British about that. The film itself is charmingly British too, handling its huge cast and period detail with steady quietly-absorbing assurance. Eric Ambler's deftly-crafted script provides romance, comedy, poignancy and an absolutely splendid pinnacle-scene which sums the picture up both in terms of story and production-plan. His dual-flashback structure, which some find confusing, permits the masterly Robert Donat to re-wind from forgotten old codger to eager young whippersnapper and back again with a shift in the middle for 'changing reels' on the assertion of his second wife that "Willie was before my time". This second marriage assuaged his widower-loneliness and certainly produced quite a brood but was blighted by despondency - he's not mentioned in the Encyclopedia - and his ever-present financial incompetence which severs their union. It's the more distant past, the era of inspiration and achievement, which is the film's ultimate destination.
The cameo stars fall to with aplomb - 'The Play's the Thing, what would you like us to do ?' There's the fun of the Living Statues, Margaret Rutherford at her most formidable, wiping the floor with Mr. Guttenberg, Joan Hickson's cute scene-stealing as the customer with the facial twitch, Muir Mathieson appearing on-screen for once conducting the Bath Choral Society while the only solo male vocalist is miles away chinwagging forgetfully with the inventor of photography. Eric Portman bulldozes through as Willie's irascible business-partner and almost every trade and profession is represented along the way by a famous face - doctors, reporters, bank managers, estate agents, instrument-makers, pawnbrokers and company promoters - this last attributed in the credits to Roland Culver and Garry Marsh who do not appear in the release-prints. The BFI site solves the vexing question of the truncated version short by fifteen minutes which is now apparently the only one that survives. The most illustrious guest is fittingly the last to make an entrance - Olivier as the apprehensive bobby on the beat dragged in off the street by Willie to watch Hyde Park shimmering on a sheet. One of the great scenes in British cinema its magical blend of narrative-significance and emotional realism is in effect the movie's climax. The quibbling over technical inaccuracies here is irrelevant, it's not a documentary and as long as the audience gets the point the purpose is served. Maria Schell is enchanting as the first Mrs. Willie and Jack Cardiff - the Technicolor Kid - would have made our hero proud. It's the visionary labour of Willie and his contemporaries which has given us what we love. To correct another poster the last ironic line in the film after Willie's demise is spoken not by Dennis Price but by Michael Denison.
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