30 user 11 critic

The Magic Box (1951)

Approved | | Biography, Drama | 21 January 1952 (UK)
A chronicle of the life of William Friese-Greene, a British inventor and early pioneer in cinema.



(based on the biography: "Friese-Greene, Close Up of an Inventor"), (screenplay)

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Nominated for 2 BAFTA Film Awards. Another 1 win. See more awards »


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Cast overview, first billed only:
... Miss Tagg (as Renee Asherson)
... Jack Carter
... Lord Beaverbrook
... Sitter in Bath Studio
... Father in Family Group
John Charlesworth ... Graham Friese-Greene
... Bride's Father in Wedding Group
... 1st Company Promoter
John Howard Davies ... Maurice Friese-Greene
... Reporter
... William Friese-Greene
Joan Dowling ... Maggie
... Butler at Fox Talbot's
... Mrs. Nell Collings
Marjorie Fielding ... Elderly Viscountess


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 <jwp@aber.ac.uk>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


A rich and deeply moving story of a man whose achievement opened up a new world, and of the two women whose love and sacrifices made it possible! See more »


Biography | Drama


Approved | See all certifications »




Release Date:

21 January 1952 (UK)  »

Also Known As:

A Caixa Mágica  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


| (DVD) | (edited) | (TV)

Sound Mix:

(RCA Sound System)


(Colour by) (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


The film features three real life married couples: (1) Robert Donat (William Friese-Greene) and Renée Asherson (Miss Tagg), (2) Richard Attenborough (Jack Carter) and Sheila Sim (Nursemaid) and (3) John McCallum (Sitter in Bath Studio) and Googie Withers (Sitter in Bath Studio). See more »


The middle-aged Friese-Greene is shown meeting William Fox-Talbot, who actually died when the former was only 22. See more »


William Fox-Talbot: The original thinker - the innovator - mustn't mind seeming a little foolish to his contemporaries. He must always look to his star... In the end, he may still fail. That's unimportant. If he is true to himself, he won't be too unhappy or embittered, even in failure, and will still speak for what is good.
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Crazy Credits

Closing credits superimposed over the tablet bearing the following: WILLIAM FRIESE-GREENE 1855 - 1921 A PIONEER OF THE CINEMA See more »


Referenced in London Entertains (1951) See more »


Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile
(1915) (uncredited)
Written by George Asaf and Felix Powell
See more »

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User Reviews

Patriotic Flagwaver That Manages to Communicate Some of the Struggles of an Obsessive Character
23 October 2014 | by See all my reviews

Much has been said in other reviews about the subject of John Boulting's biopic, the inventor William Friese-Greene, who spent his life trying to create the eponymous "magic box" that would show moving pictures. Whether he was the first to do so is largely insignificant: the fact that he went largely unrecognized assumes far greater importance.

Planned to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951, THE MAGIC BOX recognizes the achievements of someone who spent just about everything - time, money and effort - on his work. Director Boulting alternates between scenes in Friese Greene's (Robert Donat's) laboratory, with domestic sequences involving his wives Edith (Margaret Johnston) and Helena (Maria Schell). Although a devoted husband, Friese-Greene is so obsessed with his work that he neglects his family; as shown in several sequences where he begins to talk excitedly about his discoveries, while remaining oblivious to his wives' complaints. In one sequence, for example, Edith has to remind him that he has missed an important concert at which he was supposed to be the soloist; to avoid any embarrassment with the conductor (Muir Matheson), she had to fill in for him. Sometimes his wives sacrifice their own health to support him; Helena is shown in close-up crumpling a medicinal prescription in her hand as she travels home by coach. In her view it's far more important to encourage Friese-Greene's work than to cure her congenital heart condition.

Boulting adopts an equivocal view of Friese-Greene's work; although obviously an innovator, his obsessions caused pain and suffering in his family, and led to the break-up of profitable partnerships such as that with rich northern business person Arthur Collings (Eric Portman), which could have secured Friese-Greene's financial future.

The film is structured in double flashback, showing us how Friese- Greene's life, and enabling Donat to give a virtuoso performance in the title role. This most underrated of British actors was particularly good at portraying tortured souls (remember GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (1939)), and he manages to communicate the pain lurking at the heart of Friese-Greene's soul, once he realizes the damage he has done to his family. Boulting is fond of using the quick close-up to register his emotions.

As well as being a celebration of the inventor, THE MAGIC BOX celebrates the British film industry by offering roles to virtually all the major stars (and supporting actors) working in the studios at that time. The film offers fans the pleasure of identifying people in the smallest roles, and enjoying scene-stealing cameos such as Margaret Ruthferford's irascible dowager telling Friese- Greene's first employer Guttenberg (Frederick Valk) off; Joyce Grenfell at her toothiest as a member of Edith's choral society; Sidney James and William Hartnell as a pair of World War One army personnel; and Laurence Olivier in his famous cameo as a London police officer marveling at Friese-Greene's invention.

Thematically speaking, Eric Ambler's script might be a familiar one, but that does not prevent viewers from enjoying the film as a celebration of a long-forgotten figure as well as British films as a whole.

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