Also published on my Festival of Britain 1951 blogspot (see link at foot of post)
Before the opening credits of ‘The Magic Box’ (1951), the Festival of Britain logo flashes onto the screen. The film was shown at the Festival, before it went on general release. We can therefore assume that it was meant to fit in with the ethos of the Festival – a celebration of British achievement. It certainly showcases the best of contemporary acting talent, with a long list of stars performing in tiny cameo roles. Some parts are so tiny, it is literally a case of blink and you will miss them. I certainly missed seeing Googie Withers, Sheila Sim and Marius Goring. Others have slightly more prominent five-minute pieces, giving us a taste of the kind of role that they were famous for. Margaret Rutherford as a bossy yet coquettish dame, Laurence Olivier as an incredulous policeman, Joyce Grenfell as a fussy spinster and Eric Portman as an angry businessman. I could go on. It is a veritable pageant of drama skills.
The talent is a literal celebration of British film-making. But the storyline also looks at the life of film pioneer William Friese-Greene (played by Robert Donat). Fitting in with the Festival’s celebration of British science, it seems to say – ‘Look! It was us that invented film! But we are so modest with our achievements while other nationalities blow their own trumpets so loudly that they drown us out!’
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Having watched the film myself, I wasn’t impressed with the character of Friese-Greene. He is portrayed as a very selfish man, who puts his inventing before his wives and his children. His first wife dies of ill health – the film suggests that this was exacerbated by the debts that her husband ran up by eschewing proper work. He marries again and his six sons are all shown as suffering from his single minded attitude. In the end, three of them join World War One as under age soldiers in order to stop becoming a financial burden on their parents. This second marriage ends when his wife can take no more. He apparently destroyed the opportunity to become a rich society photographer because of his obsession with developing a moving picture. I was flabbergasted at this – surely he could have invented at evenings and weekends? This is how the rest of us have to follow our dreams!
I wonder if the 1951 audience took a different attitude? Were they meant to view him with sympathy as a man who gave up everything and got no recognition for his ground breaking work? This would sit more comfortably with the Festival ethos. Does ‘The Magic Box’ depict a long gone set of values, when it was understandable to put genius before family? When a man could get away more easily with neglecting his sons? A fascinating question of 1950s morals and mores.