Old Jack is having a bit of a Robert Donat period. My old Grandpa Gus was a fan and, well, so should you be. An occasional treat in British cinema from the late 1920s to his untimely exit from the planet in the 1950s, he made few films, but they ranged from hits to noble failues. One such was The Magic Box, which turned out to be in Nurse Stabby-Fingers’ Christmas boxset of oddities from her mother-in-law. This is a British film from the 1950s: the mother-in-law may love her son’s wife; she may hate her. Who knows?
The Magic Box is the unreliable biography of a pioneer of cinema. Donat plays William Friese-Greene, the archetype of the crazed inventor who went hell for leather to create moving pictures – wrecking the lives of the two women he loved along the way. Not through brutality, mind, rather the drudge of bankruptcy, poverty, lost possessions and broken dreams.
Donat, as ever, is marvellous – if riffing a bit too obviously off his Mr Chips tricks. We meet Friese-Green as an old man, sallow and sad, but still ambitious and dreaming, and flash back through his life via his nearly-bitter second wife (Margaret Johnston as the grey-with-disappointment Edith) and then via his own memories of the first marriage (Maria Schell as the vulnerable and loving Helena is properly touching).
The memories tell similar stories – in rather powerful colour – of the pains of inventing cinematography in cellars. The second wife shares scenes of the failing middle-aged man gliding towards impoverished old age – repeatedly hawking his boys’ christening cups to keep the family afloat. The film shows us the brightly lit, colourful parade of smiling men – many underage like the Friese-Greene kids – marching off to World War One. The parents stand at the window, him espousing hope, her not believing it – as the boys deliberately stop themselves being a burden. It’s a point the film skids past that made old Jack reflect on success: would I take selfish freedom over young Steve and Jacketta? Would you? And why didn’t the man learn?
The first wife’s story is one of support no matter what. Donat lets some powerful youth through in the early scenes, meeting then dining Helena until love takes them to a fast marriage. She’s a dreamer too…and you can guess where it ends.
Enough of the biog. This film is a history of British entertainment in itself. Made as part of The Festival of Britain celebrations, post-war Britain needing a pick-me-up, the release was botched and it crashed out of sight. Which is a real shame because the cast is pure gold – and lots of it: Robert Donat, Harcourt Williams, Michael Denison, Margaret Rutherford, Joan Hickson… Michael Hordern declares him bankrupt. Laurence Olivier is the policeman he drags in to show the first cine footage projected on a sheet. Even his kid, Maurice, is played by John Howard Davies – producer of Steptoe and Son, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. William Hartnell is a recruiting sergeant. Stanley Holloway the bailiff. Sidney James, Glynis Johns, and, damn me if the Voice of the Book himself, Peter Jones, doesn’t help Donat hobble away from his final telling speech to a group of film financiers.
I can’t stop!
There’s Peter Ustinov silently bellicose in the crowd. Dennis Price, Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike and Googie Withers sit for photos in young Willy’s studio. Look away and you’d miss Richard Murdoch or David Tomlinson or Joyce Grenfell. Even a young Robert Beatty, familiar of voice if not yet of face, brings a ferocious Lord Beaverbrook to Friese-Green’s last stand. You can look up Thora Hird for yourself…
A peculiar celebration this, the sad life of a man not honoured until the moment he died. For old Jack, sat pondering my own life on a Sunday afternoon, it is a country mile from reflective melancholy. Friese-Green was a great, forgotten man. This film will teach you something, amaze you with a stellar cast, and give you a proper taste of Donat’s capacity for taking a strong young man to frail old age – in colour. You’ll pity his wives and regret not putting more effort into being remembered.
Get the DVD, go learn stuff the fun way…and watch the British Film Industry say sorry.