The Magic Box
Images courtesy of Park Circus/StudioCanal

Cancelled: The Magic Box

classified U

Bristol UNESCO City of Film: Opening Up The Magic Box


Please note: This was screened in Aug 2021

John Boulting
John Howard Davies, Maria Schell, Richard Attenborough, Renée Asherson, Margaret Johnson, Robert Donat
118 mins, 1951, USA
Primary language

At Arnolfini

The story of Bristol-born film pioneer William Friese-Greene is told in The Magic Box, which was made for the Festival of Britain 70 years ago to celebrate British ingenuity.

Based on Ray Allister's book, Friese-Greene, Close-Up of an Inventor, the film offers fascinating insights into the pursuit of a dream – in this case to invent moving images – and the impact this has on the inventor’s family (Friese-Greene died virtually penniless thanks to his obsession). It’s also a defence of cinema as an art form for the people.

With a stellar cast and a brilliant production team – the film was made by the Boulting brothers and had a screenplay by Eric Ambler – it has been attacked as inaccurate. Although it plays with the facts as all biopics do, it provides a vivid representation of Friese-Greene, both the man and the way he lived his life. And it doesn’t claim that Friese-Greene invented moving pictures; as he says in the film, he was just one of the pioneers.

Terrifically entertaining with an engaging lead role played by Robert Donat, The Magic Box puts forward a great story with a great cast, with many cameo appearances by British stars, including Laurence Olivier playing the policeman who becomes the first member of the public to see Friese-Greene’s motion pictures projected on a screen.

This screening is part of Bristol Ideas’ #BristolFilm2021 in collaboration with South West Silents as part of Cinema Rediscovered 2021.

Opening Up the Magic Box – a heritage element of the Film 2021 programme – marks the centenary of the death of Bristol-born film pioneer William Friese-Greene and the 125th anniversary of the first public cinema screening in Bristol, which took place at the Tivoli on 8 June 1896, as well as celebrating Bristol – a UNESCO City of Film since 2017.

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