Review: The Magic Box (1951)

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Not that you people shouldn’t be expecting this type of talk from me already, but when I hear about a magic box my mind is somewhere completely different from a movie camera!

Written By: Eric Ambler
Directed By: John Boulting

Much like its main character, The Magic Box is a forgotten movie. It is one of the rare movies that doesn’t show when you do a search on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s sad that such a great film has been all but forgotten, but then again it wasn’t that recognized during its initial release. But, one of the joys of movie watching is finding those hidden gems that shock you with their greatness. The Magic Box is one such movie, I had never heard of it and only DVR’d it after seeing it had received a perfect rating on my program guide. My program guide is wrong most of the time, thank goodness I don’t let that stop me from paying attention to it.

The Magic Box is a story of genius, the lengths genius can take you to and how far one can fall when their genius isn’t appreciated or recognized. William Friese-Greene is a genius of unparalleled levels when it comes to photography and camera. Like any true genius he approaches his experimentation with a childlike wonder that is a joy to watch. The amazing thing about The Magic Box is that because of its fractured narrative we already know how Friese-Greene’s life will play out, that he will fail in grand fashion, but that doesn’t stop it from being a suspenseful journey through Friese-Greene’s travails. The movie builds upon this sense of wonder, scene after scene making you believe that he is that much closer to perfecting his creation. This culminates in the scene when Friese-Greene first tries out his machine, and as he begins to crank it we hope beyond hope that it will work. And then when it does and he is running frantically down the street we are happy as could be for him, even if we do know that his machine will never bring him any of the acclaim it should. The Magic Box may be a biopic, but it is a well crafted suspense tale with that one perfect moment where all the build comes to a head.

The Magic Box also looks beautiful, the Victorian era comes alive on the screen. The dresses and suits look authentic, the dingy dark rooms are both true to their time and clearly the home of an obsessive genius. The interactions with his family provide the counter to his genius as a good thing. You see how Friese-Greene’s genius constantly put up a barrier between the man and his family. He isn’t a bad man, but genius does cause people to be more selfish than most, and Robert Donat pulls off the many levels of William Friese-Greene with great aplomb. However, the story does suffer a little bit because of the inclusion of Friese-Greene’s children, especially his daughter. She is a faceless being and that wouldn’t be a problem unto itself. However when Friese-Greene goes from money related dilemma to dilemma she is nowhere to be found and it feels as if the narrative has lost sight of the whole picture.

The Magic Box isn’t a picture many people will remember or know about in any fashion. But, it is a film that more people should give a chance, because it is well crafted and presents a history of film that is contentious with the accepted one. The Magic Box suffers from some typical biopic pitfalls, but it rises above them for the most part to become a great movie going experience. Next time you fire up that magic box we call a TV, maybe you could pop in The Magic Box and see one possible origin of those moving pictures.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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