On 5 May 1921, William Friese-Greene died while attending a meeting of film distributors in London. He had devoted much of his life to the creation of moving images. Yet, all he had in his purse was 1s 10d, which is the equivalent of around £4 in today's money. In order to mark the centenary of the passing of this much-derided, yet still irresistibly romantic figure in film's pre-history, Cinema Paradiso reflects on John Boulting's fanciful, but fascinating biopic, The Magic Box (1951), which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.
In a bid to boost postwar morale, the Labour government decided to mark the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition with a Festival of Britain. The focus of events would be the South Bank of the River Thames, where one of the most popular attractions was the Telecinema, whose programme included four shorts in 3-D. The forerunner of the National Film Theatre that has since been rebranded BFI South Bank, this bijou 410-seat venue showed such actualities as Family Portrait (1950), which can be found on The Complete Humphrey Jennings: Volume 3 - A Diary For Timothy (2013), and Basil Wright and Bill Launder's Waters of Time (1951), which forms part of the four-strong London's Port & River Heritage series that is completed by Basil Wright's City of Ships (1940), Kenneth Fairburn's The Royal River (1960) and Bob Hunter's Thames Port (1973).
In all, 458,693 patrons paid to visit the Telekinema. But, at the time of his death three decades earlier, William Friese-Greene would not have been able to afford the two-shilling entrance fee. Ironically, he would have recognised a moment in Norman McLaren's stereoscopic animation, Now Is the Time (1951), as it showed a blue stick figure removing his head in much the same way that John Arthur Roebuck Rudge had done in a seven-slide photographic illusion that he and Friese-Greene had concocted for Rudge's Biophantic Lantern in a Bath backstreet in the early 1880s.
This production of this amusing optical trick didn't make it into The Magic Box, an all-star extravaganza that was commissioned for the Festival to showcase the range of British cinematic talent. Indeed, the mythical takes precedence over the factual for much of the 113-minute biopic, which some contemporary critics suggested was the film industry's act of atonement for neglecting Friese-Greene and his labours during his later years. Such is the charismatic sincerity of Robert Donat's performance that, even in 2021, viewers will be willing him on to invent motion pictures. But, the truth is, this handsome saga bears as much resemblance to actual events as Michael Curtiz's Cole Porter memoir, Night and Day (1946), and David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980). Or does it?
The Magic Box
Films take time to plan and meetings were held in the late 1940s to discuss the features that would grace the Festival of Britain. Producer Alexander Korda and director Frank Launder offered to make a period piece about the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, while rumours spread about Richard Todd headlining an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (which remains unfilmed, although Cinema Paradiso users can catch two excellent TV versions starring Alan Bates from 1978 and Ciarán Hands from 2003). Instead, Todd acted as the host of Gilbert Gunn's The Elstree Story (1952), as the studio in which Alfred Hitchcock had made talkie history with Blackmail (1929) had just celebrated its silver jubilee.
Fresh from completing The Red Shoes (1948), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger promised to deliver The Tales of Hoffman (1951) in time for the festivities. But it soon became clear that the most suitable subject for a showcase of British achievement was William Friese-Greene, who was rather on the film industry's conscience after he had died at one of its meetings at Connaught House within minutes of delivering a hesitant speech about his contribution to the invention of the film camera and the need for warring factions to unite for the benefit of film-makers and audiences alike. Indeed, such was the sense of regret among the hierarchy that they had paid for Friese-Greene's funeral and sent floral tributes in the shape of a camera and a screen with the words 'The End' picked out in blooms. They also arranged for cinema projectors to fall dark for two minutes as a mark of respect. Furthermore, they backed a plan for the famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, to design Friese-Greene's monument in Highgate Cemetery.
Around the time the first discussions were held in 1948, Muriel Forth published a biography, Friese-Greene: Close-Up of an Inventor, under the name Ray Allister. The tome was cordially reviewed, even though it was riddled with inaccuracies, exaggerations, suppositions, misdatings and errors. This was largely because Forth had relied on the recollections of Will Day, an avid collector of anything relating to the dawn of cinema, whose memory proved as unreliable as his still unpublished (come on, someone) film history, 25,000 Years to Trap a Shadow. However, director John Boulting recognised that Friese-Greene's story chimed in with the Festival's aims, as well as the 'never give up' attitude that had prevailed during the war.
Identical twins John and Roy Boulting tended to work together. But, with Roy being busy with the sabotage thriller, High Treason (1951), John turned for assistance to Ronald Neame, a cinematographer who had graduated to producing on David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). He readily came aboard and suggested bestselling author Eric Ambler to adapt the screenplay, as he felt indebted to him after the bumpy production of Lean's The Passionate Friends (1949). Moreover, as a two-time Oscar nominee in the writing categories, Neame was able to make useful contributions to the script, as he had worked with Friese-Greene's cinematographer son, Claude, and had picked up such anecdotes about living with the hard-up inventor as the one about the Friese-Greene siblings jumping off slowing trains in order to avoid having to pay fares on their daily trips to and from school.
It was quickly decided to cast Robert Donat as Friese-Greene after Ambler had made him seem like a kindred spirit to the schoolmaster who had brought Donat the Academy Award for Best Actor in Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939). Maria Schell and Margaret Johnston were also cast as Friese-Greenes two wives. But Neame and Boulting envisaged the minor roles as guest spots for the biggest names in British cinema, so that the feature would appeal to audiences worldwide. Ambler duly obliged and dotted every scene with amusing cameos that would suit stars and character players alike.
With a budget of only £220,000, Boulting and Neame knew that the key to their casting scheme was Laurence Olivier, as if the finest actor in the country signed up for a token fee, others would follow suit. He was all in favour and cannily chose the role of PC 94-B, as this meant that he got to share the screen with Donat during the showstopping 'eureka' moment. In all, over 50 famous faces reported for duty, with the most notable refusenik being Alec Guinness. Neame clearly forgave him, though, as when he turned director Neame starred Guinness in The Card (1952), The Horse's Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960), all of which are available to rent on high-quality DVD from Cinema Paradiso.
Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret visited the set at Elstree, but conditions had to be controlled because Donat suffered from debilitating asthma. Indeed, ozone machines were used to keep the air clean, but Donat was still prone to relapses at moments of stress. During the sequence in which Friese-Greene collects his prized camera from Mr Lege, Donat kept fluffing his lines and his wheezing got worse with each take. While he was resting, Michael Redgrave offered to muff his dialogue, as he knew that Donat would try to make him feel better and the gambit worked to perfection.
Unusually employing a double flashback structure, the action first takes us to the 1910s, as William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat) is raising four sons with his second wife, Edith Harrison (Margaret Johnson). She had met him when he was working on x-rays with assistant Jack Carter (Richard Attenborough). But his new passion was colour cinematography and the family so suffers from his workaholism and lack of commercial success that the three oldest sons volunteer for the army in 1915 to lighten the domestic load.
The second flashback goes back to Bristol in the 1870s, where Willie Green is working for to fashionable photographer Maurice Guttenberg (Frederick Valk). The apprentice has the better eye, however, and he is encouraged to branch out on his own by Swiss bride Helena Friese, whose name he adds to his own to make him sound more distinguished. Soon, Friese-Greene has a daughter and shops across the South West. He is also a prominent member of the Bath Choral Society, but shames his wife when he forgets the time while meeting photographic pioneer William Fox Talbot (Basil Sydney) and misses a solo in a performance conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan (Muir Mathieson).
Knowing her husband's work is his life and that the experiments with moving pictures he has been conducting with John Rudge (Cecil Trouncer) might make his fortune, Helena encourages Friese-Greene to go into business with Arthur Collings (Eric Portman) in London). Unfortunately, the obsession with his dream causes Friese-Greene to neglect his photographic duties and he is left in dire financial straits after the partnership is acrimoniously dissolved.
However, he borrows money from his cousin Alfred (Bernard Miles), whom he successfully films one Sunday morning while walking in Hyde Park. Overjoyed, Friese-Greene rushes out at three in the morning to persuade a passing policeman to see what he has done. Struggling to overcome glitches with his camera and with Helena's health failing, Friese-Greene is forced to move to smaller premises. But Helena ensures that he has space for his laboratory and gifts him a prism on his birthday. This will be found among his meagre belongings after he collapses at a fractious meeting of film distributors chaired by Lord Beaverbrook (Robert Beatty).
Boasting exquisite costumes provided by B.J. Simmons & Co., authentic interiors by John Bryan, glorious Technicolor imagery by Jack Cardiff and a plaintiff score by William Alwyn, The Magic Box couldn't have looked or sounded better. It was politely received on either side of the Atlantic by critics who appreciated the intention and the execution. But few were convinced by the validity of the claims made on behalf of a largely forgotten figure and the film lost money. More ruinously, Friese-Greene's reputation would take a trashing in the 1960s, when historian and Kodak Museum curator Brian Coe took aim in a series of articles for the journal, Screen. But the Friese-Greene story still had some secrets to yield.
One of seven children, William Edward Green was born in Bristol on 7 September 1855, the son of metal-worker James Green and his wife, Elizabeth Sage, who was a farmer's daughter. On leaving Queen Elizabeth Hospital School at the age of 14, Willie worked in the studio of photographer Maurice Guttenberg. Soon after marrying Helena Friese on 24 March 1874, however, the 18 year-old changed his name and opened his own portrait studio in Bath. Further shops followed in Bath, Bristol and Plymouth, but Friese-Greene's attention was deflected from the early 1880s by his association with instrument maker John Rudge, as he helped him demonstrate the Biophantic Lantern, which was patented in 1884 and was capable of simulating movement through the passage before the lens of seven sequential slides.
While Rudge moved on to develop the Biophantascope, Friese-Greene relocated to London in 1885 to open a chain of photographic shops with Esme Collings (not Arthur, as in the film), who would later become a significant figure in the Brighton School of film-making alongside George Albert Smith and James A, Williamson, whose pictures were distributed by Charles Urban (more of whom anon). Rather than work on moving images with Collings, however, Friese-Greene designed a camera in 1888 to take sequential images on paper film. The following year, he teamed with engineer Mortimer Evans to build a camera that could reach speeds of 10 frames per second and they seemingly used this to shoot the scene by the Serpentine in Hyde Park in October 1889.
In March 1890, Friese-Greene sent Thomas Alva Edison a cutting of a British Photographic News article about his camera, which was reprinted in Scientific American the following month. Edison was working on a camera and viewer of his own with British assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson and a dispute would later reach the courts about the extent to which the Menlo Park duo had 'borrowed' ideas from their Bristolian counterpart.
Accounts vary, however, as to whether the Evans device successfully projected images at a photographic convention in Chester in July 1890. The records similarly conflict in the case of the stereoscopic camera that Friese-Greene refined with Frederick Varley to accommodate Eastman's new celluloid strips. By this time, the family lived at 39 King's Road in Chelsea and, at some point during 1891, Friese-Greene captured a few seconds of life outside his studio. Once again, eye witness statements exist, but any chance he had of capitalising on his success were dashed when he was declared bankrupt.
It has always been presumed that Friese-Greene's bid to 'convey the idea of life and motion' was unsuccessful and that the claims made in The Magic Box could not be substantiated. Undisputably, several people had made progress in the field before Friese-Greene, including Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, Ottomar Anschütz and Louis Le Prince, But, as Eric Ambler's script notes during the touching scene in which Friese-Greene consoles the son who has been beaten up at school for challenging a bully who had denied that his father had invented moving pictures, the camera that Friese-Greene had fashioned was similar in many ways to the Cinématographe that Louis and Auguste Lumière had used to give the first projected show to paying customers on 28 December 1895.
What's more, the estimable Peter Carpenter - who also uses the name Peter Domankiewicz when directing charming features like Tea & Sangria (2014) - has taken the trouble to follow the evidence rather than accept the claims of Day, Allister and Coe. Full details of his exploits can be found on the excellent William Friese-Greene & Me website, which contains a wondrous sequence reconstructed from photographs taken from the Will Day Collection at the Cinémathèque Française that appear to confirm that Friese-Greene did record the Chelsea street scene in 1891. Whether he found a way to project the footage remains another matter, however.
n a bid to alleviate his debts, Friese-Greene sold the patent for the 1889 camera for £500 and it eventually lapsed. In 1893, he patented a variation on Varley's stereo camera, but nothing more was heard of him for three years, by which time the Lumières had been deemed the winners over the Sklandonowsky brothers of Berlin in the race to project moving images to paying customers. In Britain, the laurels were awarded to Birt Acres and Robert William Paul, whose work can be seen on the splendid BFI collection, Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers (2005).
It's uncertain how much Friese-Greene cared by this point, as he had been widowed and jailed for trying to borrow money after being declared bankrupt. In 1896, he collaborated with John Alfred Prestwich on a twin-lens projector that was intended to reduce flicker. However, it had no commercial application and Friese-Greene turned his attention to x-rays and colour shortly before he met and married Ethel Harrison in 1897.
Now residing in Brighton, he shared a patent for a prismatic colour system with William Norman Lascelles Davidson before turning his attention in 1905 to Biocolour, in which alternative frames on a monochrome strip were stained red or blue-green. In 1913, however, G.A. Smith and Charles Urban sued that Biocolour infringed their Kinemacolor patents. But, even though the 1915 appeal verdict in the House of Lords favoured Friese-Greene, he failed to exploit his advantage, despite continuing to work on various colour formats with his son, Claude. Indeed, Boulting has him clutching a tin of film during his last meeting with Edith and it's this alone that facilitates his identification at the Connaught Rooms.
While The Magic Box rightly shows Friese-Greene lurching between periods of affluence and penury, it fails to show that was a prolific inventor with over 70 patents to his name, one of which related to an airship. Among his most ingenious optical creations was a system for reproducing photographs in magazines, while another speeded up the printing of photographs for cigarette cards. He also registered an early patent for photographic typesetting. Such endeavours confirm Friese-Greene as forward thinker and an indefatigable optimist, while also casting doubt on the claims of his detractors that he was a chancer who frequently tried to take credit for the ingenuity of his collaborators.
It's a shame that Domankiewicz didn't get to film the 2004 screenplay that apparently centred on Friese-Greene's 1910 trip to New York to testify in the court case that confounded Edison in the Patents War. But The Magic Box remains a worthy tribute to set aside the sincere, if inaccurate inscription on his memorial: William Friese Greene, the Inventor of Kinematography. His genius bestowed upon humanity the boon of commercial kinematography, of which he was the first inventor and patentee.'
The Open Road (1925)1h 4min
We have the archivists at the BFI to thank for this record of Claude Friese-Greene's motor jaunt from Land's End to John O'Groats, as they not only restored the 26 reels of footage shot between 1924 and 1926, but they also gave it some narrative logic. Embarking just three years after the death of his father, William, Friese-Greene road tested the natural colour process they had been working on and the results are simply superb. As Dan Cruickshank points out in The Lost World of Friese-Greene (2006) - which followed on from his earlier archive trawl, The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon (2004) - this is a unique insight into what the British Isles looked like a century ago. Sadly, the journey made little cinematic impact in the 1920s, as the alternating red and blue-green filters casting light on to the monochrome images caused fringing and flickering. But they can be seen here in all their glory, with an accompanying score by Neil Brand.
Lease of Life (1954)1h 34min
Robert Donat is one of Britain's finest screen actors. He was so good opposite Oscar winner Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) that Hollywood beckoned. But Donat disliked California and returned to delight in René Clair's The Ghost Goes West (1935). The same year, Alfred Hitchcock cast him in The 39 Steps before he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939). He also excelled in Anthony Asquith's The Winslow Boy (1948). Unfortunately, asthma limited him to 20 films and Charles Frend's adaptation of Pat Jenkins's novel about a vicar hiding a terminal illness reunited him with Magic Box scribe Eric Ambler. Paired with Kay Walsh as his supportive wife, Donat exudes spiritual sincerity and human decency in providing a peerless example to the parishioners of Hinton St John. Photographed by Douglas Slocombe in soft Eastmancolor, this snapshot of a bygone England can be found on Volume 11 of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) aka: It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad WorldPlay trailer2h 34min
All-star movies have existed since the Hollywood studios showcased their biggest names in screen revues showing off their new sound technology. They resurfaced during the Second World War to boost morale at home and overseas, but really caught on after Michael Anderson's won the Oscar for Best Picture with his cameo-filled take on Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Led by Spencer Tracy, Stanley Kramer's buried treasure caper remains the acme of the form, as well over 70 familiar faces hurtle around Los Angeles for 154 madcap minutes. Not all of the gags land, but they come so thick and fast that audiences bombarded with wisecracks and pratfalls chuckled themselves into submission. Compare this joke fest with Elizabeth Banks's Movie 43 (2013) to see what we mean. Kramer was better known for social conscience pictures like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), but this masterclass in laugh logistics reveals his inner prankster.
Microbes and Men (1974)5h 30min
In addition to such inventor biopics as The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and Young Tom Edison (1940), Hollywood also produced such scientific discovery memoirs as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940). Made in the same vein and produced in conjunction with Time-Life, this six-part BBC series about developments in bacteriology is all the more pertinent during the ongoing mass vaccination against coronavirus. Following the efforts of Hungarian obstetrician Ignacz Semmelweis (Robert Lang) to improve hygiene standards on Viennese maternity wards in the 1840s, the focus shifts on to how the rivalry between chemist Louis Pasteur (Arthur Lowe), country doctor Robert Koch (James Grout) and biologist Ferdinand Cohn (Michael Poole) led to a cure for rabies. Similarly, we learn how Émile Roux (Charles Kay) and Louis Thuillier (Ioan Meredith) combined to battle cholera and how Koch, Emil Behring (David Swift) and Paul Ehrlich (Milo O'Shea) worked towards serums for tuberculosis and syphilis. Making serious science accessible, this is essential viewing for boxed-set addicts.
Nickelodeon (1976)1h 58min
As Friese-Greene testified in court in 1910, Thomas Alva Edison was not the sole holder of the patents he so aggressively defended during the so-called Trust Wars. In order to protect his monopoly, Edison founded the Motion Picture Patents Company to restrict licences to affiliated studios. Dozens of independents sought to operate outside the system, however, and Peter Bogdanovich admirably captures the seat-of-the-pants spirit of early American cinema. Churning out handcranked shorts starring Buck Greenaway (Burt Reynolds) and Kathleen Cooke (Jane Hitchcock), Leo Harrigan (Ryan O'Neal) learns on the job, as he keeps dodging MPPC agents intent on smashing his equipment. Eventually forced to quit New Jersey for Hollywoodland, Leo discovers what a hack he is when he sees D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). Conveying the magic of giving people those `little pieces of time that they never forget', this is an underrated gem and it's a shame that Bogdanovich has never released his 2008 monochrome cut on disc.
While Friese-Greene was burning the midnight oil in London, Max Skladanowsky was doing the same in Berlin and he's played with winning intensity by Udo Kier in this splendidly offbeat biopic, which was made to mark the centenary of cinema by Wim Wenders and some students from Munich's University of Television and Film. Designed by Michael Willadt and Andreas Schroll and photographed by Jürgen Jürges in the flickering style of early motion pictures, this distinctive documentary brings history to vivid life. Leaving Max to tinker with his Bioskop, brothers Emil (Otto Kuhnle) and Eugen (Christoph Merg) entertain music-hall audiences with a mix of juggling and magic lantern trickery. Egging on her father and uncles is the spirited Gertrud (Nadine Buttner), who became the world's first child star through the flick books Max creates from his sequential images. Although she didn't witness events first-hand, 91 year-old Lucie Hurtgen-Skladanowsky knows all about her family's achievements and her contribution makes this delightfully quirky project all the more valuable and engaging.
It's too easy to dismiss the first films as flickering oddities that lack the sophistication of today's effects-laden blockbusters. But this 60-strong BFI selection from cinema's first 16 years reveals how quickly the earliest directors learned how to use a machine that had initially recorded scenes of everyday life to create intricate visuals that are every bit as ingenious as anything computer generated. Although there are several French and American titles here, Brits like R.W. Paul, Birt Acres, G.A. Smith. James Bamforth, James A. Williamson and Cecil Hepworth are well represented and all would have been familiar to William Friese-Greene. Among the standouts are Smith's Sick Kitten (1903), Paul's The ? Motorist and Hepworth's Rescued By Rover (both 1905), while the Lumière comedy, L'arroseur arrosé (1895), and Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) are genuine cultural landmarks. To see how this fairground novelty evolved into an artform, rent the five volumes in Lobster Films's wonderful Retour de Flamme series.
Hugo (2011)Play trailer2h 1min
Friese-Greene was far from the only pioneer to be forgotten by the medium he had helped create. As is readily evident from Jacques Meny's Méliès the Magician (1997), conjuror-turned-director Georges Méliès was the brains behind a mechanical novelty becoming a source of entertainment and enchantment. By the 1930s, however, the maker of A Trip to the Moon (1902) was the owner of a toy store on the concourse of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris (Ben Kingsley). In his handsome adaptation of Brian Selznick's 2007 book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese makes evocative use of the setting designed by Dante Ferretti to draw the audience into the milieu of a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) whose obsession with clocks (cue the famous scene from Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, 1923) derives from his father's ambition to repair a broken automaton. Throughout, it's clear to see the influence of The Magic Box, which Scorsese has cited as the film that inspired him to direct.
The Current War (2017) aka: The Current War: Director's CutPlay trailer1h 44min
Film-makers always have a problem when it comes to depicting the lives of historical inventors, as all the brain-boxery that made them famous isn't exactly cinematic. There are only so many scenes of bewhiskered fellows pondering at a desk or tinkering in a laboratory that an audience can take. So, screenwriters seek out any domestic discord that might make the genius more relatable or some insurmountable odds that they had to overcome to realise their vision. A crowdpleasing alternative is a bitter rivalry and that's what Alfonso Gomez-Rejon alights upon in this account of the battle between Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse to electrify America. Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon relish the tussle, which is intensified by the defection of Serbian migrant Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who seems puzzled by the notion that anyone would put commerce above science. Jan Roelfs's meticulous production design and Chung-Hoon Chung's bravura camerawork reinforce the crackling atmosphere, which makes for a fascinating contrast with The Magic Box's more measured approach.
Play trailer1h 28min
Invention and cinema came together in the form of Hedy Lamarr, who had arrived in Hollywood after becoming a naked sensation in Gustav Machatý's Ecstasy (1932), which was reportedly Adolf Hitler's favourite film. Promoted by MGM as the world's most beautiful woman, Lamarr and her lingering Viennese accent brought exotic glamour and intrigue to pictures as different as John Cromwell's Algiers (1936) and Jacques Tourneur's Experiment Perilous (1944). However, as Alexandra Dean reveals in this riveting documentary, the bright lights appealed less to Lamarr than helping the Allied war effort. Institutionalised xenophobia and chauvinism meant that the US Navy ignored the `frequency hopping' theory that she had hatched with composer George Antheil to prevent the enemy sabotaging remote-controlled missiles and Lamarr was forced to return to the day job in the likes of Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) and Norman Z. McLeod's My Favorite Spy (1951). But the value of the discarded concept was eventually recognised and is now crucial to bluetooth and wifi technology.