THE MAGIC BOX (1951)

Film history is filled with pioneers and visionaries, not all of whom found lasting acclaim. One of the most controversial was the British William Friese-Greene, who patented one of the first motion-picture cameras but died in poverty and obscurity in 1921. As part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, director-cinematographer Ronald Neave produced this lavish biographical film directed by John Boulting. Robert Donat stars as Friese-Greene, who gave up a successful portrait-taking business to make movies, eventually creating early versions of color photography and even 3D (the latter is not mentioned in the film). Neame wanted to commemorate Friese-Greene’s career with an all-star cast, but had trouble getting anybody to sign until Laurence Olivier agreed to play the small role of a policeman. He was quickly followed by Peter Ustinov, Michael Redgrave, Margaret Rutherford, Glynis Johns and more than a dozen other reigning British stars. Composer and conductor Muir Mathieson even signed on to play Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). Jack Cardiff shot the film in Technicolor and, like most of the crew, worked for a reduced salary and a percentage of the profits. This print is courtesy of The BFI National Archive and Rialto Pictures. (d. John Boulting, 118m, 35mm)

In attendance: LEONARD MALTIN