Blake Backlash celebrates the 160th birthday of William Friese-Greene by looking inside The Magic Box.
William Friese-Green was born 160 years ago today. He never got rich (he was declared bankrupt twice) and was never really successful. And he did not invent moving pictures. He probably thought he did, and in good faith: he seems to have had most of the right ideas, mostly at the right time. Louis le Prince shot moving pictures sooner, and the Lumiere brothers did it better. But Willie Green was canny, he got the Friese part of his name from his first wife, partly because he thought the double-barrel would made his photography business sound more prestigious. And he was passionate; his enthusiasm for photographic innovation seems to have sprung from a desire to get life into photographs, to photograph people in natural poses, outside of studios. To work with colour and movement because they are part of what makes people who they are.
There’s a scene in The Magic Box where young Willie Green (Robert Donat, at this point gamely trying to convince us he’s an 18 year old boy) woos Helena Friese, the woman he will marry and who will make him William Friese-Greene, by telling her about Persistence of Vision. When we see an image, he says, it lingers in the mind for a fraction of a second before it disappears. So when we see several images in quick succession, the pictures blend together and the illusion of movement is created.
None of that is true but Willie isn’t lying, people used to believe moving pictures worked that way. If it’s myth, it’s a myth that sustained everyone who invented the medium or wished they did. And is it any wonder, when the notion is so potent? Imagine it was true! Imagine the mind really did hold onto a picture until it faded, just like a sentimental lover clinging onto the past. The theory of Persistence of Vision speaks of memory, loss, and magic.
This is a film made up of those three elements. It’s also made up of glimpses of nearly every British actor who was famous in 1951. Once and future Miss Marples (Margaret Rutherford and Joan Hickson) turn up as Victorian matriarchs wanting their photographs taken. William Hartnell is a formidable Recruiting Sergeant – but as soon as you’ve twigged it was him taking down names, you’re watching Sid James handing out boots. We have the Festival of Britain to thank for all these cameos: this was the British film industry’s contribution to the celebrations, so if you acted in British films, it was your patriotic duty to make an appearance. Richard Attenborough, Marius Goring, Thora Hird, Joyce Grenfell, and Peter Ustinov all did their bit. Ustinov doesn’t even get to speak. Those five names are picked from the cast list, more or less at random, but publicity at the time of the film’s release promised ‘over sixty British stars’.
Those stars couldn’t make it a success though. The film wasn’t finished on time. Perhaps bringing over sixty stars down from the firmament to act in the film took longer than John Boulting (the director) and Robert Neame (producer) thought it would. Or perhaps not being finished on time is part of the film’s embodiment of Britishness. Anyway, by the time the film was ready to be shown the Festival only had a week left to run and it did not go on general release until 1952, whereupon it was a box-office failure.
That’s fitting in a way because the film is about failure. Or at least about not succeeding, never succeeding. When we first see Donat he’s a beaten down, shabbily dressed old man, clutching a reel of film and looking for all the world like Paul Whitehouse doing Unlucky Alf on the The Fast Show. This is William Friese-Greene on the 5th of May 1921, the day he will die. He visits Edith, his second wife (Margaret Johnston) and tries to convince her that the reel he’s clutching is colour films that will make them ‘the idle rich’ (she had left him 1917, exhausted by being poor). When it becomes clear that she doesn’t really want to see him, he tries to make them both feel better about it by telling her he has to leave to attend a meeting about the future of the film industry. After he’s gone she tells a co-worker about their marriage – this is the first of two flashbacks that make up most of the film’s running time. The second comes just before Friese-Greene makes a speech at that film industry gathering, his voice getting lost in a room full of cigar smoke and the voices of men that don’t care about what he has to say.
This flashback structure means everything we see in the film is touched by a sense of regret. Moments of triumph are rare and Eric Ambler’s script is fairly diffident about Friese-Greene’s achievements. When one of his sons says to him ‘You did invent the moving pictures, didn’t you, father?’ the reply starts ‘I think I did…’ and then Donat quietly delivers an explanation that acknowledges le Prince got there first. The film never shies away from showing us how difficult a lot of Friese-Greene’s life was: it spends a lot of time on what it was like to be broke at the turn of the century. Much of the supporting cast play debtors, bank managers and pawn-shop owners. Stanley Holloway brings his considerable charisma to the role of broker’s man delivering a very detailed speech about what he is and is not allowed to seize in lieu of missing rent.
But maybe I’m making it sound too dour. The film is often very funny and it’s good at evoking Friese-Greene’s charisma – we love him because of how much he loves the idea of moving pictures. It’s his way of loving life. Edith starts to fall in love with him when he says ‘you see, I wanted to capture movement because movement… it’s part of the beauty of things, isn’t it?’
As if responding to this passion, the film strives to capture the movement and beauty of the things that whir inside a camera (Ambler was fascinated with the process of film-making). As Friese-Greene journeys through a montage towards making his first movie camera, the film takes time to play tribute to the craftsmanship of the instrument makers who made the parts he needed. The camera lingers on Donat’s delighted face as he peers at intricately worked bits of brass. It’s like he’s building an enchanted clock that runs on light.
Friese-Greene shoots some film of his cousin in Hyde Park. (Raymond Spottiswoode, generally sceptical about Friese-Greene’s achievements, concedes this probably was one of the first bits of film ever shot). He stays up all night developing it (Boulting depicts this in an almost Eisensteinian sequence of brief shots of angular movement). Then, in the film’s funniest and happiest scene, he runs out and finds a passing policeman, who is somewhat alarmed by what Friese-Greene tells him (‘It’s something I’ve done, something you must come and see, Cousin Alfred never knew I was going to do it, he just stood there and now you can see him… almost as if he were alive!’).
When Friese-Greene shows the copper the film, we stay on the policeman’s face, as his expression moves from wariness to wonder. This is a great performance by… well, I won’t spoil that cameo, but when he says ‘That was Hyde Park. I recognised it’ those seven words seem to speak for every time a film has amazed us.
Of course this never happened. And some of the engineers who have studied Friese-Greene’s equipment have suggested that, while he might have been able to shoot film, it’s unlikely that he could have projected it fast enough to suggest movement.
But, whatever Friese-Greene’s achievements were, he really does seem to have been thrilled by the idea of films. Spottiswoode writes that ‘he was much ahead of his time in grasping the possibilities of the motion picture and in working strenuously if lamely towards their accomplishment’.
We see something of his sense of these possibilities at the end of the film, when we watch Friese-Greene deliver that speech to the film industry big-wigs. Ambler has him talk about how this thing of theirs has evolved ‘from a fairground sideshow into a kind of universal language that could say great things’. After he delivers the speech he dies. No one knows who he is, so they go through his pockets and find a prism, a canister of film and 1s. 10d. Someone’s remark about this meagre amount of money becomes one of the most devastating final lines any film ever had, one that inspires such a mix of sadness and pride in me that I can tear up just thinking about it on the bus.
That really was all that William Friese-Greene had on him when he died. He really did die just after he made a speech, although in real life he spoke of wondering if they would ever make a film about his life, and whether or not it would be true. If Ambler knew he said that, perhaps he thought putting it in the film would seem a little too neat.
Well, they did make a film about him. And even though it’s not true, it contains a lot of truth. You should seek it out on DVD. But today, you should also go and see a film projected on a screen, in front of an audience, the way William Friese-Greene dreamed they would be.
It’s his birthday today. Go to the pictures for him.