Tag Archives: The Magic Box

Opening up The Magic Box

27 Jul

In 1951, Robert Donat was at the head of a star-studded cast in the British film industry’s contribution to the Festival of Britain, The Magic Box, portraying cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene. Although it’s an underrated film, it has inspired film makers like Martin Scorsese (as we explored on this site previously). Not only has the film been underrated, but many believe its subject has too.

As part of #BristolFilm2021, film director and historian Peter Domankiewicz is raising the profile of William Friese-Greene in the centenary year of his death. Cinema Rediscovered has teamed up with Bristol Ideas and South West Silents to present Opening up the Magic Box, a celebration of several parts.

From the Watershed website:

“There’s an opportunity to watch the all-star 1951 biopic, The Magic Box and listen to insights from Peter Domankiewicz and arts historian Sir Christopher Frayling, who have each contributed a chapter on the rediscovery of Friese-Greene for a new Bristol Ideas book of essays published this autumn. #BristolFilm2021

Always looking to the future, Friese-Greene created some of the earliest colour film systems, leading to his son Claude capturing 1920s Britain in colour in The Open Road, which will screen with a live accompaniment from world famous composer and musician Neil Brand.”

The Magic Box screening takes place on Sunday August 1 at 11.00am. To book, here’s a link. Follow that up on the same day by attending Peter Domankiewicz and Christopher Frayling: Who was William Friese-Greene? at 14.00. Peter tells me what makes The Magic Box so significant is the way Robert captures Friese-Greene. It is indeed time to do both men justice.

William Friese-Greene photographed in c.1890

Do follow Peter Domankiewicz at Twitter for more news on the project.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo inspired by The Magic Box

2 Dec

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese is in the UK at the moment promoting his latest film, Hugo, which, it was announced today, has been named best film by the National Board of Review in the US. We’ve been delighted to see that Mr Scorsese has referenced the inspiration he took from Robert Donat’s 1951 film, The Magic Box, in his interviews.

The Magic Box, produced and directed by John Boulting, is a biopic telling the story of British cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene. It was the film industry’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. The great honour of starring as William Friese-Greene was offered to Robert, who accepted and gave film audiences their first sight of him in Technicolor (shot by Jack Cardiff). Many of the leading British actors and actresses of the time filled the film’s minor roles, including Laurence Olivier, Margaret Rutherford, Richard Attenborough and Eric Portman. The screenplay was by Eric Ambler from Ray Allister’s biography.

Check our new Where to buy page to source your copy.


Indie London‘s Rob Carnevale has very kindly allowed us to reproduce his recent interview with Martin Scorsese.

Hugo – Martin Scorsese interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale
Hugo, Martin Scorsese

MARTIN Scorsese talks about some of the inspirations behind his new movie Hugo including the films that first captured his imagination as a child going to the cinema.

He also talks about working in 3D for the first time and why he feels he would like to do it again and where he sees the future of cinema as well as its history.

Q. This is about the power of movies to inspire people. Can you remember the first time you sat in the cinema and were really inspired by a film?
Martin Scorsese: I think for me movies, for a long period of time, were a refuge, in a way… I have to say that because of having asthma I was not allowed to do… it was 1944-45 and I wasn’t able to do anything sporty or with animals. So, I was pretty much taken to the movie theatre very often and I saw many films in the ‘40s and became in amid of the Western genre because what I couldn’t go near, or be near, there it was on the screen. And I started making my own little drawings… almost like a comic strip. But the film that I think created the biggest impression on me about film and about filmmaking – the one that prompted me to say ‘maybe you could do this yourself’ – was The Magic Box.

My father took me to see that in ’52 when I was nine or 10-years-old. The thing about that film was not just the moving image but it was the obsession and the passion of the people at that time. It told the story of [the inventor of the first movie camera] William Friese-Greene, played by Robert Donat, who invested a lot of sweetness in the character and yet he was a man who was so obsessed that his life was destroyed by it. There was something about that film, the love, the passion, that he had for the potential of this new machinery… coming at a time, too, pre-World War I, at a time when the whole world was experiencing major change up until 1914 or so. It was going to be such a different society – HG Wells, Jules Verne, you know – and so cinema… something happened when I saw that picture. And it has that wonderful scene in it, too, with Lumiere’s the train coming through the station. So, that was the first time and at home I started drawing more pictures… pictures that moved. But there was something about the beauty of his obsession with the potential of the mechanism itself, the creation of celluloid… of course it’s all different now with digital but it’s still about telling stories with a moving image.

Q. The film comes across as a love letter to silent movies and to that embryonic period. How important is it to you that today’s generation recognises where movies came from? And how important is it that film as an entity is preserved?
Martin Scorsese: Well, I think that the problem isn’t so much with this generation, it’s the same with every generation, which is the obligation of the one before to inform and to expose the next generation to the great art of the past… great, good, possibly good, maybe not very good! But to a certain extent that goes with everything. I think there are many painters who study the old masters in museums, as well as theatre, language and, of course, literature. I guess there might be a school of thought that we don’t have to see anything of the past to express yourself artistically… to write a novel, to write a play, to make films.

But I think if we make it available, one studies or one becomes aware of the older work that came before, of the Old Masters… It’s easy if you want to reject it… that’s part of the process, to be angry and say ‘well, that’s not good at all’ or ‘this is wonderful here’… and then come back to realising that maybe you were a little too harsh 20 years later, or 30 years later, that you were too harsh on certain people when you were younger. But the reality is that it’s exciting to do that with children and a younger generation. It’s very exciting. And you never know how young people perceive what they see on the stage, or particularly from cinema. I don’t know what the cinema screen is going to become…


Or rather, I do know… I think if things run their course it’s going to be something that’s not going to stay on the stage – I should say on the wall – but something that’s going to be moved out to the audience in many different ways. And that could be a very low budget independent film or it could be a film that cost a great deal of money. But I do think it’s important to make younger people aware of what came before in every aspect of every art form. And it’s exciting too because as you do that, very often as you’re working with young people or students mentoring them, the ideas you get from them… I get a lot out of them… whether I’ve expressed it correctly or not I don’t know. But I do get a kind of regeneration of that… to see that excitement sometimes. I mean we showed Asa and Chloe The Magic Box and we gave Asa Yojimbo.

Q. With this and The Artist coming out as well there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in silent cinema…
Martin Scorsese: You know, I have no idea about The Artist. I mean, I understand it’s a silent film in black and white. But again, a lot of this has to do with timing I think. I don’t know what’s going on in California. I live in Manhattan. So, I had no idea these films would be coming out at the same time. The thing about the silent cinema, you have to understand, is that while there was a great response to it, that was one kind of cinema… but when cinema started, everybody wanted sound immediately and depth. The Lumiere brothers made several films in 3D. And they’ve been restored. I saw them. They were made in the ‘20s. Eisenstein was working on 3D when he had his heart attack… can you imagine Eisenstein films in 3D? Can you imagine what they would have done? Can you imagine the mind of someone like that? Orson Welles created something in 3D.

So, for me… look, more than 90% of silent films have gone anyway… they’re gone and continue to go. Nobody cares about them. If you really see a silent film in its original form, like the restorations that Kevin Brownlow did of Rex Ingram’s pictures… if you look at The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the proper speed. I mean, it’s another language completely. At times the acting is extremely modern, too. But one has to get into that mindset to see it. I think I saw a few silent films as a kid but they were always scratched up and they were jumping around. I didn’t understand what the attraction was aside from the moving image itself. I don’t think there’s anybody around now who really experienced that era of silent cinema. But I wonder if, as you say, the possibility of several films being released at the same time is maybe an appreciation and getting back to the roots of how this all began.


Q. Did you adjust any of your work ethic to direct in 3D? And is it something you’d like to take into your future films?
Martin Scorsese: Yes it is something that I’d like to take into my future films. I just happen to be a great admirer of it because when I first saw those new masters, as I said earlier, I was taken into another space as a child and tapping into that imagination of a child is the same thing that I depend on and look for whenever I make a film. It has to be there every day… that thrill and the imagination. Somehow seeing those first stereoscopic images has that… and maybe my last connection to childhood imagination is that feeling and so I’ve been fascinated by 3D all my life. If it’s used appropriately for the story, then why not? [It’s] the same as colour or sound or a big screen. As I’ve always pointed out, for a long period of time colour was something really special. At first, everybody complained about it until 1935 when they got it right, with Technicolor. Then by 1970 it was announced that every film would be made in colour and we were all appalled because what about some of the great films that came out of England in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that were made in black and white?

This is what we were aspiring to. And so somehow colour became, through the demand of the audience and through a generation that grew up not on black and white films, just became natural. It became part of the story and part of life. But yes I would like to deal with 3D as an element in the future. The equipment is getting much more flexible, and they’re working on ideas to get rid of the glasses, so why not?

© Rob Carnevale, Indie London, all rights reserved.

This interview and the image of Martin Scorsese may not be reproduced without permission.

For more on Hugo, we recommend the Self-styled Siren’s excellent review.