The magic Box is such a good picture that it can waste Laurence Olivier in a three minute walk on part. In fact, it is even difficult to spot Olivier under a handlebar mustache and a London bobbie's helmet.
Starring Robert Donat, the J. Arthur Rank technicolor masterpiece features almost every well-known English star. Michael Redgrave briefly appears as an instrument maker, while Emlyn Williams only faces the audience once.
In two flashbacks, Donat portrays the haphazard life of William Friese-Greene, inventor of the first motion picture camera (the magic box). Friese-Greene was infatuated with the idea of making slides move both black and white and color. This idea soon became an obsession which dominated his life. Giving a superb sympathetic performance, Donat seems to mellow with his character; white hair, wrinkles, and shuffling step untobtinsively blend into his part. Even Donat's voice slowly acquires an appropriately wistful tone.
The movie opens in 1922 on the day of the scatterbrained inventor's death. Two flashbacks trace Friese-Greene's first wife's tribulations, which, when she dies, pass on to her successor. Mania Schell and Margaret Johnson are Friese-Greene's wives. By Hollywood standards neither girl is pretty, but both manage to give touching performances without being maudlin. Needless to say, the supporting cast is almost uniformly excellent.
Director John Boulting handles what could be merely a dull, biographical movie with subtle symbolism. Instead of windy dialogue, he uses shots of the children's birth mugs, as they shuttle from the Friese-Greene mantlepiece to the pawnshop, to show the family fortunes. When Friese-Greene finally drops dead, clasped in his hand is a container of movie film. Only a phase in the opening minutes of the film suggests that this contains the first successful color film.
Much credit for the movie's excellence goes to Fric Ambler for his tightly written screen play. In all, The Magic Box is far above average.