Reflections after The Magic Box - What classic movies inspire you?
Did you ever watch a movie which just made you want to get up and do something? I’d seen The Magic Box (1951) starring Robert Donat a few times already, so when it was about to air on TCM yesterday I planned to sit down and watch again. If you’d asked me why prior to this most recent viewing I probably would have hesitated a minute, mentioned that I liked Robert Donat, that The Magic Box included a really stellar cast comprising a Who’s Who of the British Screen at that time, and finally that the subject matter, a biopic of a film pioneer, was one I was drawn to.
The Magic Box is time well spent throughout, but the climax, the moment of accomplishment for its subject, is what really makes it great. In this biopic Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene, professional photographer turned inventor, who obsessively works towards creating the first camera for moving pictures. While there is some controversy as to whether he was the first or not, for the sake of this post let’s leave that aside and work from within what was actually presented to us on the screen. As we build towards the big moment where Friese-Greene is to first test his movie camera, he has taken up separate working quarters inside a building which is otherwise dormant after business hours, but where he whiles away the night burning the midnight oil.
Friese-Greene has taken what he hopes is a working camera/projector out earlier that day and filmed some relatives and a parade. We’re upstairs with him at night as he patiently develops the film and after what must have been several hours soon approaches that delicious moment where all the preparation is done, it’s time to put all theory aside, cross his fingers that his fifteen year struggle has been in the right direction, and try out his camera.
There’s complete silence until Friese-Greene begins to crank the camera. We the viewers are not rewarded with an immediate sense of success or failure, instead director John Boulting cuts to the London night, darkened buildings and empty streets except for a single police constable presiding over the silence, a constable with only a few minutes of screen time who happens to be played by Laurence Olivier.
Then, and excuse me as I didn’t take any notes while viewing so this might not be 100% precise, but the silence is broken by the beating of footsteps across the pavement as Friese-Green finds the constable and with a look of practical insanity in his eye declares that “he’s done it,” that the officer should “come and look at what I’ve done.”
The constable calms the irritated man somewhat by following along, questioning the potential madman the entire length of the walk. Friese-Greene tells the constable his name, which the officer seems to recognize and which in no way seems to allay his worries of what he might be shown at the top of the stairs. The constable lights a lantern and cautiously follows the disturbed Friese-Greene up to his workspace, where the inventor dims the lights and requests that the constable extinguish his lantern. Wearily the policeman complies.
Friese-Greene instructs him to watch the sheet on the far side of the wall and this time as he cranks his machine we see just what he’s so excited about. Moving pictures, first of a cousin and child approaching the screen, and next of that day’s parade, which the constable recognizes. Olivier is somewhere between horror and shock, though he keeps calm enough for me not to be sure of the exact emotion, as he peeks behind the sheet seeing nothing. How? Friese-Greene explains and as he does so his eyes well over with tears. He’s done it. This is what he’d taken so many years to achieve and it’s done.
As someone who operates an online business while most friends and family haven’t figured out how to do much more than e-mail or send messages through Facebook, I could relate on a much smaller scale. I can think of several times where my voice swelled with excitement over much more mundane experiences and creations than Friese-Greene for sure, but the response is most often similar to the Constables: a half-hearted attaboy and a pat on the wrist for a job well done even if the completed task may be well beyond the witnesses own understanding.
The constable just didn’t get it. His reaction in fact was more directly related to Friese-Greene’s own emotion than it was to the feat he has just been shown.
After watching The Magic Box last night I took to my desk inspired to do something, to create in some way. And in fact I hope to announce a brand new website of my own within the next few days, one which will surely bring more of the Constable’s wrist pats my way, but which, of course, I’m convinced will be one of the more worthwhile tasks I’ve taken on in awhile. But that’s another story.
The point I’ve been trying to arrive at was that immediately after pulling into my desk last night, just moments after The Magic Box had ended, I sent out a Tweet saying:
“Love Robert Donat in The Magic Box, I always feel like being productive after watching it!”
And get down to business I did. In the meantime a Twitter friend replied:
“I always feel like running away to Scotland after ‘The 39 Steps’!”
Interesting, I thought. What movies make you want to do things and what things do they make you want to do? Obviously it’s easier for me to sit down at the moment and dream up something productive to do on the spot than it is to book a trip to Scotland, but both are examples of movie inspiration.
Do movies inspire you to immediate goals? Realistic goals? Or do the films which capture your heart tend to inspire you more towards greater goals--for example, curing a disease would be a lot less self-serving than my reaction to The Magic Box, but is it a realistic response for most viewers?
What classic movies inspire you and how? Do they continue to inspire upon repeat viewings?
This is a great post Cliff. I love the scene you describe with Olivier. I think I was several minutes into it before I realized it was him.
I think Donat really throws himself into this role because he could relate to the insecurity of Friese-Greene’s life. As an young actor he had a family to feed and was often quite desperate for work. In Trewin’s bio he talks about how Donat had given up a steady paycheck in a touring company to break into film. He’d done a ton of screen tests and none of them were successful. He was about to give up and look for work outside the theater (He had a certificate as an elocution teacher to fall back on). He got a call to come in and do a screen test late at night, for Alexander Korda. The test was going really poorly and Donat who was a notorious giggler, got nervous and started a laughing fit. That did it. There was something in his laughter that struck Korda and he got the part in Men of Tomorrow. A few more films with Korda and he would be an international star.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Jenny, that means a lot! I’ve got to be honest … I didn’t even know it was Olivier the first time I watched it. The cast was so overwhelming I didn’t even begin picking non-obvious people out until the next time through and no way was he obvious.
Thanks for the bio info–after you’d first mentioned the books on Donat I hopped over to Amazon ready to pay up to $20-$25 for a good used copy of one only to discover they went for about ten times that! One of these days, I’ll snag one from somewhere. I find stories such as The Magic Box very inspiring for those with entrepreneurial interests, even if the ending may be far from perfect.
“Notorious giggler” — I like that.